By Patrick Larose
Luke Cage’s history of a comic book character was born from the popularization of the Blaxploitation film genre during the 1970s. A bunch of white dudes caught on by how popular these action movies made by black people and starring black people were getting that they saw a new market to, well, exploit.
They didn’t do so gracefully.
Luke Cage was a jive-talking, loud mouth who as soon as he got super powers dedicated his gimmick to be getting people to pay him for them. There are undoubtedly some fans out there who like this aspect, but I’d argue there’s a very deliberate reason that when Marvel’s first black writer, Christopher Priest, came on to the comic, he all but removed these aspects and cut the catchphrases.
Netflix’s Luke Cage has constantly flirted with Blaxploitation while still opting to become something wholly modern. There’s some silliness to the action scenes, a pulsing funk in the soundtrack but never to make this show a time travel homage to the 70s. After all, Cheo Hodari Coker isn’t some guy doing an impression of how he thinks black people might talk but instead is creating something that speaks to his culture in the now and a loving tribute to the history of black media.
You can see this timeline drawn out across the soundtrack, repping music Nina Simone to the Wu-Tang Clan and with its characters on both sides of the conflict who are developed and flawed. To this point, the show’s felt like something that could only exist in the now.
So all that makes “Enter the Arena” like a visitor from another reality, one where Netflix’s Luke Cage is really just Shaft 2.0.
Luke Cage is currently under some rubble so we’ll use this opportunity to tell a flashback episode. An episode where a wrongly convicted man joins a corrupt prison’s fight tournament and is illegally experimented on to get superpowers. Characters will talk about their favorite kung fu movies. Luke Cage will wear a ridiculous fake beard imaginable and all to generate a tone that feels like an alien diversion from the rest of the show.
Maybe there was some necessity for us to see Luke Cage’s origin. How he went from Carl Lucas into a bulletproof man. Yet to squeeze this change in tone and deep slip into the past for a single episode makes the affair feel strange. Relationships that need to be developed well don’t have the time and formula here feel stripped of what made the other episodes before it shine.
Every character gets a fleeting characterization. Interactions that should be developing interesting and unique bonds get a few scenes and fly by. All this is squeezed in by events that feel unreal in its treatment of prison corruption and abuse and far-flung the intrigue of criminal and political machinations taking place in Harlem.
The saving grace for the episode surprisingly rests on the performance of Mike Colter as Carl Lucas. Luke Cage as a character is not one given the widest birth of emotional range but Colter proves here that isn’t a limitation of his acting.
Carl Lucas is still stoic but there are a cruelty and bitterness to it that provides a harsh contrast to his cool stoicism of Luke Cage. Lucas is a man of silent contempt, someone who bites at those who offer a branch of comfort. Even if we don’t necessarily see it, there’s a palpable sense of the reform Reva Connors provides him between here and the present.
Looking at this episode in retrospect of the rest of the season, I can’t help but wonder how necessary this information was, though. They answer the question of how Luke knows Shades but it’s an answer that goes nowhere. So much of this information as to how Cage got his powers was already in Jessica Jones and so much of this information gets failed to be built upon for the rest of the season.
If there was a place in the past I wish the show delved into, I wish it was to how Carl Lucas ended up going to jail. If there was anything about the past that needed to be shown more than only spoken about, it’s Lucas’ relationship with Willis Stryker.
“Enter the Arena” is maybe a cute throwback to the genre origins of the character but here it feels like a misshapen piece to its greater puzzle.
Luke Cage E.04 – “Enter the Arena”
Director: Vincenzo Natal