Luke Cage Episode 1: Kinda Sorta Not Very Good

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“Suck it, DC Cinematic Universe.”

That’s what Marvel has earned the right to say, after a year and a half of Netflix original series that have exploded the possibilities for dark, gritty and “realistic” superheroes. And these series got popular without anything close to household names. Daredevil is at least a C-lister (though in 2015, two in three people who knew the character imagined him with Ben Affleck’s face). But Jessica fuckin’ Jones? At least the Guardians of the Galaxy had a recent surprise-hit comic series when their movie was greenlit. So the success of these Netflix series has been nothing short of remarkable.

So does Luke Cage continue this very young tradition of surprisingly strong action and drama?

…Eh.

According to imdb.com, series creator Cheo Hodari Coker is the only writer for the first episode. But I have a hard time believing the first and second halves of “Moment of Truth” were written by the same man. For the first 50% of this episode, Cage didn’t have to raise a fist to leave me feeling bloodied and bruised – his punishingly expository dialogue was more than enough. “You think I asked for any of this? I was framed, beaten, and put in some tank like an exotic fish. Came out with…abilities.” Ugh. I like 1970s comic books as much as the next geek, but do we have to rip our dialogue straight from the page?

But that’s nothing compared to the cringe-until-you-give-yourself-back-pain cop banter. “Puerto Ricans,” explains some jerk cop at a crime scene. “I thought that parade was last week,” cracks a detective. “Who can keep track?” Shut up, I think. “Another beautiful day at the office,” says some other jerk to another cop. Oh please not ‘show tunes.’ “Don’t start singing show tunes on me.” Uuughh there it is. 

The dialogue wouldn’t be so hard to swallow, though, if there were anything else to focus on during the first half. Because it’s crazy boring. Characters wander around listlessly, chatting calmly about people and things we haven’t seen and can’t possibly care about. If you’ve ever spent a pleasant thirty minutes in a coffee shop with mildly interesting people, you’ve experienced the first half of Luke Cage. I mean, they even managed to work in one of the steamiest sex scenes I’ve seen this side of HBO and thirty seconds later they’d lost my interest with the characters’ mystifyingly vague pillow talk. 

“Defenders. Just gotta make it until Defenders.”

Occasionally, some moments that feel genuine work themselves in, mostly around two characters. One of them is barbershop owner “Pop,” played with stirring heart by Frankie Faison. For the most part, his dialogue isn’t much better. But he manages to work in some real heart into his scenes. For instance, after the death of a young character, an honest conversation between Pop and Cage actually feels genuine. It even has a quippy truism – “Everyone has a gun. No one has a father.” The line isn’t Cage’s, but it doesn’t matter; the character seems to inspire better scenes in the characters around him.

Alfre Woodard starts out flat, dully reciting more of that blandly expository dialogue as Councilwoman Mariah Dillard in a club scene. But minutes later, try not to be fascinated as she glides through a line of school kids in a brightly lit park, offering warm hugs and motherly head pats…before coolly receiving a squirt of hand sanitizer, and demanding her share of dirty money from her crime boss cousin. She is utterly convincing and interesting wearing either face, but to have both in the same scene? It’s literally where the episode turns from snoozeworthy to watchworthy for me.

And then there’s Cottonmouth.

You’re gonna be seeing this shot around the Internet a lot. For good reason.

We’ve seen the fire-and-ice crime boss routine before. We’ve even seen it in another Marvel series. But Mahershala Ali’s Cornell Stokes is a showstopper. Even just a minute or two of him playing the keyboard is good. Basically, this guy’s one of the two reasons I’m coming back for episode 2.

The other reason is the music. This is the first superhero series ever that I have wanted the soundtrack to.

Just one more small note. At this episode’s end, Cage interrupts a handful of Cottonmouth’s goons in the middle of shaking down his landlady for donations to Councilwoman Dillard…which is insane. Why Cottonmouth thinks sending crooks to beat up Dillard’s constituency is a good idea, while saying out loud they are doing this for Dillard, is totally totally beyond me.  Sure, Cage had to fight somebody at the end, but I would have preferred anything that didn’t make the series’ one really riveting character out to be a complete moron sixty seconds before the credits. These guys may have well arrived in a goddamn rocket ship for all the sense it makes in the plot.

Now I will grant you, there is an episode after this, and eleven more after that. Episode 2 might open up with Cottonmouth chewing these guys out for being such idiots. Or Episode 6 might reveal that Cottonmouth has been working to undermine Dillard. I really, really hope so.

Because here’s the thing: I really want to like this show. I love the first season of Daredevil, and I thought Jessica Jones and DD’s second season were both really quality. So I’ll freely admit I’m going in to Luke Cage with high hopes. I’m crossing my fingers the show’s half-hearted first episode is some clunky scene-setting and not necessarily reflective of the whole product. I’ve seen enough that I’ll watch some more and see if it gets there. I’m pretty sure Cage can weather some criticism on the way.

After all, he’s bulletproof.

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