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Luke Cage – Just to Get a Rep (Review)

In many ways, Just to Get a Rep wraps up the big character arc that spans the first half of Luke Cage.

It builds upon Step in the Arena by allowing Luke to embrace his superhero persona and craft something bigger than himself. This is the point at which Luke fulfils the character arc established in those early scenes with Pop back in Moment of Truth, using his gifts to make the world a better place for other people. Appropriately enough, Luke publicly accepts the mantle of hero at the memorial service held in honour of Pop. Standing up to Cornell; standing up for the community; rallying the church. This is really the end of Luke’s hero’s journey.

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There is just one slight problem with this, and it comes down to the biggest problem with this thirteen-episode season as a whole. There is simply too much storytelling real estate to fill with the character and story arcs. So, although Luke has effectively completed his hero’s journey, this story continues for two more episodes. To be fair, Manifest is an episode clever enough to work on its own terms as a coda to this opening half of the season, but it does leave Suckas Need Bodyguards feeling rather redundant.

This is a shame, because Just to Get a Rep has the makings of a great season (or even mid-season) finale. Unfortunately, the season order means that there are still two whole episodes to go.

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Just to Get a Rep does an excellent job wrapping up the various story threads and thematic elements that have been building through the series since Moment of Truth. This is very much a lynchpin episode that brings all these big ideas together. For example, Just to Get a Rep unifies the show’s themes of fatherhood, both through the funeral service for Pop in which the congregation is addressed by both of Henry Hunter’s sons; the biological child whom he never knew and the lost young man whom he took in.

“I never really knew my father,” his son confesses. “I always said, outside of my conception, he was never there for me.” There is a sense that this broken relationship is Pop’s original sin, part of what inspired him to set up the barbershop as “Switzerland”, a place where the kids go be free of the harmful influences of figures like Cornell or Stryker. This image of the failed haunts the first season of Luke Cage, playing as it does upon the stock father-son dynamic that informs a wide selection of superhero stories from Thor to Daredevil.

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Just to Get a Rep hammers this theme hard, even in the subplot focusing on Aisha Axton and the stolen forty-niners ring. Eddie Axton is presented as a “strung out” alcoholic, another failed father. Without any sense of irony or self-awareness, he seems to blame failed parenting for the state of the world around him. “What about your father?” Luke asks. “Did he play the game?” Eddie responds, “Of course. Baseball is a game passed from father to son. That’s why you don’t see any n*****s playin’ the game no more. Because all them fathers are gone.”

Of course, not all fathers are gone. Luke Cage seems to repeatedly insist that fatherhood is not necessarily an accident of biology. For all that Eddie Axton might complain about the death of baseball and the decline of society in the absence of fathers, Luke Cage repeatedly suggests that real men step up to fill that void. That is what inspired Pop to make the barbershop a safe space. In Who’s Gonna Take the Weight?, Misty Knight points to Pop’s influence as a large part of why she became interested in basketball. (Her skill was showcased in Code of the Streets.)

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The fact that a forty-niners ring is such an essential plot point in Just to Get a Rep speaks to one of the more interesting aspects of Luke Cage as a television show. The writers have taken a great deal of care to ground the show in something approaching the real world. More than any other Marvel television show, including Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.Luke Cage unfolds in a world of literate and well-informed characters who share a very clear cultural frame of reference with one another.

This is not just the sort of coy self-aware Joss Whedon pop culture references that audiences have come to expect from his work on The Avengers or The Avengers: Age of Ultron, although there are more than a few of those. (Pop refers to Luke as “Shawshank” and Tone makes reference to some “Django Candyland sh!t” in Code of the Streets.) This is extended conversations about the merits of Pat Riley in the opening minutes of Moment of Truth or debates about the relative value of hardboiled crime writers like Dennis Goines in Code of the Street.

