Why “Marvel’s Luke Cage” on Netflix is So Disappointing

Full disclosure, I loved superhero comics way before superheroes were ever cool, so Luke Cage is not a new character to me. He has had his fans, but the truth is that his development beyond the blaxploition origin is not so far in the past, comics-wise.

He was an obscure and unimportant enough character that he was allowed to be cast in a less-than-sterling light in the Alias comic stories of Jessica Jones, whose popularity would eventually make her series the second of Netflix’s string of new superhero shows. Jessica’s character and stories were complex and less cartoonish than many superhero comics have been, and Luke was upgraded into a more complex character through his interaction with her. This is part of the reason his show has ended up being rather disappointing.

The Jessica Jones tv show parallels much of the Alias comic, so a live-action version of Luke appears in her show. She has had only one season so far, but it was great. I think anyone who reads Alias would have to acknowledge Krysten Ritter is probably a bit prettier than would be really accurate, but it’s tv — kind of, everybody is pretty. Every main character, at least. Regardless, Netflix Jessica is well written and well acted, so all the little comics-geek boys and girls out there were understandably stoked.

Jessica Jones followed a Netflix show about another “street level” superhero, Daredevil. That was also a very well-done first season, and has since had a second season that has also been well-received. But, the “street level” aspect is an important one. Preceding these shows have been whole strings of big-budget, action-packed movies with Marvel superheroes. Captain America, Thor, Avengers, etc — and these have been rightfully successful movies. Many of them have been awesome.

The Daredevil movie was much less awesome than the more recent Daredevil television show however, and the “street level” aspect is really the reason for that. Thor is a living god, Captain America is the living embodiment of America, Iron Man illustrates the tension between the promise and the threat of technology, which has never been more immediate and central to our everyday lives than the present moment. There are good reasons to make larger-than-life stories for the larger-than-life themes. Subtlety is a better device to portray Daredevil, because the most interesting thing about Daredevil is Matt Murdoch.

Don’t get me wrong, all the ninja stuff is awesome. The “radar sense” super power is cool, too. Though it does perhaps bear noting that being a blind guy who can almost see is perhaps not quite as showy a power as flying and super-strength, and all that sort of thing. Seriously no disrespect, tho… the thing is, the fact that his power is not exactly the most overwhelming really is part of what makes Daredevil an awesome character. Dude, you’re blind, you’re not bulletproof or anything, you can be shot and cut and even just punched … maybe you want to sit out the whole fighting criminals in dark alleys thing? Nope! Not if you The Man Without Fear!

This brings us back to the point of all this — what is disappointing about the Luke Cage tv show? Well, Spoilers Ahead, for anyone who might care. There are thirteen episodes in the season, and we will jump ahead to the end of episode 10. All of the major player have taken to the field. We have our hero, his backstory, his arch-nemesis, his allies, and all the stakes in the balance of this contest between good and evil. It’s a superhero story, so it’s always a question of good versus evil.

Luke has returned from being mortally wounded. He’s grounded and prepared to do whatever he must to make sure the bad guys don’t win. It turns out that his nemesis, who he thought was just his best friend who betrayed him, is in fact his half-brother, who had reasons (however twisted) to actually hate him. But, for one — it seems a little odd that he never wondered about why he was betrayed, before his friend/brother returned to try and kill him, after he developed super powers.

His brother doesn’t have super powers. He’s just a crime lord, whose power has come from making and selling super-weapons that can kill super-people. Well, he also is super-great at just killing anyone he wants. Because he’s like an ex-special ops soldier or something? Nah. Just because. Hey, how about how he’s come to be a maker of super-weapons? Well, I guess being pissed off at your half-brother can really motivate you.

Luke charges in, and first his brother, then his brother’s men, just unleash an endless hail of bullets at him. Not the super-weapon bullets that can harm him, mind you. Nope, just regular bullets. Because, Luke’s big thing is that he’s bullet-proof, so he’s rushing in to rescue his friend/love interest who came to arrest his brother all by herself with no back-up … following her own dark-night-of-the-soul, coming from this guy disarming and nearly killing her, the first time she met him. He shoots her this time … but, I guess just a flesh wound?

And there’s a huge crowd of bystanders who understandably get freaked out about all of the bullets flying around. What’s disappointing in all of this is that there are no reasons for any of these characters — any of them — to do what they are doing. Okay, the people running for their lives, maybe. But, everyone else, good guys and bad guys, have wandered into this conflict for no discernible reason, beyond the fact that big gun battles are a staple of action movies and shows. This should be some kind of climatic moment, built on the actions and motivations of the characters, after ten episodes of backstory.

But, nah. Pointless gun-battle, instead.

I mean, there are plenty of fighting/action kinds of things happening at the climatic points in Jessica Jones and Daredevil, too … they’re just not nonsensical.

It’s disappointing for Luke Cage because Mike Colter makes a great Luke Cage, and Netflix has produced a number of complex and compelling good guys and bad guys, in the other two shows. I guess this is where the origin and history of the character of Luke Cage unfortunately do him some disservice. The show is taking from his solo origin, and he was really never a particularly great character until he was utilized in stories completely separate from his own.

But, fuck — see if Joss Whedon is bored or something. Pretty sure he could have done better than this if he wrote the whole thing over the course of one drunken evening.

Because this particular Luke Cage … is really so much less than the hero black comics fans deserve.