Sweet Christmas: Was Luke Cage the moment Marvel/Netflix jumped the shark?
Counting the second season of Daredevil, we’re now four seasons into Netflix and Marvel’s much-ballyhooed partnership. At time of writing that meeting of minds has produced two seasons of Daredevil and one season each of Jessica Jones and Luke Cage. With the debuts of Iron Fist, The Defenders and recent bonus addition The Punisher still to come, and more seasons of the three already produced practically guaranteed, it’s a partnership that looks set to run and run.
Netflix may guard their viewing figures only slightly less jealousy than Warwick Davis in a green costume guarded his pot o’ gold, but critics have been all but universal in their praise of the shows aired to date. This is a lot more than can be said of the troubled marriage between the more mainstream ABC and their stuttering Agents of SHIELD, currently on its 274th reinvention as Ghost Rider: We Promise to Shoot Nicholas Cage If He Comes within a Mile of the Set.
Personally, however, I’m growing a little concerned.
I thoroughly enjoyed Daredevil. At the time it came out I had no great beef with the Ben Affleck movie version – geek sacrilege, I know, but it’s very easy now with the benefit of how mainstream and comparatively sophisticated comic book superhero movies have become to look back on the efforts of those late-nineties, early-noughties entries such as Daredevil or even the first Raimi Spider-Man and find them a little gauche, but to my mind it’s a bit like moaning that the Max Fleischer Superman cartoons didn’t feature enough same-sex couples.
Regardless, the Netflix Daredevil was something of a mini-revelation. Infantile as it sounds, there was a guilty thrill to watching an honest-to-goodness superhero TV show where the characters could say words like ‘shit’. The action choreography was superb, and the hallway fight scene created a genuine geekgasm watercooler moment.
Jessica Jones was even more impressive. B-list though he may be, Matt Murdock carried at least a flicker of name recognition to the average non comic-book reader. Jessica Jones overcame the obstacle of obscurity and created a series that was rivetingly adult, massively aided by David Tennant’s effortless magnetic charisma as Kilgrave. Marvel’s ‘villain problem’ has been well documented, but even in a rather curtailed field, Kilgrave was easily the most compelling onscreen Marvel antagonist since Tom Hiddlestone’s Loki.
Going into the second season of Daredevil, as far as I was concerned Marflix (Netvel?) were two-for-two. But it was here that my concerns were born. Much has been said about Jon Bernthal’s performance as Frank Castle and I completely agree with the plaudits and the decision to give him his own series, but here’s the thing; I think he kinda already did have his own series, and it was Daredevil season 2.
Compared to his portrayal of a man broken by tragedy and completely unwilling to compromise in his brutal view of how to ensure criminals never sinned again, Charlie Cox and rest of the Daredevil cast faded a little. The show seemed entirely unsure what to do with Foggy Nelson and had him irritatingly oscillate between being okay with his best friend’s nocturnal vigilante activities and threatening to quit over them.
In order to shine a light on all things DD when Frank wasn’t gobbling up the screen, Elektra was introduced and again, there wasn’t anything particularly compelling about her portrayal, her sado-masochistic relationship with Matt or her arc. The sooner Daredevil introduces Bullseye – the closest thing the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen has to a Batman / Joker dynamic – or springs Kingpin from the clink to adapt Frank Miller’s seminal “Born Again” run, the better.
It was also here that I first noticed my biggest criticism of these Marflix shows – their pacing. The nature of Netflix’s “binge an entire season” commissioning model is both a huge strength and a massive potential drawback. For years I’ve complained when US shows I liked which aired on regular networks or cable were taken off air for weeks at a time, pre-empted for the Olympics or Elections or just to let the production schedule catch up.
It’s a somewhat chaotic state of affairs that can result in mini-finales sprinkled throughout a season; Agents of SHIELD, for example, knew they were going off-air for up to 8 weeks at a time (a decision which led to the commissioning of the much-missed Agent Carter to fill the gap) and so made sure to ramp up the action to tempt audiences to come back.
Marflix shows, by stark contrast, know devotees will likely binge the entire season in the first week of release, or at worst the first month, with most people consuming two or three episodes a night. It’s a comfort blanket that in my view has begun to negatively affect the writing process. I didn’t mind so much with Jessica Jones, which I enjoyed more as a sort of character drama about PTSD and overcoming horrific abuse than a slap-bang-wallop superhero action show, so the relative slow pace of episodes seemed sort of fitting.
Where it did jar, however, was in Daredevil season 2. As a thought experiment, at the conclusion of each episode of the season I would try to think back and list the significant events that had occurred. All too often it appears as though the show is treading water, moving its characters around, keeping an eye on the clock that said the season had exactly 13 episodes to run, not an episode more, not an episode less. It struck me that the season-long plot of the Hand, Frank Castle and Matt’s love travails with Karen and Elektra could have comfortably fit into 7-8 episodes. Overall, though, I enjoyed the season and I would have still said Marflix was three-for-three. Just.
Then, like one of his big unbreakable fists, along comes Luke Cage and shatters that 100% record.
I enjoyed Mike Colter’s intro in Jessica Jones. His depiction of Luke as a man aware of his powers but unwilling to draw attention to them was a perfect setup for his own show – an extended pilot hidden within Jessica Jones itself. Like Jessica, in terms of the public consciousness Luke Cage is firmly C-list superhero material, but his importance as a black superhero – particularly with race relations Stateside so fractious right now – can’t be underestimated.
Sweet Christmas, though, was Luke Cage ever slow.
I couldn’t figure out what kind of show it wanted to be. It clearly wasn’t a balls-out kung-fu action-fest like Daredevil was or (you would presume) Iron Fist will be, so was it more a character study like Jessica Jones? Maybe. But if so, who was it a character study of? Luke? He starts the series a decent man and he more or less finishes it as a decent man, albeit one more prepared to step up and take his place as a ‘street level hero’. Misty? Clare? Mariah?
I can’t go any further without discussing what happens midseason, so you can consider this your spoiler warning. About halfway through, Mariah’s character shockingly clubs Cottonmouth – up until then the series’ Big Bad – to death, and as a replacement we get Diamondback. Ballsy as that move was, even at the time I was regretful. Mahershala Ali’s Cottonmouth was a complex character with an oddly infectious habit of bursting into Eddie Murphy style shit-eating laughter at things only he found amusing.
In his place, we got Diamondback – Bible-quoting, moustache-twirling, tie-the-girl-to-the-tracks villainy that all but came with its own Bumper Book of Clichés. In one fell swoop the show went from being about the forces of genuine progressiveness (as brought to life vividly by “Pops”) vs pseudo-progress in a black neighbourhood, to being a hideously overwrought Wagnerian brotherly revenge drama with passages of dialogue so baffling that I didn’t know whether to cringe, laugh, or do both.
Genuinely interesting character drama centring around rebuilding the much-needed “Switzerland” of the barbershop and re-establishing Pops legacy was almost forgotten in favour of an extended road trip for Luke and Clare and numerous interminable scenes of inter-criminal jockeying between Diamondback and his spookily young-Adam-Sandler lookalike no1 henchman, Shades.
Whereas a year ago I was disappointed to discover that the Marflix mini-Avengers “crossover” season of The Defenders was only set to receive an 8 episode run, now I’m positively delighted. Perhaps with a shortened season there will be a greater focus on tighter plots, heightened action, and less of the sort of episode Luke Cage offered up where Luke and an injured Misty hid in a basement for the better part of half an hour.
I hope I’m wrong, but Luke Cage was the moment the Marflix honeymoon period ran out. Here’s hoping Iron Fist can put the franchise back on track.