Marvel's Luke Cage
No character is more useful or compliant within the arc of a superhero’s story than a dead woman. She’s a pawn, a narrative device created to spurn development, an inciting incident made flesh. “Love interest” is a title that hangs like an albatross around the neck of women in comics. Lois Lane. Iris West. Reva Connors. The story is so often the same. Writers don’t know what to do with these characters until they can threaten their lives or kill them off. The dead wife is so prevalent in the comic industry, there’s even a term to describe her fate: fridging.
Four episodes in, the real test of Luke Cage’s artistry lies in how it treats its female characters. Misty Knight has proven to be a capable detective with great instincts and a sharp tongue. Mariah Dillard is arguably a more fascinating villain than Cottonmouth; her fight for the soul of Harlem provides the show with its pulse. But Reva Connors, Luke’s deceased wife, introduces a very difficult problem: She represents one of the most egregious examples of fridging in recent memory. Will Luke Cage be able to take Reva out of the fridge, so to speak, and make her feel like a real person? “Step in the Arena” seeks to answer that question.
After Cottonmouth used a rocket launcher to solve his problems, we find Luke and Connie trapped under the collapsed building. Connie’s leg is broken, but don’t worry, she survives. Luke’s super strength ultimately saves them both, throwing him into the spotlight as news crews swarm the scene. That’s the extent of the episode’s present-day plot. The rest is an origin story.
Inside the privately owned Seagate prison, Luke is very different than the man we’ve come to know. That’s not even his name yet. Sporting a ridiculously fake beard and afro, he’s a former cop named Carl Lucas, who was imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit. He’s closed off, emotionally stunted, hardened, and untrusting.
Though Luke finds camaraderie with an inmate named Squabbles, his tenuous life unravels when he’s forced into a series of underground fights in which prisoners (all men of color) square off against each other while guards make bets. The operation is led by Albert Rackham, one of the most emptily written caricatures of white good ol’ boy Southern racism I’ve seen in awhile. Rackham employs Shades and other inmates as his enforcers, which explains why Luke has such animosity toward him.
While attending group therapy sessions, Luke meets Reva Connors, a prison psychiatrist who works for Seagate. If you’ve seen Jessica Jones, you know Reva as the catalyst for that show’s twisted version of fridging: Her death propped up the story of a white female anti-hero, rather than the typical male hero. There was something utterly distasteful about the death of a black woman (whom we learned so little about) fueling Jessica’s angst and growth, especially on a show that often touted its alleged feminist bona fides. In Luke Cage, however, Reva is given room to develop. She’s shown to be caring, intelligent, and troubled in her own way. When Luke presses her about her own failings to avoid talking about himself, it sparks a genuine friendship between them. After she admits to guilt over her brother’s death, their conversation soon turns to flirting, as each character reveals hidden layers of themselves. Just like Luke, Reva may have a complicated past, but a strong sense of honor guides her through life.
As Luke’s relationship with Reva grows, it also draws the episode toward its central theme. “Step in the Arena” is concerned with loneliness, and a better version might have dug into questions of how that loneliness manifests itself in Seagate’s prison life. We see hints of this in an exchange between Luke and Squabbles:
Squabbles: “This type of loneliness in here can kill.”
Luke: “Not if you stay strong.”
Squabbles: “And if you believe that you’re dumb. Strength has its limits. Everyone caves eventually.”
However, writer Charles Murray and director Vincent Natali only scratch the surface of these issues. What happens to Luke and other black inmates is a dramatized version of real-world atrocities — for centuries, white people have used and exploited black bodies for entertainment, labor, and profit — and yet “Step in the Arena” feels weightless. Life in Seagate is a mere sketch, so it doesn’t leave much of an impact. What should be a powerful episode is instead hollow, encapsulating my issues with Luke Cage. Whenever the show strikes a nerve (like Mariah’s comment about Cottonmouth being color-struck), it scurries back to less compelling territory. Is the show afraid to offend the sensibilities of its audience?
To be fair, “Step in the Arena” does have its pleasures. The episode’s fight montage vividly illustrates — through cracked bones, bloodied fists, and dripping sweat — how Luke’s body isn’t the only thing becoming calloused. His soul is hardening, too. As Rackham threatens the few people Luke holds dear (including Reva), he realizes he has to do something. He can’t keep fighting, and he can’t risk losing what little he still has.
Killing Rackham won’t solve anything, of course. Another white man will simply take his place. And so, Luke decides to tell Reva what’s been happening with the fights. When she asks why, he answers, almost exasperated, “Because you give me hope.”
But trying to expose Rackham doesn’t work either. After killing Squabbles, Shades and another inmate on Rackham’s payroll beat Luke within an inch of his life. Desperate to keep him alive, Reva convinces Dr. Burstein (Michael Kostoff) to save him. It turns out those outlandish rumors about Seagate’s experiments are true, sort of: Dr. Burstein has created a bath chamber meant to accelerate healing. It’s the only way to save Luke’s life, but Rackham interrupts the process in an attempt to sabotage it. He messes with the chamber, sparking the reaction that gives Luke his abilities. Rackham is killed by the explosion; Dr. Burstein survives.
It’s interesting to see this crucial aspect of Luke’s origin play out. In previous episodes, he framed it as a violation of his body, as if he were routinely experimented on and forced into that chamber. But here, we learn the truth: The chamber saved his life, and Reva put him inside as an act of love. When Luke discovers his powers and punches his way to freedom, the episode also winks toward his comic-book beginnings. As he flees Seagate, he’s sporting headgear from the chamber, metal wristbands, and a garish yellow shirt. It’s the closest fans will get to seeing the character in the costume he wore in the early 1970s.
When Luke finally reached a motel with Reva, one particular moment stuck with me: He shaves his head and face. Cutting one’s hair is typically a visual signal of radical change for female characters, often symbolizing a decision to remake oneself. For a male character to do the same is notable, especially as a reminder that Luke Cage is at its best when it challenges the idea that black men are emotional monoliths. Perhaps this also explains why the overwhelming machismo Seagate’s underground fights and racist caricatures doesn’t work, while Luke’s relationship with Reva enchants.
But enchantment aside, “Step in the Arena” leaves us with more questions than answers. After cleaning out his file and helping him start a new life, Reva is reluctant to tell Luke about her past. “You haven’t always been a convict. I haven’t always been a psychiatrist,” she says. The scene buzzes with energy and sexual tension. Luke even opens up about his father’s work as a preacher — the show is laying the biblical references on pretty thick — and we learn the origins of his name. Colter and Fitz-Henley have great chemistry throughout, which would ordinarily signal a romance on the horizon.
Unfortunately, the past is past. Reva Connors is dead.
In the realm of super-spies and men with magical hammers, any character can come back to life. It’s certainly possible that Luke Cage may eventually revive Reva, but that seems about as likely as Luke donning his corny headgear again. In death, Reva becomes a convenient mystery. How did she get involved with Dr. Burstein? What was her life before Seagate? Why did she risk her life to save him? “Step in the Arena” goes a long way to make Reva feel a real character, but ultimately, she is still a catalyst.