Friday, September 30, 2016

A Promising Beginning For Luke Cage Comes In The "Moment Of Truth!"

The Good: Character establishing, Most of the performances, Direction
The Bad: Very basic plot set-up, Minor acting and character issues for smaller parts
The Basics: "Moment Of Truth" opens Luke Cage well enough to draw in an audience, even if it is very much a set-up episode.

When it comes to elements of the Marvel Cinematic (and its broader Television) Universe, there was no element I was more excited about before it aired than Daredevil Season 1 (reviewed here!). I had become a bit of a fan of Daredevil in the Marvel Comic books, so I was eager to see justice done to the series on the small screen. I was very interested in Jessica Jones (Season 1 reviewed here!) when it made its debut on Netflix, but the truth is that at the time, I was very much part of the "why the hell are they choosing this obscure character to focus on?" crowd. But, out of all the Marvel Cinematic Universe, there has been no work I have gotten more excited about without knowing anything about the source material than Luke Cage. The character of Luke Cage made his MCU debut in Jessica Jones and he was captivating enough that without knowing much about the character in advance, I began to genuinely get enthusiastic for Luke Cage Season 1 on Netflix. That begins with "Moment Of Truth."

"Moment Of Truth" is a pilot episode that has inherent advantages and burdens. The advantage it possesses is that the character has been introduced and had initial characterization in another work. That makes Luke Cage instantly accessible to the Marvel Cinematic Universe's audience. The burdens that "Moment Of Truth" has are to both explain just where Luke Cage has been since he disappeared at the end of Jessica Jones and to define his story in a way that both allows him to stand on his own and does not completely redefine the established character. The burden on Luke Cage is more than just finding the balance between fans of the character from the comic books and creating an enthusiasm for people who tune in to just the television show; it is those burdens plus the pressure of growing a character already established while making him accessible to those who turn on Luke Cage without seeing Jessica Jones and start the character's journey with "Moment Of Truth."

And "Moment Of Truth" finds that balance, though the episode is very much a slow burn.

Opening in Pop's Barber Shop, with Luke Cage sweeping up clippings while the young Dante and Shameek getting haircuts and talking basketball, when Patricia Wilson comes in to pick up her son and gives Cage her number. Cage tells Pop that he is not looking for a relationship and he wants to keep laying low. After paying part of his rent, Cage goes to work as a dishwasher at Cornell Stokes's nightclub. Cage is asked to fill in for a bartender. There, Cage meets a mysterious woman and stumbles through flirting with her.

Stokes meets in his V.I.P. room with Councilwoman Mariah Dillard, who is running for re-election. Stokes is raising money for Dillard's campaign, by arranging a weapon's sale for a client. But, during the sale at a junkyard, some of Stokes's men get greedy and kill the buyers and steal the money before one of the three traitors from Stokes's organization freaks out and Shameek kills him. Learning of the deal going south, Stokes begins an internal investigation. Stokes is visited by Shades Alvarez, who is acting as an intermediary between Stokes and Diamondback. Together, they track down Shameek and recover half of the money that was stolen, at the expense of the thief's life.

Luke Cage is presented in "Moment Of Truth" as a hard-working man who is a fugitive who was altered without his consent and that starts to deepen his character from his Jessica Jones introduction. In "Moment Of Truth" the viewer learns that Cage was once incarcerated - he claims he was framed, which fits his established character - and we see a flashback to his time inside, which is how he recognizes Shades Alvarez. "Moment Of Truth" references Cage's dead wife, Reva, and in Luke Cage she has more lines right away than she did during her scenes in Jessica Jones.

"Moment Of Truth" very smartly shakes up the formula from the prior Netflix Marvel Cinematic Universe outings as it introduces the primary antagonist right in the pilot episode and establishes a tone that is very much "man vs. society." Cornell Stokes is presented as a corrupt club owner in Harlem, who has ties to Hammer Industries, the corporate antagonist from Iron Man 2 (reviewed here!). Unlike the prior two Netflix Marvel series's, there is no real mystery to who the antagonist is in Luke Cage. By the end of "Moment Of Truth," the viewer absolutely knows that Stokes is the Kingpin of Luke Cage.

The climax of "Moment Of Truth" appropriately lands the episode. Luke Cage opens as a business conspiracy with a gangster and politician (metaphorically) in bed with one another in Harlem while the protagonist works to lay low and fly under the radar. "Moment Of Truth" is a slow burn character arc that leads the protagonist to finally act. The movement of Luke Cage from hiding fugitive to protector of his landlord's restaurant is a slow one, but it sets Cage up as a smart, powerful hero that makes one want to tune in for the next episode right away.

References to "the incident," allusions to Hammer, a callback to Wilson Fisk, and the hints of Jessica Jones are what connects "Moment Of Truth" instantly to the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe.

"Moment Of Truth" is dominated by Mahershala Ali as Cornell Stokes. Cornell is a thin, vicious man who leaps into the power position in Luke Cage with a caliber reminiscent of The Kingpin from Daredevil. Indeed, what Wilson Fisk did with an SUV door, Stokes does with his bare hands and director Paul McGuigan does a beautiful job of lighting Ali with a red light to give him a demonic appearance during his key scene. But long before Stokes beats the life out of a man with his bare hands, Mahershala Ali establishes the character as a credible, smooth-talking operator who has taste and has built a small but powerful club in Harlem. Ali steals his scenes and immediately establishes Stokes as a subtle villain in the Marvel Cinematic Universe who is overtly powerful and violent when he has to be, without any sense of being over-the-top the way many Marvel villains are.

By comparison, Mike Colter returns to the role of Luke Cage with an entirely understated quality. Colter flashes the smile in his eyes even as his mouth remains in a perfect poker face. Luke Cage is a highly-restrained character and "Moment Of Truth" works so well because Colter is able to wonderfully play the part with incredible physical control.

"Moment Of Truth" is well-directed by McGuigan, who is tasked with establishing a complex setting in a comparatively confined amount of time. The flashbacks and dream sequences are judiciously used and the timing and direction for Stokes's "King" scene is impressive. McGuigan finds the right balance between the carnage shown and that which is left off-screen.

Ultimately, "Moment Of Truth" is a beginning that puts a lot of pieces in play for Luke Cage. As far as set-ups go, it's a decent one, but there are moments that are less compellingly-presented. Why Cage lies to Pops about not seeing anything before the young men go rogue is not satisfactorily explained and Detective Scarfe's shocking ignorance makes it tough to believe off the bat that he might be a Detective. But for the most part, the episode builds well to satisfy those tuning in for something sufficiently complex and smart, even if the story is just at its beginning.

[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 pilot episodes in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, please visit my reviews of:
"AKA Ladies Night" - Jessica Jones
"Into The Ring" - Daredevil
"Pilot" - Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.
"Now Is Not The End" - Agent Carter


For other Marvel movie, television season and episode reviews, please check out my Marvel Cinematic Universe Review Index Page for a listing of those reviews!

© 2016 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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