Welcome back to a feature I’m doing this summer called “The Road to The Defenders.” The concept is pretty simple. Between now and August I am going to be watching the Netflix MCU shows a second (or third) time through in the build up to the monumental team up hitting Netflix on August 18th. I won’t be reviewing the shows per se, more just reflecting on the way the episodes feel with the full scope of the first two and a half years of the project now in view. In particular, I want to explore what feels different in retrospect from the first viewing. For those who haven’t watched these shows yet, I will give a SPOILER WARNING that I’ll be talking about the shows without concern for revealing anything that happens in the story lines. This week we are looking at Luke Cage. If you would like to catch up, scroll through The Defenders tag on the site.
The second half of Luke Cage is difficult to evaluate. Given the overall quality of the show and in particular the first few episodes, it feels wrong to complain about the back end. But no MCU property is as uneven as this particular show. For all of the ways the first few episodes are great, the back half is a real mess. A lot of this has been blamed on the matter of the villain switch about halfway through. I think I’m in the minority, but I actually think that Cheo Hodari Coker and the writers made the right call there, and the reason why is also the reason why Cage is such a hard property to develop.
The problem with Cottonmouth is that despite the incredible, award worthy performance of Mahershala Ali, he was never a threat to Luke. In the middle of the season, there is a predictable and annoying pattern where Cottonmouth makes some threats at Luke, Luke laughs because he is bullet proof, and then nothing happens. Cornell can’t shoot Luke and Luke won’t harm Cornell. So they just stare at each other and look cross and then leave the room. It gets tedious fast. The show required a physical threat and thus a villain like Diamondback had to come along. There had to be someone who made Luke feel vulnerable. So for all the complaints, I think that the change was necessary.
The other main bright spot of the back end is the standoff at Harlem’s Paradise. Again, the key to this show is to make Luke vulnerable. Since you can’t cut him or blow him up or shoot him, the tension must resolve around something that matters to him. The standoff brings two of those in play. First, his friends are in danger. You can’t shoot Luke but you can shoot Misty or Claire. Second, his reputation is vulnerable. This is such a salient point, particularly given the larger cultural issues around race that the show deals with. While Luke may be a hero and may be powerful, he still can do nothing to protect his name when he is slandered, set up, and publically shamed for things he didn’t do. It is no accent that this character has to deal with false incarceration. The theme furthers the political tone of the show in a powerful way and helps the viewer feel like Luke has something to lose.
Sadly, that is most of the good material in the back half. The problems are manifold, but in the end, it comes down to just sloppiness. That’s a harsh way to say it, but so much of the show feels poorly thought through. For example, there is a sequence around Scarfe’s last day where even basic time and editing issues are obviously just ignored. Scarfe comes to the barbershop around sunset telling Luke he has some incriminating material in his apartment. Luke walks down the street toward the apartment, heroically silhouetted against a setting sun. The scene then cuts to Misty staking out the apartment, in full daylight! Luke breaks in, gets the info, and escapes. He then returns to Scarfe and Claire in the barbershop, and its night time. The whole scene is meant to play out over a few hours (Scarfe is bleeding out), but the setting goes from dusk, to midday, to night. Now, this may seem like a small thing, but it’s the perfect metaphor for all kinds of short sighted mistakes and lack of attention to detail in the back half of the season. I’ve got a list of half a dozen things like this, but we can just suffice it to say that some of the story elements are not very tight.
The “Judas Bullet” was a bit of deus ex machina storytelling for me. A core rule of the universe is that the hero is bullet proof, yet here is a bullet that can pierce his skin. Why? Aliens! More concerning is the unhealthy, ridiculous focus on it from the villains. Cottonmouth sees it and HAS to have it. Shades tells him the price and he scoffs at how expensive it is. In my head I say, “Why don’t you just poison his food or toss him into the ocean?” Immediately there after Mariah walks in and says, “You could just poison him or drown him.” Problem solved! Free to cheap solutions to the problem. But nope, Cottonmouth ignores her and continues to pursue the multimillion dollar bullet, instead of a box of rat poison. This makes zero sense. The only reason to go about it this way is it connects to Diamondback which connects to another subplot and it all has to happen in order to make the season thirteen episodes long. It’s poor storytelling. And the saddest part is that Mariah’s thoughts are more compelling. The comics where Luke has a heart problem and the surgeons can’t operate because of his skin are heart pounding. Instead, viewers got some more gun fights and explosions.
Another sore point for me is the trip down to Georgia. The mad scientist bit feels like an old b-movie sci-fi schtick and it is not endearing. It just feels poorly written. Claire is less a maverick and more reckless with Luke’s life. The soundtrack here becomes terribly distracting as it draws attention to the b-movie feel. It all just crosses the line from homage to parody. Also, the stuff about shellfish and molecular structure all just feels like a case of answering a question no one wanted answered. He has unbreakable skin, that’s enough. We don’t need pseudo-biology to back it up. The reveals about Luke’s past makes him seem like something of a dolt too. Apparently, the entire world knew his dad was messing around with the secretary who had a son out of wedlock (Luke practically walked in on it), and yet he doesn’t consider this until he’s being shot into a dumpster? The whole episode feels like an extra arc added in order to extend to the episodes to fit the series order.
Looking forward, the combination of Shades and Mariah should make for a great second season. They are both smart and cunning. Many didn’t feel like Shades did enough, but I found him magnetic in performance. I always wanted to know what was going on behind those glasses. What was the next play. Something about the scene where he helps Mariah clean up after the murder of Cottonmouth is so unsettling. He’s clearly killed before, he’s thought through how to do it well, and the situation doesn’t seem to raise his blood pressure one bit. Given that Cage’s powers have such a physicality about them, pairing with a villain who’s ability is largely intellectual is a great match. (See Kilgrave and Jessica Jones for a similar dynamic.) Also, the tension of a Luke Cage season is well served by the politics of the street and Mariah’s reputation versus Luke’s. It should be great.
Only about 12 days until The Defenders comes to Netflix! In all liklihood, Iron Fist will be a one and done in this series. If you enjoyed these retrospectives also check out the MCU Exchange Podcast, where we’ve been ranking the various seasons of the MCU TV shows and doing little looks back on them.