Just last week I wrote a review arguing that Stranger Things really wasn't that good of a show, and judging by a good portion of the comments, I seem to have nothing else to do than ruin the fun of poor, unsuspecting fans. And because I really like giving readers the feeling I would run at them on a sweet summer's day and rip the ice cream cone out of their hands before repainting the window of the nearest car with their melting dessert, I'm about to attack Netflix's Luke Cage.
But no. To be clear, I'm a huge fan of Jessica Jones, and from the minute Mike Colter's Luke Cage appeared in her life, I was counting the days until he'd get to carry his own show. And when I finally dived into Luke Cage, I started out ecstatic — the setting, the characters, the music, everything about Netflix's latest superhero show was so different from what I used to expect from the genre that I didn't waste time telling everyone around me to please start bingeing on Luke Cage.
However, by the time I'd reached the season finale, disappointment took over, like enjoying a delicious sorbet only to find out that the waffle cone tastes stale. (I like ice cream.) So what was it exactly that prevented the show from coming together? Whether you're browsing reviews before deciding to jump in or looking to pinpoint what exactly left you dissatisfied, here's why I felt Luke Cage could have been a much better experience.
Warning: Spoilers from here on out!
- 10 Ways That Marvel's Luke Cage Links With The Wider MCU, Including Avengers, Daredevil And Jessica Jones
- Who's Playing Marvel's Luke Cage? 5 Things You Need To Know About Mike Colter
The First Half Of Luke Cage Is Extremely Promising
There's no denying that there are a lot of great things about Luke Cage: the abounding Harlem references, Colter's calm yet boiling manner, and especially the incredible number of live music performances that perfectly match the show's rhythm and soul. Most importantly, it's also a show about a bulletproof black man in the age of the Black Lives Matter movement; a show about the black experience when it's still extremely underrepresented in the comic book world. If you're hoping for more praise, however, I'd strongly advise you to jump to the countering version of this review:
There are a few classic mishaps in the structure of the story, with the same lengthy scenes that made me wish Daredevil and Jessica Jones had only been eight episodes per season. A few moves don't make sense either, such as the time it takes Diamondback's team to realize Claire has been gone for much longer than she should be during the never-ending hostage situation in Harlem's Paradise. But the main flaw of Luke Cage is more subtle than one scene that could have been done differently — it leaves you hanging, because it tries to be too many things at once.
Luke Cage Fails Its Great Characters By Giving Them No Direction
Luke Cage sets up great characters: Pop, the street gangster turned lovable neighborhood protector; Cornell a.k.a. Cottonmouth, the seemingly fearless, coldhearted mob chief who's actually got a fragile artist in him; Mariah Dillard, the corrupt politician who swings between her grand plan for Harlem and her questionable schemes in the dark. But while the big plot twist, where Dillard snaps and gruesomely murders her cousin, was chilling and unexpected, it was also the moment when the characters' paths went from defined to blurry, and the show lost the majority of the good stuff it had set up.
Indeed, Cottonmouth's introduction and involvement in the show seems a little useless. He goes from pulling the strings and being the main instigator in the war against Luke Cage to having suddenly disappeared, only to be replaced by a bigger, badder villain — arguably two, if you count Dillard alongside Diamondback. Other than the obvious "not all street gangsters started out as bad guys" message Cornell's backstory is supposed to send, his presence in the show has little impact on the overall story.
That's also because Dillard's evolution is far from convincing; had she been either shaken or made properly evil by Cornell's assassination, he would have been an essential part of her development. Instead, she's already more or less with the bad guys from the start, because her scenes only show her worrying about being unmasked. Although she's not a likable character at first, her murderous tendency is still surprising, but doesn't really change her that much.
Same thing for Reva, who even in picture form used to be Luke Cage's ray of sunshine. When Luke finds out that she'd not only been aware of, but involved with the experiment that gave him his superpowers, the only thing he does is smash the walls of an old barn, and we never really get an idea of Reva's true nature. If Luke was still in the process of finding out, we'd tag along, but when he seems to have even just slightly moved on, it's frustrating to leave her story hanging in the air.
