We originally met Luke Cage in Jessica Jones where he was tending bar in Hell’s Kitchen, the man with unbreakable skin. Much like Superman this presents a problem for the writers: how do you generate any kind of danger when the character is invulnerable. Unlike Superman’s writers, who just said “fuck it, more punching”, Luke Cage’s writers tried to find a way around it. By building Luke Cage’s personal relationships, as well as his relationship with Harlem at large, they could generate tension by threatening his friends and home.
Unfortunately this attempt is let down by rather flat and uninteresting characters, and too much focus on a single barbershop rather than the neighborhood at large. So then they said “fuck it, let’s add some alien bullets that we can shoot at Luke Cage” and called it a day.
I still enjoyed Luke Cage, and compared to your average TV show it’s still a good bit of entertainment, but when compared to the first season of Daredevil and Jessica Jones it falls short… by quite a distance.
A Storytelling Review
Luke Cage starts off slowly with Luke laying low, working as an assistant in a barbershop in Harlem working for a man named Pops. Now I thought Pops had the potential to be a truly unique character. Whereas I thought Pops was merely a reference to his age and paternal attitude, it’s revealed that it’s a nickname based off the sound his fists made when hitting someone and that he was once a feared gangster in the neighborhood. That’s a pretty dark backstory for someone I originally took for the “kindly old man who dies” trope. Yet Luke Cage tragically glosses over what could have been a unique character, and leaves many unanswered questions. Why did he leave the gangster life? How did he come to own the barbershop? What’s with the swear jar?
This glossing over of important characterizations is one of the crippling problems with Luke Cage, because it happens with pretty much every character not named Luke. In fact, even Luke has a hard time feeling real.
The result of not spending enough time on establishing the characters is that none of it really makes an emotional impact on the audience. I knew Pops was going to die the moment I saw him, it was practically tattooed on his forehead, but that doesn’t mean his death should have been so… meaningless. Yes his death serves as the catalyst for Luke Cage’s revenge, but for me, I didn’t feel anything for Pop’s death and I should have. I should have been angry or sad, preferably both, I should have been thirsting for vengeance.
Everything I felt when Fisk strangled Ben Urich with his bare hands in the first season of Daredevil.
But if the protagonists and supporting cast felt shallow, they were the Marianas Trench of characters compared to the tide pools of the villains.
Perhaps I’ve become spoiled by amazing villains like Fisk and Kilgrave, but the villains of Luke Cage are some of the most boring you’ll ever encounter. Cottonmouth had some potential to be a sympathetic villain with the reveal of his past, becoming a murderer at the insistence of his crazy aunt/adoptive mother. A musician trapped in the life of a thug could make for a damn compelling story, but unfortunately they don’t reveal Cottonmouth’s history until midway through the season and he’s killed off shortly afterward.
Worse yet, his musical talent isn’t shown very often. He plays the piano a few times, but really if he’s such a talented musician, Luke Cage should have spent more time showing it to us. A couple of scenes where Cottonmouth plays a beautiful piece of music on the piano and giving his henchmen orders would have gone a long way. Juxtapose the beauty of his musical talent against the ugliness of his vicious, gangster personality. Instead they tell us about his musical talents instead of showing it, with his Uncle painstakingly spouting exposition about how Cottonmouth could go to Juliard. Unfortunately Cottonmouth dies almost immediately afterward.
I understand what they were shooting for here, they wanted us to feel sympathy for Cottonmouth just before his end.
In most stories we’re rooting for the villain to get his comeuppance. Yet one of the best ways to emotionally toy with your audience is to humanize the villain, or even redeem the villain, so that when the end comes there’s a tragic angle to it. This was done with Darth Vader at the end of Return of the Jedi, Inspector Javier in Les Miserable, and countless others. It’s an old trick and an effective one. In fact Luke Cage tries to pull this twice, once with Cottonmouth and once with a corrupt cop.
The trouble in this case is that Cottonmouth just isn’t characterized well enough to feel much sympathy for him, the show waits way too long to reveal his tragic backstory and though it’s hinted and foreshadowed extensively, that’s not enough to redeem him. Throughout the show I had a hard time understanding Cottonmouth’s motivations for… well much of anything. While obviously a villain is there to solely provide the protagonist with an obstacle, I should never actually feel that that’s the case. I should feel like Cottonmouth has other goals and objectives outside the story. That would have made him feel more real.
But instead of that they gave us someone who’s only defining characteristic is his extremely awkward laugh, a laugh that tells us he’s trying to channel the Joker way too hard.
What made Fisk a great villain wasn’t just because he had a unique way of speaking that made for some truly spine-chilling speeches; Fisk was a great villain because he was treated as a character first and villain second. Fisk was passionate, and I count his love affair with Vanessa as one of finest romances I’ve ever seen; Fisk was righteous, or at least thought of himself as such, he wanted to deliver people from poverty and help the city he truly loved; Fisk was ruthless, he was so convinced of his own righteousness he was willing to do anything to accomplish his goals. We saw the humanity in Fisk and that made him feel real.
