The show exemplifies numerous problems with the Netflix model, but also seems comfortable operating with these problems.
[WARNING: SPOILERS. WATCH THE SHOW BEFORE YOU READ]
There are things you never really want to write. A eulogy, that term paper you’ve held off on doing and now it’s the day before because you thought it was a bright idea to spend your time writing a review of a Netf–– and then there’s a less than glowing review. It’s easy to write about something you love, you have all of these elements that spoke to you. More than likely, the consensus is that it’s liked and so you can get away with surface detail:
- “the direction is amazing”
- “O-M-G [actor/actress’ name] is incredible in this”
- “It’s so well written”
The next item on the list is something you hate for similar reasons if it’s widely panned, then if you love/hate something which goes against the consensus. When this situation occurs, then you find yourself pushed for reasons and your criticism or elements that you like need to be more specific. Case in point, I loved the new Ghostbusters, but it wasn’t just enough to say this in a comment online, it required a mini thesis about why I liked it and a response to the people replying and telling me that the movie’s misandrist because the quartet shot the big bad ‘in the dick’. [Which isn’t true, it’s a PG-13 movie. No one’s hanging dong and maybe you’re projecting if you saw that and though Ghost Dick]. On the flipside, Suicide Squad is a movie I loathed and represents everything that needs to die in summer blockbusters. While it didn’t have major acclaim from every avenue, people liked it as a popcorn movie, so for me to then abhor it – I needed to break down why I felt the movie was monotonous or doesn’t live up to what the cast suggests with regards to diversity.
It’s harder to write something about a show that just is. I didn’t like Daredevil S2 after I finished, but at the time I just considered it average. Now having seen Luke Cage, I would happily say that it’s on the level of Luke Cage. Problem with that is that I don’t like Luke Cage. It’s disappointing and seems okay with this. While DD S2 feels like a bigger trainwreck, it’s at the very least, trying to achieve something. Whereas Luke Cage isn’t a disaster that can be dragged beyond belief, but I also can’t find much to like.
I wasn’t able to binge watch the show in a day like I have the previous MCU Netflix shows. Normally I find that watching them in one day breaks me because no Netflix dramas have been able to fit their episode orders and lengths perfectly yet. The closest they’ve has gotten is Stranger Things. For the record both Horace and Pete and The Girlfriend Experience have. Part of me hoped that spreading it out over a weekend would allow me to savour the good parts. Instead it gave me multiple opportunities where I had no desire to push forward.
This isn’t to say that it doesn’t have good parts. The cast the show has assembled is wonderful, the soundtrack is great and the first two episodes are decompressed, but present some choice scenes that make comparisons to The Wire appropriate. The stuff in the Barbershop gives character to Harlem and the shootout in the pilot suggests the show will be dealing with some thematically relevant content to today’s world. As the show progresses, these elements drop out and leave a show that meanders too much. Mike Colter is good as Cage, but could be great if he had more than stoic available to play and if he had an actual plot which his hero’s journey could link to. A show can make a location a character, but a character needs a story.
The standout part of the show is Misty Knight, played by Simone Missick, but even then her story doesn’t have enough plot to fill a 13 episode arc and also shows a key problem of the show. Which I’ll affectionately call the Bloodline effect.
Essentially Bloodline is a show that circles the drain of drama, going round and round, but never committing with not only too many episodes, but episodes which are too long. Even when it pulls the trigger, it can’t push beyond that [see: Ben Mendelsohn]. So the Bloodline Effect is when a show seems very happy to savour in it’s setting without doing anything with it. Misty’s arc shows this in that in the final third of the season she gets shot in the arm and instead of using this as the reason to give her the metal arm we expect the character to have, it just gets resolved and her arm heals. When she’s being interrogated, we spend 30 minutes of the episode as her colleagues attempt to get her to crack only to reach a point where she repeats what she’s been saying all along and gets her gun back just because… I dunno, rule of three?
This reluctance to commit to drama is only hampered by how comfortable the show is with being generic. Cheo Coker worked on SouthLAnd. That show once attached bulletproof vests to a car to make a mobile position during a shootout. Luke Cage kills a mentor for motivation. Has a hallway scene. Luke and Claire walk around and talk about staying friends. There’s a cop on the take who gets killed, a daring escape, a situation where cops take an episode before they breach into a location. These aren’t just familiar to drama, but Marvel’s Netflix shows. The show just feels uninspired.
