The Good: Wonderful acting, Good characters, Effects, Allusions
The Bad: Plot is a bit simplistic
The Basics: "Step In The Arena" makes Luke Cage and is a decent heroic origin story!
While I was not overly impressed by the first season of Luke Cage, one of the many things that kept me going with the show (outside being a reviewer) was that the show was not homogeneously bad at all. In fact, in considering Luke Cage, there were a number of things the show did right. One of them was "Step In The Arena." "Step In The Arena" is the proper origin story for Luke Cage and it was only as I sat down to review it that I realized that this was actually the first, true, direct origin story for a Netflix Marvel superhero. After all, the first season of Daredevil (reviewed here!) is essentially one long origin story and Jessica Jones withholds the origin story with only the barest hints as to how the protagonist became super-powered. "Step In The Arena" is a proper and direct origin story that explains exactly how Carl Lucas became Luke Cage. And it is good.
"Who's Gonna Take The Weight?" (reviewed here!) ended with Luke Cage in an incredibly precarious position and "Step In The Arena" begins moments after that climax. As a result, it is impossible not to reveal the last shot of the prior episode while discussing "Step In The Arena." As "Step In The Arena" balances the present crisis for Luke Cage with flashbacks to his origin story, it unfolds into a very satisfying hour of television.
Opening with Genghis Connie's blasted out building being investigated by Misty Knight and Detective Scarfe, Knight instantly recognizes that the blast pattern is outside in, suggesting that someone blew the restaurant up from outside. Unconscious in the rubble, Luke Cage recalls his time in Georgia's Seagate prison. As Cage crawls to freedom and rescues his landlord, Connie, he continues to flash back to how he became Luke Cage. In the process of rescuing Connie, Luke Cage is forced to reveal his true nature to her.
At Seagate, in the flashbacks, Carl Lucas tries hard to keep to himself. He rejects group therapy, where he meets Reva Connors, who is running the group, and Squabbles, a lonely inmate who reaches out to Lucas. Lucas is jumped by other inmates, including Shades Alvarez, who is there at the same time. The head guard is Albert Rackham, who quickly recognizes that Carl Lucas would be ideal for his underground fight club that he runs in the prison. Lucas rejects his offer, but inadvertently befriends Squabbles and becomes emotionally entangled with Reva. While rumors fly at Seagate about medical experiments done on the prisoners, Reva denies that they are occurring. Rackham threatens Squabbles, so Carl Lucas reluctantly joins Rackham's fight club. Fighting other inmates leaves Lucas emotionally scarred (even though he wins constantly), so he abandons the group therapy with Reva and stops taking care of himself. When Reva is threatened, Lucas convinces her to leave, cleans up and tells Squabbles that he is getting out of Rackham's fight club. Shades and another inmate beat Lucas to within an inch of his life, but Reva finds him and brings him to Dr. Burstein's laboratory, where his life is saved, but he is infused with tremendous strength and unbreakable skin.
One of the interesting aspects of "Step In The Arena" is that the conditions that transform Carl Lucas into Luke Cage are usually ones that are reserved for super villains. Lucas has everything he needs - wrongful imprisonment, dangerous prison conditions, and unlawful experimentation upon him - to create a revenge-based villain. It speaks to the moral integrity of Carl Lucas's character that when he discovered he was super-powered, he attempted to simply live his life and fly under the radar rather than get revenge on those who wronged him.
Albert Rackham is a decent antagonist for Carl Lucas and he is credibly portrayed by Chance Kelly. Kelly is one of many actors from House Of Cards to appear in Luke Cage and Kelly is given a far more substantive role in "Step In The Arena" than he was in the first season of House Of Cards (reviewed here!). Kelly plays Rackham as smart and manipulative, power-hungry in a very classic villain fashion. Kelly plays Rackham with an arrogance that is brilliantly-executed.
Part of what makes "Step In The Arena" so interesting is that Reva, who fans know from flashbacks and backstory about Luke Cage from Jessica Jones as Cage's dead wife, acts as a questionable character. It is Reva who brings up the rumors around Seagate of experimentation on the prisoners and she categorically denies them. While Carl Lucas calls her on the fact that she works for Seagate and has to deny the rumors, actress Parisa Fritz-Henley plays Reva as twitchy. Fritz-Henley's portrayal of Reva allows viewers to formulate their own opinions on Reva's honesty.
Despite the moments Fritz-Henley plays Reva with reserve or a twitchy quality, the on-screen chemistry between her and Colter is palpable.
Mike Colter earns his paycheck in "Step In The Arena." While the part of Carl Lucas is physically demanding for Colter, some of the best moments come in Colter's subtle performance moments. As Carl Lucas lets himself go, Colter infuses his performance with a dead-eyes stare that is entirely different from the contemplative, internal aching he expresses when Connie asks Luke Cage how he is doing what he is doing. Colter emotes impressively and he plays the transformation of Carl Lucas into Luke Cage incredibly. As Luke Cage tests his new powers, Colter plays with presenting realistic hesitation in the character.
The make-up and hair effects in "Step In The Arena" are impressive. The make-up for Carl Lucas's nose when it is broken is subtle but well-done. For those who are fans of the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe, there is a brilliant, very obscure reference in "Step In The Arena" hidden away. Reva mentions, among other rumors, that there are rumors of "millionaires in dungeons." That is a reference to Hammer from Iron Man 2 (reviewed here!), which is pretty awesome, if obscure. As well, the critical flash drive from Reva's Jessica Jones episode "AKA You're A Winner" (reviewed here!) makes an appearance in "Step In The Arena." "Step In The Arena" implicitly answers a key question lingering from Jessica Jones by showing exactly why Reva had the flash drive in the first place. The implication in "Step In The Arena" is that Reva actually had information on Kilgrave and other people experimented upon incidentally, as part of the larger cache of files she takes with her when leaving Seagate.
"Step In The Arena" blends the new Netflix Luke Cage with classic images of the 1970s character of Power Man and that is well-executed. While being fairly straightforward and simple, "Step In The Arena" is compelling and develops the character of Luke Cage to become a credible hero with a strong moral core.
[Knowing that single episodes are an inefficient way to get episodes, it's worth looking into Luke Cage - The Complete First Season, which is also a better economical choice than buying individual episodes. Read my review of the debut season here!
For other works with Marvel Cinematic Universe origin stories, please visit my reviews of:
For other movie and television reviews, please check out my Movie Review Index Page for a listing of those reviews!
© 2016 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.