And if you haven’t seen this speech, you definitely need it in your life.
By contrast, Cottonmouth feels more like a prop than a character, an inanimate obstacle to be overcome rather than a character to be dealt with.
Unfortunately as weak as Cottonmouth is as a character, he feels like a character from Breaking Bad compared to Diamondback. Diamondback is a complete cipher. He’s not introduced until the tail end of the show and when he does he’s over the top, even when compared to Cottonmouth’s over the top performance and that’s saying something. Throughout the show Diamondback is made out to be this powerful criminal kingpin, someone on the level of Fisk or at least near to that level. Everyone fears him. And yet we never actually see anything resembling a powerbase for Diamondback.
With Fisk, great pains were taken to show his organization’s strength; his political allies, his legal shelter companies, and his illegal operations. Diamondback gets none of that. In fact when he finally arrives in person, the first thing he does is take over Cottonmouth’s operation just so he can shore up his goon-count to take on Luke Cage. He then hides in warehouses owned by Cottonmouth because he apparently doesn’t own any of his own safehouses in the neighborhood he supposedly runs.
This is especially problematic when Diamondback starts pulling out advanced technology, presumably straight from his ass. How does he have access to this technology? Where did he get the funds to purchase them? The Judas Bullet, the only bullet that can harm Luke Cage, is made out to be this incredibly expensive item. The price of just one Judas Bullet makes Cottonmouth do a double take, and yet Diamondback fires these things off like they come in big boxes at the local Walmart. Later he arms the local police with Judas Bullets, albeit a cheaper version, and he seemingly does this in a matter of hours. How did he do that? Does he have a massive industrial base where he can manufacture weapons on demand?
Because if he does, that absolutely needed to be elaborated on! Instead the show asks us to take it at face value, and I’ve come to expect better from Marvel TV shows.
Perhaps the worst part is the reveal of Diamondback’s backstory; he’s Luke Cage’s half-brother. None of this was foreshadowed, Luke barely even mentions his father and he never refers to having a good friend as a young boy. It comes seemingly out of nowhere and because of that it lacks any emotional resonance, and in fact makes the whole thing seem trite. And because I couldn’t really bring myself to care about any of this, their final battle really felt like an anticlimax to me.
Of course most of these problems can be traced back to one fundamental flaw: trying to frontload too many future plotlines into the show. This problem began to pop up in Jessica Jones, with some random cop Kilgrave mind controls turning out to be some secret super soldier. He was obviously being set up to appear as a villain in the future and that was made blatantly obvious by the way the show’s pacing came to a lurching halt every time he showed up. Then of course there was the foreshadowing of an evil corporation who may or may not be responsible for giving Jessica Jones superpowers.
In Jessica Jones these problems were distracting, in Luke Cage it’s crippling. First of all, rather than simply telling us why Luke Cage is in prison and maybe add some actual depth to him, they coyly dance around it. They spend quite a while showing us the illegal medical experiments at the private prison where Luke is kept; no doubt this was for planting seeds establishing a big overarching nemesis that will run across all of Marvel’s Netflix series. Then there’s the doctor that helps Luke escape prison and who eventually becomes his lover, they only hint at her death and late in the show we find out she was complicit in the illegal research being conducted. The origin of the Judice bullets are another story thread that will probably link back to the same evil corporation. Then there’s the growing suspicion and resentment towards superheroes. The list goes on and on.
The first season of Luke Cage spent so much time setting up future plotlines that it forgot to tell a decent story to string it all together. Nothing in the above list is elaborated upon, nothing meaningful related to the audience, no payoff. It’s all just “to be continued” and with so many story threads trailing off into nothing… we’re left feeling unsatisfied.
Rather than use the first season of Luke Cage to introduce a dozen different plots, it should have focused on the truly important story: Luke Cage becoming the protector of Harlem.
Because the best parts of Luke Cage are when he’s using his powers to help random people.
I found him helping the Asian couple keep their restaurant far more satisfying than the entire final fight with Diamondback, and stopping the robbery at the corner store made him feel more like a hero than any of the convoluted plots to take down Cottonmouth. If Luke Cage had tightened its focus on helping the neighborhood, coming to accept his role as its protector, and had him go head to head with Cottonmouth alone, we would have had a much better show. Unfortunately as it is, Luke Cage spreads its focus too thinly for any of the storylines to have any real impact.
There’s a lot of potential here, it could go on to be a show just as good as the first season of Daredevil.
But if Marvel continues using these characters as mere launchpads from which to launch yet more TV shows and franchises, then the foundational characters will simply wither and crumble away, and the whole Cinematic Universe will come crashing down.