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Indeed, there was some debate about how deeply showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker could immerse his characters in this world of references and overlap without alienating audiences:

With Coker leading the writers’ room on Luke Cage, the language of that series rings true for Broadnax and Brothers. It also includes references that might sail right over non-black audiences’ heads. “That was really the most fun part of it, because very seldomly as a black creator do you get to do elements of black culture in a subtle way,” Coker said. That said, he admits he had to wrestle with Marvel a bit—and lost a few battles. “We encourage our storytellers to tell the stories they want to tell,” Loeb said of his amiable squabbles with Coker. “As long as they realize, at some point, reality is going to come into it.”

There are undoubtedly references in Luke Cage that will not travel well. Many Irish viewers are unlikely to have a strong feeling about Pat Riley. But including those sorts of references adds a great deal of texture.

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One of the big issues with Marvel’s cinematic and television output has been difficulty in exploring or expanding tone. A lot of the Marvel films can feel very bland and interchangeable, even the popular and successful ones. The company’s fixation upon tight control of its properties means that film makers often find themselves working within very tightly confined boundaries. There is relatively little room for improvisation, and a tendency to hit the same beats over and over again across a variety of stories.

As such, there is something interesting in the ways in which Luke Cage breaks out of that mould. Being willing to anchor the story in a shared cultural frame of reference, to tie it to the real world, is an essential part of what makes the show so effective. Luke might listen to the fictional Trish Talk from Jessica Jones at the start of Suckas Need Bodyguards, but he can also listen to the real-life Sway Universe podcast in Soliloquy of Chaos. Luke cross paths with Turk in Soliloquy of Chaos, but he also gets some tailoring from Dapper Dan in Just to Get a Rep.

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Of course, there are points at which the series seems to brush against the frayed edges of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the real world. As with Daredevil and Jessica Jones, Avengers Tower is clearly absent from the Manhattan skyline. In the musical number that opens Just to Get a Rep, Jidenna makes reference to Obama along with Presidents Bill Clinton and the Kennedys; despite the fact that Iron Man III established President Matthew Ellis as Commander-in-Chief. Of course, these are not huge problems to reconcile.

This real-world grounding of Luke Cage helps to sell the more fantastic elements. Luke Cage is very interested in telling the story of a superhero origin within that existing framework, to wonder what an emerging superhero might mean to Harlem in particular. Just to Get a Rep very much marks the point of clear transition. The show has hinted at the idea before, most notably in Scarfe’s argument with Misty about super-powered vigilantes in Who’s Gonna Take the Weight?, but Just to Get a Rep makes it clear. This is a superhero story, and subject to those conventions.

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The act of mythmaking is central to Just to Get a Rep. Luke sets out to build a reputation for himself, making the kinds of badass boasts and threats that one expects from a larger-than-life character. “Don’t you need a gun?” one character asks as Luke approaches two goons. “I am the gun,” he simply states. Confronting the last criminal standing, Luke warns him, “Next time you say my name, I’m coming for you.” He is becoming a folk hero. With Cornell’s unwitting assistance, Luke is very clearly building himself into something more than just a man.

Luke takes ownership of that myth during his speech at the church. “At first it was selfish, because my name was attached to it,” he confesses. “Then it got bigger.” After all, the titlecard of the series is Luke’s name written in big bold letters. “So you’re one of them, huh?” Aisha asks him after the service. Aisha never explicitly states what she means, but Luke understands. “Someone who gives a damn?” he responds. “Yeah.” He might also have used the word “hero”… or perhaps even “superhero.”

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As much as Luke Cage unfolds in Harlem, it is a version of Harlem imbued with mythic qualities. Like Gotham and Metropolis are merely stylised takes on New York, Luke Cage imagines a version of Harlem where the myths and legends might take on a more literal quality. The series understands that the Marvel Cinematic Universe is really just a skin painted over the real world to allow for these larger-than-life allegorical and metaphorical struggles to play out in spectacular fashion.

