Season 1, Episode 4 – Step in the Arena
If you thought that finally seeing how Luke Cage got his powers would be an exciting, interesting event, then “Step in the Arena” is here to prove you wrong in every way. After getting hit by a missile that traps Luke Cage and his landlady in a pile of rubble in the last episode, the series takes this moment to show in flashbacks the exact circumstances that led to Luke Cage acquiring his super strength and invincibility. It’s an important event of course, one that probably justified dedicating an entire episode to telling it. But by the time the episode is over, you’ll probably end up wishing that it was explained in a clumsy, minute-long exposition scene instead of almost a full hour of flashbacks.
This episode reveals several things. The first is that Luke Cage used to be a police officer. The second is that he was in prison when he met Reva and got his powers. The third is that, after escaping from prison, he changed his name from Carl Lucas to Luke Cage. It’s quite an informative episode, but the way these significant insights into Luke Cage’s past are presented make them feel worthless. The flashbacks are slow, meandering, and silly. The show once again struggles to balance its serious crime drama leanings and its comic book origins, because after spending a significant amount of time dealing with murder, violence, and the psychological effects that prison has on our lead character, it all ends with Luke Cage stuck in a giant tanning bed aquarium that explodes. Nothing says “serious crime drama” more than complicated sci-fi contraptions I guess.
No doubt Luke Cage’s criminal past is going to become relevant down the line, especially after his face and maybe even his powers are revealed to the public at the end of this episode, but right now it’s difficult to be positive about how the writers will use this information to further the season’s plot. Everything is still moving at a snail’s pace, and we’ve just been treated to what ultimately feels like a pit stop in a storyline that has just started to gain some traction in the last episode. Instead of the flashbacks complementing the current events of the story, it grinds everything to a screeching halt that feels like it’s filling time despite the abundance of pivotal information being presented.
But the worst part is that these flashbacks feel perfunctory as well, like they’re just mechanically filling out the details in an incomplete puzzle. The pieces fit, but they still don’t complete the picture in any satisfying way. Yes, we got to see how Luke Cage got his powers, but so what? It feels superfluous to dedicate an entire episode to it. Even worse is how Luke Cage met Reva while he was in prison. They were obviously killing two birds with one stone by showing two important events in Luke Cage’s life at the same time, but it doesn’t work. It’s difficult to see why Reva would take even the slightest interest in a convicted felon like Luke Cage, regardless of how “righteous” his reasons were for landing in prison. Seeing how their romantic relationship began and blossomed is unconvincing at best. There is both too much time dedicated to these flashbacks and not enough, resulting in half-baked insights to Luke Cage that don’t really add much at the end of the day.
This is also the first episode that solely focuses on Luke Cage and no one else. Neither Cottonmouth nor Mariah make an appearance, and their presence is sorely missed. Mike Colter simply can’t carry his own show despite being the lead, which is disheartening because a show should be more than capable on standing on its own when it only features the main lead. This show is in dire need of more interesting characters because there’s no dynamic to speak of whatsoever. There are no character interactions or interrelationships that can sustain this show’s lengthy running time, which makes me wonder what the point of this show really is? It’s neither entertaining nor compelling, and although there are still nine episodes left in the first season, I’m at a complete loss as to whether or not giving Luke Cage his own series was even necessary.