WARNING: FULL SPOILERS
As Luke tries to escape the rubble of Cottonmouth’s rocket revenge, he flashes back to his days at Seagate Prison. A cop in jail for a mysterious crime, Carl Lucas is a cynical and angry man “just trying to survive.” A crooked prison captain named Rackham (Chance Kelly) forces the future Luke Cage into gladiator fights with the help of Shades.
Carl/Luke’s outlook changes as he meets his future wife Reva Connors (Parisa Fitz-Henley), the prison’s psychologist. The two fall for each other, but a severe beating from Shades leads to a secret experiment that gives Luke his powers and an avenue to escape.
I knew virtually nothing about Luke Cage from the comics so I was truly looking forward to his origin story. While Step in the Arena is a welcome return to form for Luke Cage due to a brilliant performance from Mike Colter, there is still something lacking.
Colter does excellent work here, revealing just how angry and damaged Luke was in his past. In Seagate, there is a smoldering “me against the world” ambivalence that completely rules him. Colter manages to balance that anger with the charisma we are used to seeing. He has some of his best lines here, especially with Squabbles (Craig muMs Grant).
The fight scenes in the episode are also well done. The shaky cam shots are gone, giving us every bloody detail. Luke’s growing viciousness in each gladiator fight is frightening to watch as he nearly loses himself in the violence.
And of course, we get to hear Luke say, “Sweet Christmas!” All of the callbacks to the Luke’s comic origins, from his costume to his crazy lines, is handled in a fun tongue in cheek way without being insulting.
The rest of the cast in the episode is somewhat hit and miss. The aformentioned Squabbles is fun. Rackham is a one note villain, sleazy to the core, but he is really good at doing it. We get to see Shades connection to Luke more explicitly, though its not that personal. However, the biggest problem in the cast is Reva.
Reva is portrayed well by Parisa Fitz-Henley, bringing believable compassion to the role. My problem is with the role itself. This is the woman who changed Luke’s life, the one who brought him hope for a future. And their relationship is not that believable. They literally meet and fall in love. The chemistry between Misty and Luke is much more believable.
Much like Luke and Reva’s courtship, everything in Step in the Arena feels rushed. Luke’s origins feel unnecessarily rushed. I pointed out that Luke is the most straightforward of the Marvel Netflix heroes, but that doesn’t mean there should be more no explanations to his origin.
Why are there experiments at Seagate? What is the machine that Luke is put into? Rackham’s sudden interference is also laughable because the scene is so over the top. Hopefully more will be revealed in future episodes for both Reva and Luke’s origins.
The ending of the episode is also effective due to its focus on Luke. His triumphant moments both in the past and present are cut together so well. It’s a truly crowd pleasing closing.
And Luke’s “Tony Stark” moment at the end of the episode? Simply awesome.
Score: 8 out of 10
WARNING: FULL SPOILERS