We aren’t in Hell’s Kitchen anymore!
Welcome to Luke Cage, the latest Marvel series that follows the titular bulletproof man — whom we met in last year’s Jessica Jones — and moves the action uptown to Harlem. In case your forgot, the last time we saw Luke (Mike Colter), he was recovering from being shot in the head by Jessica. Since recovering from his head wound, he moved uptown (I’ve heard it’s quiet up there) and has been hiding up.
The episode opens with a shot of Lenox Avenue — the first clue we’re in Upper Manhattan — and pans down to a barbershop. Inside, we meet the barbershop owner Pop (Frankie Faison) and his arrogant, young clientele who keep violating his no swear rule in the shop. Oh, and there’s Luke, who is sweeping floors and completing other janitorial duties when he’s not busy anxiously pacing in the back room, which is a habit we learn he picked up in prison. (I’ll be honest that I can’t remember if we found out he’d been jail in Jessica Jones, so let’s just take this as new information.) I really love the barbershop setting because it adds a bit of authenticity to the show’s version of Harlem.
It turns out Pop has been to prison, too, and understands the pacing. He’s also aware of Luke’s powers and has taken to calling him Power Man, which is a nod to his on-again-off-again superhero name in the comics. Pop thinks Luke should be out there helping people like those folks downtown, but Luke just wants to run from his powers. He feels like they ruined his life.
“The past is the past,” Pop says in the wise way we would expect from someone with a name like Pop who runs a barbershop. “The only direction is forward. Never backward.” Who wants to bet part of Luke’s arc this season will be breaking free from his pained past to become the hero Harlem needs right now? Which reminds me: We should talk about Harlem’s villains.
In addition to sweeping floors, Luke is also moonlighting at a new Cotton Club-esque nightspot called Harlem’s Paradise, which is owned by Luke Cage‘s villain, Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes (Mahershala Ali). Usually, Luke washes dishes in the back (and is paid under the table), but the bartender called out sick, so he’s brought to the front of the house, where he can enjoy a performance from Raphael Saadiq and flirt with an attractive woman we later learn is Detective Misty Knight (Simone Missick).
Above the bar, Cottonmouth is meeting with his cousin Mariah Stokes (Alfre Woodard), a councilwoman who is trying to make Harlem great again and is trying to do so without using her cousin’s dirty money. But Mariah isn’t afraid to get her hands dirty: We find out that she used federal grants and tax-deductible funds to build this club. Unfortunately, it’ll be awhile before she can put that money back because one of Cottonmouth’s weapons sales goes sideways when Shameek and Chico, two of the youths from the barbershop, and Dante, the missing bartender, interrupt the sale, kill everyone, and steal the money. Shameek tries to kill Dante because he’s afraid he’ll snitch but fails, so Dante calls Cottonmouth to let him know what went down.
Points to Luke Cage for kind of switching up the Netflix/Marvel villain formula. Both Jessica Jones and Daredevil took their time introducing their first season villains, but here we meet him at the beginning of the episode. Is that suggesting that Cottonmouth is a different kind of foe?
NEXT: Blast from the past
Spoiler alert: Luke’s flirtatious banter with Detective Knight leads them back to his home for a one-night stand. At least in the show’s first sex scene, it doesn’t go full Jessica Jones. Sadly, Misty has to sneak out before the morning when she’s called to the scene of the weapon sale. At the scene, we also meet her partner Detective Scarfe (Frank Whaley), who doesn’t leave much of an impression in the first episode. Misty conveniently forgets to tell her partner about hooking up with the replacement bartender while she was undercover at the club.
In the wake of the weapons deal gone bad, Cottonmouth’s backer/chaperone/boss Diamondback (Eric Ray Harvey) sends in his right hand-man Shades (Theo Rossi) to keep an eye on him. What’s Shades’ deal? Well, we know he really likes sunglasses and that he was in prison at the same time as Luke Cage. During Luke’s night with Misty, he had a nightmare and said Shades’ name in his sleep.
Unfortunately for Shameek, Cottonmouth’s men are able to track him down and bring him back to Harlem’s Paradise to find out where the stolen money is. Luke sees Shades and the boys when they pass through the kitchen and starts freaking out that Shades may have recognized him. (He didn’t.) While Luke returns home to do some anxious pacing about seeing Shades, Cottonmouth meets with Shameek. By “meets with,” I mean beat within an inch of his life. It’s a chilling scene thanks to the sound design and direction; the camera remains on Cottomouth’s face as he pounds Shameek and gets bloodier with each punch. (To be honest, I was quite worried about his suit, which is ruined now.)
Meanwhile, Luke decides to calm himself down by looking at a photo of his wife, Reva, who we learn about through a brief flashback with his counselor in prison. “I’m clear. I’m focused. I’m ready, baby,” he says to the photo. On his way out of his apartment, he passes by the Chinese restaurant underneath and sees the councilwoman’s men harassing his landlady and her husband for more money. This is his moment to step up — and he does. In a fun action sequence, Luke shows off his invulnerability and his super strength as he throws the goons around. By the end of it, his landlady — to whom he owes money — tries to hire him for protection. “I’m not for hire, but you have my word, ma’am. I got you,” he says. (Oh, he’ll be hire for soon enough.)
So what did you guys think about the first episode? It was a bit slow for my liking, but I’m interested in seeing where the story goes. And it’s going to be interesting to see how Luke Cage will take down Cottonmouth’s criminal empire — because simply throwing people through windows probably won’t do much.