I could add Scarfe, whom Misty mentions never did anything with the extra money he got from Cornell, and how there's no real moral to his character's story, but you probably get my point: Luke Cage sets up compelling arcs, but loses them somewhere along the way.
Cage Might Be Corny, But The Show's Even Worse
One of the reasons the characters don't get the conclusion or direction they deserve could be that the show spends so much time telling us things we already know. Take Misty, for whom we need to understand that, one) she needs to be in control, and two) she's really shaken when she doesn't have that control. The police station's psychologist literally makes her say it out loud, but in case we didn't get it, she loses her cool with a witness not once, but twice. We already get that the events have such an impact on her that she's struggling to remain professional when she jumps at Claire, so when she reveals Candace's death to Dillard, it just feels like a really stupid and out-of-character mistake.
The show's tendency to spell things out for you is even more blatant in the finale, not long after Method Man showed up to sum up what was at stake in Cage's battle against the police. Luke, who probably talks the least in the entire show, actually gives a little speech that's supposed to serve as a conclusion to weeks of bloody gang fights and countless losses. But nothing really happens; Dillard's still where she is, her political opponent is dead and her gangster boss in the wind; Luke is going back to finish his story as Carl Lucas, but Harlem doesn't really get its grand finale.
By Focusing Only On Its Hero, Luke Cage Loses Sight Of The Community That Shaped Him
That's the biggest failure of the season: Though Luke Cage was initially all about Harlem, it ends like a story about Luke Cage — but there's no point to his character without the context. Toward the end, where is the community? The first episodes gave us plenty of scenes with Pop and his protégés, showing us the struggles of young and idle men like Chico. We started to get a sense of Cornell's entourage, remembering names like Zip and Sugar. We got more background on Shades' involvement, and his common past with Luke.
Yet the season's over and I'm still not sure whether Zip was anything more than one of the many gun-wielding thugs. Ivy magically reappears on TV to sing Luke's praises because he brought her father's ring back, but we have no idea if that brought her and her father closer together. Although the heads of the various Latin American mafias all die, we feel no impact and see no consequences of their disappearance.
Luke Cage's Boring Villain Takes The Spotlight Away From Harlem And The Real Stakes Of The Show
There's a culprit responsible for shoving the community in the background of the show, too: Diamondback, a.k.a. Willis Stryfer, the villain in the shadows who becomes boring as soon as he steps out of them. The mystery and fear surrounding his name when he's mentioned in front of Cornell, or when we hear that he's about to show up like the boss who seemingly rules it all, start to fade when the plot focuses on his past with Luke. Apart from the fact that he walks in on a meeting to shoot half the attendants, the show makes no effort to explain what exactly he controls on the streets of Harlem, or how.
Instead, we're getting plenty of in-your-face, in-case-you-didn't-get-it flashbacks that make the last few episodes all about the two Lucas brothers. Honestly, with his childhood trauma and crazy worship of the Bible, Diamondback is quite a boring villain who induces a strong sense of déjà vu; the worst, though, is that he takes the spotlight away from what Luke Cage seemed to be all about. Luke stepped in for Pop, who himself believed in the power of Harlem's community, yet we spend most of the last third with a familial tale that isn't even rooted in Harlem. The initial stake was to get rid of the crime that plagues the streets, but the finale is telling us that of the two evils, Diamondback was actually just a crazy man, and the other one, the system and the NYPD, can't be beat anyway.
Granted, the first season of Luke Cage needed to give us his origin story, but between the crime show vibes, the political discussion and Cage's personal secrets, the show feels too much like it's trying to be everything at once. Especially when we already knew the character from Jessica Jones, the sudden focus on his past is an underwhelming conclusion to his struggle to find his place in Harlem's community and in the world as a whole. How ironic is it that Luke Cage's first season ends with a trip back to his old life when its main character's motto is "Always forward"?