So. “Step in the Arena,” the fourth episode of LUKE CAGE, is strange. This is the first episode so far where I was like “nah, dude.” I didn’t hate it, but I was pretty mystified by its entire existence. It’s choppy, messy, and overall presents a weakly reasoned backstory for Luke and I would rather I just didn’t know.
Gather ’round and listen, friends. There’s a thin line between superhero origin stories that are phenomenal and the kind that I’d rather they had left to hints and allusions. This one was better before they told it to me. Now, this is getting into some of my particular MCU nitpicks, but if you tell me for like a year that Luke was experimented on and that’s how he got his powers then I want a frickin’ experiment. I want them to be trying to do something crazy to him and it either goes terribly right or terribly wrong. Instead he was beat mostly to death in prison and they were doing an experimental procedure to save his life that got interrupted. That’s… not really an experiment? His powers are just as much an accident as Jessica Jones’s when it comes down to it if that’s how we’re going to say he got them. I wanted some science up in here. Barring that, they could have just hinted at crazy experiments without giving us any information like they keep doing with every Netflix Marvel character in or formerly in the military. There were sort of hints here, but to my mind weird liquid that heals you faster isn’t really an experiment until you tell me why you’re making it and what you’re using it for. I am very strict about this; ask any beleaguered soul who’s had to talk to me for more than fifteen minutes. I will literally outline a thesis about Marvel science to anyone who sits still by me for too long. This didn’t cut it with me.
I also know I said I wanted this to be all Blaxploitation funky action but I didn’t really mean Mandingo fighting rings in some weird Georgia prison. I acknowledge your references. Thank you, show. I guess there are so many genres of Blaxploitation films that pulling from everything would turn it into a fragmented hodgepodge. I’ll be more specific: I wanted the 1970’s street fight kind. Speaking of weird Georgia prisons, I loved how they dropped that Seagate is a for-profit prison and that’s why everyone believes they’re doing weird experiments on the inmates. Is that important later? Like, who owns this damn thing? That’s a mystery I want picked back up. I’d also love to get more of what Reva was doing and all the research she stole. We already saw what was on her flash drive in Jessica Jones—that’s what Kilgrave had her killed for. But what else did she know? All of that fragmented cultish mystery I liked. The hints were better than the story they set for me on the table. I also really loved Reva. She’s so genuine and sweet and yet she doesn’t take any crap from her life-hardened patients. It’s nice that she finally gets to actually speak instead of just die dramatically.
Structurally, this was also very messy. Over half of it was flashbacks and the flashbacks didn’t tie well into the narrative taking place in the present. It was jarring to cut back and forth between Luke’s prison days and the tiny bit of plot involving Misty and Scarfe. Flashbacks are all well and good, but either make the entire episode a flashback while he’s unconscious or make that stuff tie together better. I’m spoiled on flashbacks by watching too much Person of Interest which was a series that gave almost all of its contextual character information in flashbacks that tied heavily to the present, but even for the unspoiled I imagine this episode was choppy and hard to follow. There’s Luke and Connie in the rubble, Misty and Scarfe trying to figure out what happened in the explosion, and then all the stuff with Luke in prison. I appreciate the backstory, but the past and the present parts just never actually go together. I also want to pause for a moment to say that the first time they showed the name of Connie’s restaurant and it was “Genghis Connie’s” I almost choked laughing.
I know I said that all of the superpower backstory was the story I wanted but now that they’ve given it to me I’m like “eh.” I could have lived without those specifics. What I’d much rather know now is what Luke’s life was like before he went to prison and the story of how he got there. That’s infinitely more interesting to me than how he accidentally-experimentally got those powers now. Again, sometimes the hints are better than the reality. I don’t know what I thought, but maybe that he’d been in some kind of experimental super soldier program? A law enforcement version? A drug trial gone mad? I’ll make myself angry if I keep going because I’ll hit on something way better than what they gave me.
It’s one of my particular Marvel quirks that doing one or two things spectacularly incorrectly will just turn me off to the whole thing. This episode was decent generally but lackluster by my specific criteria. Which is unfortunate. Also hilarious given that this is me we’re talking about and I basically live for this kind of stuff. But one “eh” episode does not a disaster make, and so we push on.
Season 1, Episode 4 (S01E04)
Luke Cage is available to stream on Netflix
Dana is a digitization archivist by day and a masked pop culture avenger by night. She spreads the gospel of science fiction and fantasy wherever she goes.
Follow Dana on Twitter: @DanaLeighBrand
Keep up with all of Dana’s reviews here.
Dana Leigh Brand | Contributor