This becomes clear in the conversation between Claire and her mother. “The world isn’t the world any more, Mia,” Claire’s mother states. “Aliens coming out of the sky. People with super hammers. Green monsters. All I know is that everything happens for a reason. And now, somehow, you’re part of that.” This is a transformative moment for Claire as well. Luke Cage pushes Claire much further along her journey to becoming Night Nurse, to embracing the stranger and more mythic aspects of her life.

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Luke Cage embraces the superhero narrative, understanding that it is a great way to explore big (and bold) ideas through the prism of these larger-than-life characters. Cheo Hodari Coker acknowledged that this was a large part of the appeal of making something like Luke Cage:

Fiction, including comic-book stories and television shows, allows people to think deeply about subjects they might want otherwise to avoid in real life, Coker says. “It’s much easier to talk about racism when you’re able to use mutants as a metaphor,” he explains. “People would much rather talk about Charles Xavier and Magneto than they would about Martin Luther King or Malcolm X.” His new series makes a deliberate effort to address some of these complex subjects in a way that the original comics didn’t, with the benefit of more than 40 years’ worth of artistic and historical insight.

Just to Get a Rep marks a point of transition, following on from Step in the Arena. This is very much the moment where Luke Cage steps up and becomes that mythic figure. However, the fact that this moment comes five episodes into a thirteen episode run poses its own challenges that do cause problems down the line.

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One of the more interesting ideas in Just to Get a Rep is the sense that Luke Cage has moved beyond the trappings of the story around him. In embracing his role as a superhero, Luke immediately outclasses Cornell and his goons. A big recurring theme of Just to Get a Rep is how completely and utterly useless Cornell’s operation becomes when confronted with somebody like Luke Cage. As Shades points out, Cornell cannot compete with the legend that Luke has cultivated. Cornell’s fixation on Luke “only helps [Luke’s] name ring out, like [Cornell’s] used to.”

Indeed, the central tragedy of Cornell Stokes is that the character is trapped in the wrong story. Cornell seems to genuinely believe that he is living a version of The Wire or Boardwalk Empire, a gripping and grounded drama about criminal activity. Cornell’s character arc is framed within those terms. He sets himself up as a club owner like Nucky Thompson. He runs his criminal organisation like Avon Barksdale. Cornell would probably do quite well against a criminal indictment or investigation. In fact, he copes quite well with that challenge in Manifest.

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However, Cornell’s downfall comes from the simple misfortune that he somehow finds himself trapped within a superhero story without any frame of reference. In many ways, Cornell’s arc is one of repeated humiliation because he is not suited to the story being told. Even Luke points out the absurdity of Cornell’s repeated attempts to beat or shoot him into submission. “It’s called deductive reasoning. If a rocket launcher couldn’t stop me, what’s a little pea shooter going to do?” Confronted with familiar goons, Luke sighs, “You guys? Again?”

Cornell is outclassed. “You don’t have enough people,” Luke warns Cornell. “This mob’s not deep enough.” Cornell seems to have about a dozen men at most. Daredevil or Jessica Jones would not break a sweat dismantling the organisation, let alone Captain America or Iron Man. In Just to Get a Rep, Shades shows up with a possible lifesaver; a bullet that might kill Luke Cage. Unfortunately, it is well outside of Cornell’s price range. When Shades tells him how much the weapon would cast, Cornell responds, “Per bullet? For real?” If you have to ask, you can’t afford it.

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“If you don’t make the right moves now, you are done,” Shades warns Cornell. According to Shades, the “right moves” involve packing up and leaving town. Luke Cage is not the kind of hero against whom Cornell would stand a chance. Cornell refuses to accept this. Shades is ultimately proven correct. Luke does not even need to defeat Cornell in the end. Cornell breaks himself by throwing everything he has at Luke and discovering that Luke is literally and metaphorically unbreakable.

