Marvel’s Luke Cage
NetFlix Original Series
Season 1, Episode 4: Step in the Arena
Air Date: 30 September 2016
Starring: Mike Colter, Frankie Faison, Simone Missick, Theo Rossi, Frank Whaley, and Alfre Woodard
WARNING: SPOILERS - review written for those following the show who have watched episode four through its completion!
Episode #4 of this show has easily been the most enjoyable for me so far. We get throwbacks to the 80s, no Alfre Woodard, and at least one villain gets his due. Sort of. “Step in the Arena” is largely a flashback episode designed to give us more insight into Luke’s past. Now, a lot of it is retread, and I do not want to ascribe the blame for that to the show. If I had a nickel for every Marvel super-hero or villain whose origin story is due to someone trying to recreate the super-soldier formula, I could open up my own nickel mint. But that’s how it reads in Marvel’s wikia and lore, so the show used it as well. With nothing really original in the origin tale, this episode had to be all about the performances, and the entire cast pretty much nailed it. Again, possibly because some of the on-screen presences that have been unsteady to this point were not in this episode.
In the present, we pretty much just get shots of Luke and the Ghengis Connie (which I find a hilarious moniker, having watched Seasons 1 and 2 of Marco Polo this summer) working their way out of the rubble created by Cottonmouth’s missile at the end of Episode three. And the Harlem NYPD precinct investigating the explosion. Everything else is a shot from the past, from Cage’s time in Seagate. There is some jankiness in the flashbacks. Culturally, it feels like the early 80s, but then Colter cites Beyonce as a cultural reference, which would obviously make it more recently, and likely circa 2003. We see Cage being checked in for incarceration at Seagate prison in Georgia, where he meets two of his nemeses. Officer Rackham, a senior prison guard at Seagate, and Shades. Obviously, Shades will become a figure in Cage’s future after Seagate. Rackham’s storyline is pretty much confined to the walls of Seagate, but he fuels a strong sense of hatred very quickly given his short time on-screen.
In the prison, Cage makes two friends. Squabbles, another convict who goes out of his way to get Cage to open up, and the prison psychologist, Reva. Rackham extorts Cage to fight for him in a sort of gladiatorial arena. Squabbles is bound to Cage’s side, but unfortunately becomes a victim of the war between Luke and Rackham. Squabbles is one of these characters that I feel like is starting to define what this show is. A serialized telling of the constant struggle between the moral strata of mankind. It is a perilous tension between those who take the high road and encourage the middle morality to do the same, while those who believe in being amoral tempt the middle morality to descend to their level. It is an ongoing struggle that is as impactful as any notion of the same occurring due to biblical tensions, and has equal, and often personal day-to-day consequences. And so we see these uplifters, these flawed characters rendered in poetic fashion who, despite their past transgressions, are attempting to not only find their own footing, but grab the hands of other lost souls and bring them along towards salvation. Slouching toward Bethlehem, as it were. Unfortunately, these archetypes seem too often be the bystanders that are most injured in the more direct conflict between heroes and villains.
RIP Squabbles. You were revered for the brief time you were here. And I would have said Jet Li also.
Cage’s relationship with Reva leaves plenty of breadcrumbs for later interest. I do hope we only get a flashback episode like this one infrequently. But we leave off with Luke having become empowered (in a sequence that looks very much…well…almost exactly…like the Wolverine creation sequences in the original X-Men movie trilogy), Reva having wiped his personal (we assume government) record data, and the two shacked up in a motel. Reva says she has not always been a prison psychologist, and I wonder strongly if she is a SHIELD agent.
We also get Colter in the iconic 80s Power Man costume, or a very close render. The wrist-bands (which is the one thing I wish they would keep) and the headband are shown as couplings tying him into the super-soldier apparatus. When he makes his escape ashore, the shirt he finds to put on is the 80s yellow button-down with the high collar. He eventually takes it off, but it was the purposeful, but brief nod that I wanted to see once in this series, and it felt appropriate. Others may dislike it, as it was totally inside baseball.
Episode four works so well because it is a departure from the show’s format to-date. It is a well-timed drumbeat in the odyssey as it unfolds and provides a little space from the things in the show that I feel are not working so well. Episode five will likely bring us back to the norm, but we also have fresh questions left in the wake of “Step In the Arena”. Regardless of how five comes off, we have, in this episode, an excellent reinforcement of the what makes Luke Cage the man he is and what kind of man that is exactly. I am ready to see Luke Cage jump back into the fray now and deal with the demons of his present time.