Luke Cage 1.04 Review: “Step In The Arena”

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The fourth episode of Netflix’s latest superhero offering is all about Luke Cage, both the man and the name. Other characters take a backseat so that the audience can get to know who Luke was before he got powers through a series of flashbacks. These memories filter in and out as Luke struggles to escape the debris of Genghis Connie’s after Cottonmouth blew it up with a rocket. Meanwhile, Misty continues to connect the dots between Luke and Cottonmouth despite her shady partner undermining her at every turn.

“Just remember who you are.”

Luke Cage
takes advantage of Luke being knocked unconscious at the start of the episode in order to introduce the flashbacks of his time in prison. Turns out he was an ex-cop named Carl Lucas who was imprisoned for angering the wrong people. It is here that the contradiction in his character comes out most prominently: he knows that trusting others is what got him sent to prison, and yet he longs to make connections. Despite his cold demeanor early on, Carl quickly befriends a fellow inmate named Squabbles as well as the caring prison therapist, Dr. Reva Connors.

These relationships strengthen him and provide moments of joy in the middle of prison life, but they also leave him vulnerable. He must partake in a fight club run by corrupt cop Albert Rackham to protect Squabbles, and Reva is threatened as a way to keep him in line. Despite these restraints, Carl still plots to take Rackham’s operation down, and once again he is shown as a strategic thinker with the patience to match his wits. Unfortunately the very same connections he has been fighting to protect are what get him into trouble, and he winds up nearly beaten to death by Rackham’s underlings – including Cottonmouth’s new enforcer Shades.

Carl’s near-death experience signals the birth of Luke Cage and his powers, because at least in this episode they appear to be one and the same. Reva begs the prison doctor, Burstein, to use an experimental treatment to save Carl’s life. It works, but instead of accelerated healing he gains invincibility and super strength. There is a powerful sequence near the end of the episode that has him punching his way out of the prison paralleled with Luke punching his way out of Genghis Connie’s in present time. In both cases, it is physical strength that breaks down the walls – but it seems to represent the resilience of Luke’s spirit which fights back against any forces trying to contain it.

Which is why it’s so fitting that Carl Lucas renames himself Luke Cage. Because he embodies what his father used to tell him: “No one can cage a man if he truly wants to be free.”

“…I’m kinda strong.”

The present-day story is very short in comparison to the in-depth look at Luke’s past, but it serves to highlight just how much men like Rackham have failed to bend or break him. Even after everything Luke Cage has been through, his first priority is to help Connie get out of the rubble. And he has no qualms about how his powers to her, either in this episode or when he saved her and her husband earlier on. He asks her not to let on what she knows about him, and expects that she will keep her word. Of course that doesn’t mean he will trust just anyone. Detective Misty Knight questions him once he’s freed himself and Connie from the debris, and he continues to stymie her. Whether that’s due to leftover frustration over their first encounter or if it’s out of a sense of self-preservation is still a little unclear.

This installment of Luke Cage was slower than the previous one in terms of moving the plot forward, but it certainly helped deepen the story and flesh out the world of the protagonist. And Luke wasn’t the only character who benefited from the break in the present proceedings. Reva Connors finally got to be a living, complex, flawed woman instead of a memory that haunted Jessica Jones. Not to mention that Shades proved to be even more sinister than he first appeared – and that’s all under the direction of someone else. What might he become if he ever decides to work for himself?

Aside from answering some questions about Luke’s past and posing new questions about the motivations of Reva and Shades, this episode also dealt a little with the injustice of a corrupt system. It was painful to watch black bodies brutalized for white gain, but showing it through Luke’s eyes and experience was the right way to do it. When he told Squabbles it wouldn’t make a difference if he took down Rackham alone because another white man would just take his place, that resonated with contemporary life more than even quips about Beyoncé ever could. The balance between real-life issues and comic book touches – such as the hilarious outfit Luke has on when he breaks out of prison – is what makes the show so compelling.

Luke Cage is available to stream on Netflix.

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