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Luke Cage: Let's "Step Into the Arena" and Talk About Origin Stories

Time for a cage match

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: you can check out our recap of the premiere, episode 2 and episode 3. And needless to say, spoilers for Marvel's Luke Cage past this point!

Let's talk about origin stories. Because even though we met Luke Cage (Mike Colter) in a previous Marvel/Netflix series (that would be Jessica Jones), these first four episodes of his titular series have served as a tour through the origin stories of other Marvel heroes, as filtered through the uniqueness of Mr. Cage (née Carl Lucas). And with the first act done, it may be time to rev this baby into high gear.

If the first two episodes were Luke's Spider-Man "with great power comes great responsibility" moment, and episode three was a riff on Netflix's take on Daredevil, then episode four is very loosely Captain America with a touch of Iron Man. But those references (which we'll get to in a moment) are purposeful, while the origin story here is all Luke Cage.

This was also easily the best episode of the show so far. The hour flew by with a precision and focus we haven't seen yet. Without the ongoing saga of Chico (RIP Chico, you were a character, I guess) over, and Cottonmouth (Mahershala Ali) amping up the danger considerably by trying to blow up Luke with a rocket launcher, the deck is clear to focus in on the man who is now known as Luke Cage; and the show was better for it.

Luke and Connie (Jade Wu) trapped under the wreckage of her Chinese restaurant -- Genghis Connie's -- was a neat framing device (and of course thematic: the idea is that Luke needs to once again break out of the weight that's holding him down). But the main event -- and the bulk of the episode -- is focused around Luke's time in prison.

We've gotten hints and mentions of it before; and even after this hour we don't know everything (who did Luke trust, and what did he do that turned him from a cop into a convict?). But by putting Mike Colter in an amazing wig and beard that made him look more like the cowardly lion than a superhero, we got to figure out what's driving the man we know today.

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

Turns out, it's a whole lot of guilt, and a little bit of silly sci-fi science: the perfect recipe for a superhero origin story.

First, you need a guy who feels like he can never win. That's Luke in jail, so sure of his own righteousness that he screams he's not guilty his first night in jail, and alienates Reva (Parisa Fitz-Henley) the one person who seems to actually believe him. Mix in a racist prison guard making sure Luke can't win, two convicts who don't mind playing dirty, and you've got Luke feeling like maybe he does deserve to be treated like a bad guy, after all.

So Luke joins a prison fight club, refuses to shower, and goes a little Unabomber. The second element of a hero origin story is there, though... He's doing the wrong thing for the right reasons, to protect his only prison friend Squabbles (Craig Mums Grant) from getting framed by the guards.

And then of course there's the crazy science. After Luke nearly gets beaten to death, Reva's co-worker Dr. Noah Burstein (Michael Kostroff) puts him in a tube full of liquid in order to heal him. The guard, Albert Rackham (Chance Kelly) finds out and busts up the machinery, which causes Cage to emerge with unbreakable skin, super strength and a perfectly shaved chest.

Don't worry, the last ingredient is there, too. Cage heads to Reva's place to clean up/take off his beard wig, and gets his superhero identity after Reva explains he'll need to change his name. He quotes Luke 4:18 from the bible, repeats how his preacher used to say, "No one can cage a man if he truly wants to be free," and we're off to the races.

Oh, and back in the present, Luke has his Iron Man moment when the press chases him to ask who he is, after he saves Connie's life. He takes off his hood, looks them in the eyes, and says, "My name is Luke Cage."

What works so well about this episode is that it hits all of those typical origin story points, while staying utterly consistent with the tone and the focus that's come before. We've talked about how Luke Cage is exploring the African-American experience (and Harlem in particular) from all it's different aspects... And in particular, it's more problematic aspects. That definitely includes a black man wrongfully imprisoned for a crime he didn't commit. It definitely includes a racist man in power using said power to manipulate a man of another ethnicity. And it also, for better or worse, includes all the prison movie tropes of the Blaxploitation genre, including "secret prison fight club."

Now we're done with Act One of Luke Cage. The origin is over, the world knows his name... So what's next?

Easter Eggs and References:

- Though Squabbles seems to be a totally original creation, Luke did meet both Rackham and Burstein in Seagate, in the comics. Rackham was pretty much the same (including messing with the experiment on Luke, which caused his powers), as was Burstein. Only twist with the latter, he was using a variation of the super-soldier serum that created Captain America to create Luke. Here, that seems to be more implied than actual text.

- Comanche (Thomas Q. Jones), the prisoner palling around with Shades (Theo Rossi) is also from the comics, and a frequent antagonist of Luke.

- He doesn't show up, but there's a poster behind Reva's shoulder in one scene for a talk by Warden Stuart. In the books, Stuart saved Luke from Rackham while he was in Seagate.

- After the machine explodes, Luke emerges wearing bracelets and headgear that looks sort of like a tiara. Add in his more close shaven beard and hair, and the loose yellow shirt he finds after escaping, and you have Luke's original look from the comics. I think it looks pretty great, even if Luke sees himself and says, "You look like a damn fool."

- Related: the production/shooting code name for Luke Cage was "Tiara," so people wouldn't storm the set looking for Luke Cage.

- After punching a hole in the prison wall, Luke says, "Sweet Christmas," his catchphrase from the books. Granted, he's already said that once before, on Jessica Jones after punching... Something else... Really hard. Cough.

- Speaking of Jessica Jones, Reva sure does love her flash drives, doesn't she? She's gripping one with Luke's info pretty tight once he escapes; and she mentions to him, "You haven't always been a convict, I haven't always been a psychologist." In the previous series, Reva was killed for having a flash drive containing incriminating footage of experiments on the villainous Kilgrave (David Tennant).