Samuel Brace on what worked and what didn’t in Marvel’s Luke Cage…
To see something through to the end with the energy and vigour with which one started is something quite rare indeed. Television is often blighted with this very problem, a lot of shows start off replete with quality but like buckets of water being carried down a hill, they end up with less than what they started by the time of reaching their destination. Luke Cage suffered this very fate — which saddens me to say. But it wasn’t’ all bad, what was good was in fact that. There are far worse shows, shows where nothing worked and everything didn’t. But Luke Cage had a big brother and sister to live up to, and unfortunately Netflix’s latest offspring was a disappointment in comparison. But that being said, here are the things that worked and the things that did not.
Things That Worked
As mentioned at the top, Luke Cage starts of very well indeed, in fact, it starts off brilliantly. Expectations were always going to be high for the next Marvel Netflix offering — a weight they have burdened themselves with — but I started off watching Luke Cage not expecting to enjoy it as much as Daredevil or as much as I ended up enjoying Jessica Jones. However, Netflix have a habit of subverting our expectations, and during Cage’s fist few episodes, they continued the trend. Superhero fatigue is real, and it will only permeate our lives further as time goes on, a result of that saturation word we hear so much about. So without knowing it, Luke Cage was the antidote, or rather bandage, to this particular ailment. Cage (the show) is the least super of all the MCU properties to date. It’s a story (at least at first) of a guy who is very strong who has a vendetta against another guy who is a crook. And said crook isn’t super at all, he’s just a crook with proclivities to violent behaviour. This was just what the doctor had ordered.
The story and the world that was set up for us, was one that was small, cosy and intimate. There was nothing titanic at stake; the stakes were personal and only important to those that they were affecting — which is always the most important thing. Luke Cage knows the world doesn’t always have to be at stake; only your personal world has to be in the balance, this helped provide the show with a framework for a story that could do more than wow with big explosions and an even larger death toll. This would not be seen through to a place of any pay off, but at the start at least, this made for gripping television. And gripping television it was, Luke Cage himself cut an imposing figure, a badass reluctant hero and a man of redoubtable character, played understatedly by Mike Coulter. The dialogue was good for the most part, the characters were interesting enough to keep your attention, and the action was fun to witness given Cage’s unfair advantages over his enemies. It was immensely enjoyable, until it wasn’t. It all worked very well, until it didn’t. It had the quality of its Netflix siblings, until it lost it.
Things That Didn’t
The things that worked for Luke Cage early on are also the things that didn’t later. Unfortunately for the show and any enjoyment of it, later came much too soon. It’s around the episode four to five mark that the drop in quality becomes noticeable and the erosion of the things that worked becomes demonstrable. We expect now with these Marvel Netflix shows that there will be a dip in form around the middle of the season, that the filler used to pad out the always thin story won’t be quite good enough, but we also expect that dip not to last too long, and for the shows to rally towards a conclusion, a return to form before the slump. Unfortunately for Luke Cage, it wasn’t so much of a slump as a cliff, and it couldn’t’ climb back up after falling off, it just drowned.
The writing became clunky and cheesier, the acting became stiff and more wooden, the fights became less and less interesting and most importantly of all: that small, intimate story with personal stakes that you hoped would build to somewhere satisfying? Well, it didn’t. The energy of proceedings just kind of peters out, there is a change in direction that doesn’t work, everything that was interesting becomes not interesting, and things just collectively fall apart. Nothing becomes terrible — apart from some truly hammy acting by a couple of villains — but Cage becomes something these other Netflix shows have so far escaped, it becomes like a regular network TV show, it becomes part of the pack, it becomes mediocre. Around that four to five episode mark it dawns on you that this isn’t quite what it was an hour or two ago, you try and put it down to being a weak episode — all shows have them — that things will get better, but then things don’t get better, the opposite happens, and you realise that this isn’t the typical pitfall, that this is the show now and you’re not sure if you want to watch it anymore.
Full disclosure, I did stop watching after episode ten. I just couldn’t anymore. I often talk about voting with your wallet and this case: your eyes — so that’s what I did. This isn’t what was wanted, this isn’t what was expected. There is no doubt that Luke Cage is Netflix’s nadir, and that might sound like hyperbole but the more this show festers the more the statement feels true. There was potential here, they had the hooks in, they built the scaffolding but then instead of adding bricks they just threw a tent over the top, and then even more strangely they started kicking the scaffolding. Perhaps something happened behind the scenes, perhaps the team that forged episodes one through three was not the team that continued thereafter. But even that does not forgive the sins of a plot so bare, a plot so thinly scraped over too much bread.
There was nothing there.
My personal enjoyment of the show probably wasn’t helped much by the fact Westworld dropped during the latter part of my binge. How is one supposed to top that? You don’t, is the answer. But we shouldn’t hold that against Luke Cage. Yes, there is a larger spectrum at play, a standard to be measured against, but first you get graded on your own curve, and Luke Cage couldn’t even live up to its own achievements, let alone the shows in its connected universe. It’s a shame. Netflix is still the top dog but top dogs eventually get lazy, look what happened to AMC. Of course not everything can be great, but don’t expect us to put up with the things that are not. After all, you gave us all this choice. We can get our kicks elsewhere. This grave, you dug for yourself.