That is ultimately the tragedy of Cornell Stokes, who is shuffled off the stage at the end of Manifest to make room for Willis Stryker. Stryker is a much more flamboyant and archetypal adversary than Cornell. Stryker has no doubts about the kind of story being told. Whereas Cornell believes himself to be a gangster in a sprawling urban crime drama, Stryker is shrewd enough to understand that he is a psychotic supervillain in comic book narrative. Of course, Stryker has his own problems. But the character is more suited to the story Luke Cage is telling.

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In some ways, this insistence that Cornell simply does not fit within the framework of Luke Cage as a superhero narrative reveals a lot about the kind of story that Luke Cage wants to tell. Cornell could easily fit within a certain kind of superhero story, the kind of more urban and grounded stories popularised by Frank Miller in the eighties that focused on issues like street crime and drug abuse. Miller popularised gritty reimaginings of classic characters, putting his unique stamp on characters like Bruce Wayne and Matt Murdock.

Even three decades later, Frank Miller casts a long shadow over comic books and comic book adaptations. Miller is easily one of the most definitive writers ever to work on Batman, despite only writing a handful of stories to feature the Caped Crusader. Miller is an even bigger influence on Daredevil, by virtue of the fact that there are fewer contrasting iconic iterations of the Man Without Fear. However, Miller’s influence was felt for decades on a wide range of characters across publishers, from Hawkman to Green Arrow to Spider-Man to Wolverine.

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Miller’s work is particularly influential on film and television adaptations, likely as a result of the success of Sin City or 300. Miller’s work seemed to define certain cinematic and televisual adaptations of superheroes from Batman Begins to Arrow. However, that time might have passed, as Jason Serafino argues:

The problem with adapting Miller’s work is that you’re working within the cultural framework of the time it was written: mainly Ronald Reagan’s 1980s. This was when movies and TV shows were littered with Death Wishes, Commandos and Rambos, and the comics reflected that. They were darker, more violent and less optimistic than they had been from the ’40s to the ’70s. While this bleak tone has its fans, and sometimes can reflect the overall mood of the world, it usually runs its course once companies shove dour and depressing down fans’ throats with no alternative.

More to the point, Frank Miller’s gritty and grounded world view really spoke to the public consciousness in the wake of 9/11. Miller offered stories about strong and morally compromised heroes who could do impossible things to protect their cities from madmen. It is easy to see why Miller’s storytelling was so popular.

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Indeed, Frank Miller is a very strong influence on the first two seasons of Daredevil. There are shots and compositions that are lifted directly from Miller’s iconic run, particular in episodes like .380 or A Cold Day in Hell’s Kitchen. In some respects, the handling of Cornell Stokes could be seen as a sly knowing reference at the manner in which Daredevil has embraced that gritty style. Cornell is repeatedly and explicitly compared to the character of Wilson Fisk by people like Mariah, acknowledging another crime lord who went toe-to-toe with a superhero.

The parallels suggest themselves. Cornell gets a big flashback episode in the middle of the season, in the form of Manifest. This storytelling choice is very clearly structured as an homage to Shadows in Glass, the Wilson Fisk flashback episode in the middle of the first season of Daredevil. At the end of the first season, Wilson Fisk is ultimately undone by the testimony of corrupt detective Carl Hoffman in Daredevil. This is mirrored in the way that Scarfe’s little notebook threatens to bring down Cornell in Suckas Need Bodyguards.

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However, while the grim and gritty world of Daredevil allows Wilson Fisk to match Matt Murdock blow-for-blow, Luke Cage refuses to allow Cornell the same luxury. Cornell is ultimately outmatched, and is rejected by the story. Luke does not even have to defeat Cornell, never raising a hand against the would-be ganglord. Instead, it seems like the story itself conspires to bring down Cornell, forcing him out of the role of primary antagonist to make room for a better choice. (Or two.)

With Just to Get a Rep, it becomes clear that Luke Cage is a superhero story. It has no time for gangsters. Unfortunately, it takes the show a little while to figure how to follow through on that.

You might be interested in our other reviews of the first season of Luke Cage:

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