[As a brief aside, if goons could stop shooting at Cage after we and everyone knows that he’s bulletproof, that’d be swell]
The monologues also exemplify these. People quote bible verses ad nauseum, but Age of Ultron used them and made them powerful/relevant. Chess analogies are played out. This comes less than 12 months after Bokeem Woodbine delivered a monologue about the freaking Jabberwocky. That kind of thing stays with you, ones about pawns don’t.
It goes further off the rails when Cottonmouth gets booted out of the plot to make way for Diamondback, a villain who seems to have stumbled away from the Joel Schumacher version of this show (with a costume to ) Heck, Luke himself gets shot for a second time with a Judas bullet and falls onto the back of a garbage truck. But when we find him next episode, he’s on the streets again, shot, but what’s the point of ending on that dour note if he’s going to be walking it off within twenty minutes of show.
And now we come to the bit which I’m not entirely sure about. The New York Times review essentially says that the show is too black, but I don’t think it’s black enough. It’s here I should probably mention I don’t know whether I’m correct with this stance, I’m not black and could be missing a key element [If I am, then I’d appreciate having it explained to me]. Anyways, yes, Luke Cage wearing a hoodie and being bulletproof is a statement which is undoubtedly important enough for many people and it would be remiss to discount this. It would also be dishonest to skip over the fact that the final four or so episodes bring in some ideas – the dash-cam scene in Episode 9 and the montage in Episode 12 both broach the idea of theme and it certainly deals with them better than UnREAL did – seriously Season 2’s sixth episode is a horrible way to approach a black character being shot by police. [For those that haven’t seen it, it asks how does the white protagonist feel about this and is sloppy in set-up]. Like I said, that first episode shows a black teen getting shot and when I saw that I thought the show would be grappling with these ideas head on. It doesn’t really. The other two elements are attempts, but come too late to make significant difference and are counteracted by the way that Mariah takes a rally about the death of a black teen as opportunity to turn the crowd on Luke Cage. There’s a piece from The Ringer that I’ll link below along with the NYT piece. While I don’t wholly agree with it, I also don’t wholly disagree, just I don’t think Luke Cage does enough as say Atlanta which has provided infinitely more poignant storytelling in a fraction of the time thus far.
Before we conclude this I’ll add in two things which annoy me quite a bit. The first is making Reva part of the program that gives Luke his powers. She doesn’t need to be evil and hinders his arc thus far from Jessica Jones. The second thing annoys me even more, but it’s twofold:
- The Luke/Claire romance is a horrible idea that not only makes their conversations prior to the end of the season redundant, but goes against how she was characterised in Daredevil where she passed on Matt’s advances. Now if you’ll allow me to take off the wannabe critic hat and replace it with the comics fan hat – I’m mad with how Jessica is treated. Not only is she considered a rebound chick, but this relationship makes it difficult to bring her and Luke back together. Jessica Jones #1 comes out this week, I’m reviewing it for Newsarama come next Monday and I’ll be furious if it does something on this level.
- Rosario Dawson deserves better than this.
So that’s where I’m at. I may be tapped out when it comes to Netflix hype for the next two years unless Melissa Rosenberg swoops in and takes everything over. I strongly dislike Daredevil S2 and that feeling only grows the longer I spend detached from it so I’m not going to get excited about S3 because I expect them to flounder again, same thing applies to Defenders considering that Ramirez/Petrie are in charage, the Punisher bores me and will only have my interest if they attempt Rucka’s run and after this, why should I expect Iron Fist to grapple with the themes it has open for exploration?
Luke Cage is a Netflix show. If you’re the type to binge watch every show they put out and call it amazing, then great, I wish I had your ability to enjoy things. If you like them, but have issues, you may have significantly more issues with that than usual. If you’re like me in that the ‘prestige’ of Netflix never sucked you in, then it may be safer if you just give this a skip. Luke Cage could have been a show with a strong important message that stretched beyond the surface based on how it’s titular character dresses, instead it’s as pedestrian as the attire would suggest in any other climate.
Guess I’ll just take this hype and invest it in Legion.
Give a read of these and see what you think and where you lie on the spectrum.