Marvel's partnership with Netflix has already given us so many hours of quality entertainment (with two seasons of Daredevil and one of Jessica Jones, so far) that it almost feels a bit greedy to want more. At the same time, though, we already know that there is still plenty more to come from this partnership – so, it seems as though that sense of anticipation is actually entirely justified, in this case. Luke Cage is the latest addition to Netflix's corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe – and, much like with the earlier entries, it is a series which has promised its own unique tone.
From there, we are quickly reintroduced to Luke Cage (Mike Colter), himself. Now a fugitive doing whatever he can to stay under the radar, Luke is clearly in a much worse place than he was throughout his time on Jessica Jones – forced to work two jobs, for cash paid 'under the table', while struggling to cover his own expenses. His sole confidante, it seems, is Pop (Frankie Faison) – the owner of a Harlem barbershop, at which Luke works sweeping hair. Pop knows all about Luke Cage, his past and his abilities, and he seems to truly have Luke's best interests at heart – gently encouraging Luke to begin to live something a little closer to a normal life. It is also clear, right from the start, that Pop firmly believes that Luke should be using his enhanced strength and his invulnerability to help people ("just like the folks downtown") – something which Luke is, perhaps understandably, very reluctant to take to heart.
While Luke is, initially, very reluctant to involve himself in the lives of those around him, though, it is not long we are introduced to the adversary that he is destined to confront – Cornell 'Cottonmouth' Stokes (Mahershala Ali). And, it's in these scenes that we see what is, perhaps, the most interesting aspect of this first episode. Since the audience has already had plenty of opportunity to learn who Luke Cage is (even if there are, obviously, still some mysteries to be revealed), the episode can actually afford to spend a roughly equal amount of screen-time introducing 'Cottonmouth' (as, we are told, he truly hates being called). In fact, it would even be fair to say that it is actually Cornell Stokes who carries much of this first episode – as, we are introduced to him just as his efforts to set himself up as the 'King of Harlem' encounter a fairly significant road-block.
With an employee of Cornell's taking the opportunity to crash an important arms deal, and making off with a significant amount of money, Cornell finds himself momentarily off-balance as he is forced to do whatever he can to salvage relations with another criminal organisation, while also trying to recover his stolen money. There is a strong sense, in this first episode, that Cornell Stokes is not really the antagonist of the series but, rather, that he is actually the protagonist of his own story – and, it is genuinely fascinating. Obviously, this is likely to change as Luke Cage and Cornell Stokes find themselves at odds – but, for now, these scenes give the series the feel of a gritty crime drama. When we are introduced to figures like the mysterious 'Diamondback', and his representative 'Shades' (Theo Rossi) – a criminal who also has ties to Luke Cage.
Adding a further element of complexity to the episode, we are also introduced to Misty Knight (Simone Missick) – a police officer who appears to be investigating Cornell Stokes. Then, there is also Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard), Cornell's cousin, who has managed to make a name for herself in the political scene of Harlem – but, who still seems to have found herself tangled up in Cottonmouth's illicit dealings.
With so many factors already in play, it is actually kind of interesting to see unaware Luke Cage actually seems to be about what is occurring in Harlem – at least, initially. As Luke seems content to simply get by as best he can, it is almost as though the show's creators deliberately chose to set him up as the least interesting aspect of his own series. There are moments, in the episode, where Luke seems to exist firmly in the background of other character's story-lines – with him having only a single, brief, encounter with Cornell Stokes, and serving as a (perhaps ill-advised, given the circumstances) one-night stand for Misty Knight. Of course, this is a dynamic which does not last for long – as, by the end of the episode, we already have Luke Cage beginning his transition into a more active role as he makes his first move against the criminal element of Harlem.
Overall, while this first episode of Luke Cage did set a deliberately slow pace for itself, it was still often genuinely fascinating in spite of that – and, this is largely due to the quality of the performances given by the cast. Mike Colter has already had plenty of screen-time in which to establish himself as Luke Cage, of course – but, he remains just as impressive, here, as he ever was on Jessica Jones. Misty Knight, with her flirtatious relationship with Luke Cage and her 'no-nonsense' attitude to her police work, has already set herself up as a genuinely entertaining character – with Simone Missick giving an equally entertaining performance. Mariah Dillard seems to have firmly mired herself in moral ambiguity, as she seems to genuinely want the best for Harlem (or, at least, is capable of giving a convincing performance in public appearance), while also still willing to involve herself with her cousin. But, of them all, it is Cornell Stokes who makes for the most fascinating figure – with Mahershala Ali's portrayal of a man seemingly obsessed with wealth and power coming across as confident, and genuinely intimidating.
All that being said, there were still a couple of minor issues that I had with this first episode, though. For one, that scene in which Cornell comes to stand in front of a picture of famous rapper, Biggie Smalls, in such a way that it appears as though he is actually wearing the crown in the picture just came across as awkwardly staged, to me. I am well aware of the fact that I might be in the minority on that point, but the not-too-subtle symbolism of the moment just struck me as a bit contrived – and, I'm hoping that there isn't too much more of that sort of thing, going forward. Also, the episode's early conversations between Luke and Pop, in which Pop attempts to convince Luke to put the past behind him and move on with his life, had the feel of awkwardly written exposition.
But, that's purely nitpicking, though – two minor points which took me out of the moment in what was, otherwise, a genuinely great opening episode. The first episode of Luke Cage may have lacked some of the excitement what we had with the first episode of Daredevil, and the tense drama that we had with the first episode of Jessica Jones. But, it makes up for that by establishing its cast of characters with an impressive level of care – and, I am genuinely interested in seeing how things develop, from here.