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Luke Cage Premiere Recap: Meet the New King of Harlem

Meet your next great hero -- and villain

Alexander Zalben

Marvel and Netflix are launching their new original series Marvel's Luke Cage today, September 30, with 13 original episodes. The superhero series developed by Cheo Hodari Coker exists in the same Marvel Cinematic Universe as the Avengers movies, but is more closely tied to fellow Netflix Originals Daredevil and Jessica Jones. Because we're so excited about the show, we're going to recap each episode every hour as we go through and watch; and needless to say, spoilers for Marvel's Luke Cage past this point!

Luke Cage is, arguably, the most unique Marvel TV series that's come out so far. With the exception of Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) graduating from the movies to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., each subsequent main character has been introduced in their own series, versus having a pre-existing back-story.

Not so with Luke Cage (Mike Colter). The potentially invulnerable, super strong part-time bartender first showed up as a major supporting character in Marvel and Netflix's previous series, Jessica Jones. Because of the events of that series -- which included Cage's girlfriend Jessica shooting him in the face to break him from a villain's mind-control ("I still get headaches," notes Cage in this premiere episode) -- Cage is back to hiding his powers, and himself.

Basically, this entire first episode, from the hero's perspective, is the Refusal of the Call. More than that, it's Cage's "with great power comes great responsibility" Spider-Man moment, as he lets a kid with a gun walk away from him without a word; and later that choice leads to multiple deaths... And Cage's realization it's time to put on his hoodie, and get to work.

So other than a surprisingly hands-on sex scene, some hair sweeping (literally sweeping, because Cage is bald), and a killer action sequence at the end (please have someone punch Luke and break their hand in slow motion every episode, thanks)... Luke doesn't have a lot to do in the premiere. He's an observer who is about to get sucked into something bigger and more dangerous than he's ever faced before.

Good thing, then, he's got some awesome villains to go up against. Or at least one awesome villain in Cornell "Cottonmouth" Stokes (Mahershala Ali), a worthy heir to fellow Netflix/Marvel villains Wilson Fisk (Vincent D'Onofrio) and Kilgrave (David Tennant). Like those previous two villains, Cottonmouth is already benefiting from the expanded 13 hour long pacing of a Netflix show, versus a 2+ hour Marvel movie. Where the movies have struggled to deliver nuanced villains beyond Tom Hiddleston's Loki; Fisk's tragic backstory and Kilgrave's malevolent innocence of his misdeeds made for compelling, complex performances that stood toe to toe with their heroic opposites.

What makes Cottonmouth fascinating in the early going, other than Ali's appropriately resonant and hypnotizing lilt is that he's middle management. Fisk started on a team in Daredevil, sure; but as a mob boss he was always the main attraction. And Kilgrave was a one-man horror show, able to control dozens of people with just the sound of his voice.

Cottonmouth, on the other hand, has people he needs to answer to. In the first episode, an arms deal with a rival gang goes South when the aforementioned kid ends up killing nearly everyone involved and stealing a large sack of money. Cottonmouth immediately gets squeezed by an enforcer named "Shades" Alvarez (Theo Rossi), who works for a bigger boss named Diamondback (unseen in this episode, but played by Erik LaRay Harvey). What's fascinating about Ali's performance is how you can see the cracks forming already. He's in charge in his club, but when he tracks down one of the boys who stole his money, he loses his cool, beating him into a bloody pulp. In a strange way, it's sad to watch.

Marvel's Luke Cage is the most important TV show of 2016

There's a theme running through the episode of elevating Harlem back to the seat of culture it used to be at the forefront of, and from the way Cottonmouth dresses to how he runs his club that's clearly what he wants. But his temper, and events out of his control mean that his dream of being the king of new/old Harlem are probably already out of his reach. And he knows it, which makes what's about to happen all the more tragic.

Oh, there's one other villain, and we're just getting started with her. That would be Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard), a politician (and Cottonmouth's cousin) also pushing to bring Harlem back to its cultural past, but not afraid to use the thug tactics of the present. In a way, Cottonmouthand Dillard are the two halves of Fisk split apart: one is the calculating mob boss unable to contain his rage; the other the politician looking to fix his crime-ridden neighborhood by any means necessary... Including crime.

Regardless, now that Cage is back in the bulletproof saddle, we've got (at least) two great villains for him to square up against; and one more big bad waiting in the wings. This may be even more than an unbreakable man can handle.

Easter Eggs & References:

- "Not a problem for you, Power Man," riffs Pop (Frankie Faison) to Luke early in the episode. In the comics, Luke was called Power Man for decades, starting with issue #17 of his self-titled comic. In recent years, other heroes have picked up the Power Man moniker, and Luke now goes by his also totally rad real name.

- Reva Connors might take a little explanation, if you didn't watch Jessica Jones. Under the influence of the mind-controlling Kilgrave, Jessica killed Reva (the act of which broke said mind control, and freed Jessica). Later when Luke found out about this, he basically broke up with Jessica and then they had an insane fight. But all you really need to know is he never got over Reva's death.

- You probably picked up on this one, but a guy on the street selling DVDs says, "Tony Stark, the blonde dude, the old man with the shield, the big green monster, and I don't mean Fenway! You can't get better raw footage of the incident than right here." He's talking about the alien Chitauri attack from the first Avengers movie, and totally forgot to name check Black Widow BECAUSE HE'S A MISOGYNIST.

- Not a Marvel movie reference, just a real life reference. When Cottonmouth talks to Dillard about his club and says, "This place was a roach trap by the time Mama Mabel died," he seems to be talking about Mabel Elizabeth Washington, a nightclub singer and star of What's Happening!! And The Wiz. She passed away in 1999. And also, without spoiling too much, despite the fact that Washington was nicknamed "Mama," they're talking about someone entirely different.

- "You saw what happened to Fisk," Dillard warns Cottonmouth. What happened to Fisk is: he was beaten up by Daredevil in the first season of that show, and then thrown into prison. That's what happened to him.

- Hammer Industries makes the weapons Cottonmouth is black-market selling when his deal goes sour. He also name checks Justin Hammer, the former head of the company, who was played by Sam Rockwell in Iron Man 2. Though Hammer Industries has clearly continued, Justin himself was thrown into prison, showing up in a quick post-credits scene at the end of the Marvel One-Shot film, All Hail the King. Interestingly he was/is in prison at...

- Seagate Prison, which gets mentioned by Shades when Cottonmouth asks him how he's doing. "Seagate wasn't s---," sneers Shades, and later we find out that's where Luke was imprisoned -- and met Shades -- at some point in the past.

- At the end of the episode, the proprietors of Genghis Connie's offer to hire Luke. "I'm not for hire, but you have my word ma'am, I've got you," Cage tells them. His character was first introduced in the comics in 1972 -- before the whole Power Man thing -- as Luke Cage: Hero for Hire. That name (or a variation) has popped up multiple times in the character's history, usually when he's teamed up with the upcoming Netflix hero Iron Fist as Heroes for Hire.