Let’s start from the beginning, or more formally back in the day. “Step in the Arena” manages to be a very powerful episode for viewers if only because we actually get to learn what makes Luke, Luke. I mean we were eventually going to get to the point where we find out how Luke, or in this case Carl managed to gain his abilities and how he managed to begin to become the hero we are seeing today. Unfortunately when you have an episode so heavily focused on flashbacks you can tend to lose focus on the main story. This sadly becomes the case in some instances as the side characters we are introduced to never manage to grab hold and make us want to spend time with them. The CO is a bastard, the scientist is super schetchy, the inmate Carl wants to protect has a heart of gold. Stereotypes can work, but only if they are presented in the right fashion.
So starting with the good, seeing how Carl became Luke was definitely a highlight of the episode. Watching Carl’s evolution through his crazy awesome prison beard was something to behold, but being that we knew how this episode would end there was no real danger for our hero throughout the episode. If there were stakes or an actual fear that Luke’s new friend may possibly die, then possibly I would have cared more about what was happening on screen. However I did love the idea of Luke’s beard hiding his shame of being involved in the fights and its evolution to show just how detached he was becoming from the real world. It was a strong play that added a lot of depth to the man charged with a crime he didn’t commit. I mean I appreciate the idea of Luke not wanting to get attached as he knows the CO will use those connections against him, but at some points the story just felt so corny
This is where the episode manages to stumble as we are forced to live with characters we have no real connections to, and frankly aren’t nearly as interesting as the show wants them to be. Squabbles is a fun side kick but lacks any true development besides being the instrument that makes Luke get in the ring. The corrupt racist CO is fairly one note, and really doesn’t manage to evolve into a suitable foil for Luke. I mean he could have been way more threatening or not so overtly racist and his part would have hit all the more for me as a viewer. Even Reva, the character we are supposed to care about the most being that she is Luke’s ex-wife manages to only float in and out enough to remind us that she exists and is slightly important. She has way more heft in the earlier scenes and I understand why, but suddenly she shows up and the CO wants to use her as leverage. There were a few other ways to get to this point and unfortunately the show chose the most direct and boring route.
What really managed to sink my interest is the fact that this was supposed to show us who Shades is and why Luke is afraid of him. I mean Luke got his ass handed to him for sure, but we really never get to learn anything about Shades that adds to his character. Shades is still just Shades, no rhyme or reason just a big mysterious question mark that aims to not add anything. When looking at all of the characters we could have inserted into these huge important flashbacks, adding Shades failed to actually add anything to the plot. I mean so far this series has been filled with huge interesting characters, except for Shades. Just do something Shades, I am tired of waiting for you to pull some bullshit.
I will give the episode one thing, damn if they don’t know how to stage a montage or cut back. Both the Luke in the ring scene and the cuts between Luke punching out of the building and breaking out of prison were top notch. The music as with every episode so far has been perfect and sets the exact right mood for watching Luke go all superhero on the world. I mean when we see Luke in present day he tosses people around like child’s play and it’s pretty funny. Here it is brutal, messy, and you can feel the weight of every punch or throw. That is how you stage a fight, you make damn sure the audience can feel it.
Overall “Step in the Arena” manages to do the bear minimum in terms of an origin story. Sure it is mostly fun to watch, but it lacks the heart of some of the better MCU origin episodes. At some point Luke Cage needs to show the weight of the crown, and I am chomping at the bit to see that happen.
Final Grade B
+Carl stepping in the ring
+Great cinematography and music as always
-Overall flashbacks were boring
-None of the side character really did anything spectacular
-Not enough present day
-Since Matt is the only one with an actual costume, I can’t wait to see the other members of the Defenders give him shit
-Seriously highlight of the episode was Luke’s magnificent beard. That thing was a super power in it’s own right
-I know the whole “I am Luke Cage” is supposed to be a big moment, but shouldn’t the press be asking more important questions?