Why Marvel Netflix shows always run out of ammunition

Luke Cage’s second season, like other Marvel series, has stop-and-start pacing and supporting character arcs that don’t move the main plot forward

MARVEL’S LUKE CAGE: SEASON TWO (multiple directors). All 13 episodes streaming on Netflix Friday (June 22). Rating: NN

Let’s get one thing straight: Luke Cage is a hell of a character, and a great role for Mike Colter. They both deserve a better show.

After a first season that started strong but lost its way after dispatching Mahershala Ali’s charismatic Cottonmouth halfway through, the second season of Marvel’s Luke Cage, which drops on Netflix this Friday (June 22), is floundering. Showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker and his writing staff spend episode after episode circling the minimal plot, filling time with musical numbers, philosophical debates, flashbacks and not one but two episodes where characters are trapped together for extended periods. 

It’s all supposed to pay off with an emotionally shattering ending, and it definitively does not.

But here’s the twist: it might not be their fault.

Those of us who’ve been watching Netflix’s various Marvel series – Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Iron Fist, The Punisher and the team-up show The Defenders – have grown accustomed to the stop-and-start pacing, the season-long plots that drop a twist or major plot point around episode six or seven, the arcs for supporting characters that fill up time without really moving the plot forward. 

It’s a problem inherent with the Netflix episode order, which was based on the broadcast television standard of 13 episodes to a season. And since both Daredevil and Jessica Jones had first seasons where the antagonists (Vincent D’Onofrio’s Kingpin and David Tennant’s Kilgrave, respectively) were as vivid and compelling as the protagonists, that model was set in stone. 

This new season of Luke Cage simply puts those issues into clearer focus. Luke himself appears in maybe two-thirds of the show – a generous estimate, it might be even less than that – so the show can explore this season’s returning villains, Harlem councilwoman turned crime boss Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard) and her weaselly consigliere Shades (Theo Rossi), and the new big bad Bushmaster (Mustafa Shakir), a nigh-indestructible Jamaican heavy bent on claiming Harlem on his own. 

Oh, and Mariah gets to reconnect with her estranged daughter Tilda (Gabrielle Dennis), because this season is also about damaged families. Luke’s estranged father (Reg E. Cathey) returns for a subplot about Luke’s daddy issues – though that thread is dropped abruptly about two-thirds of the way through the season, likely because Cathey was very ill during production. (The actor died of cancer earlier this year.)

And because Marvel likes to tie its Netflix shows together, a few characters wander in from other series. Daredevil’s Foggy Nelson (Elden Henson) turns up to act as Luke’s lawyer in a civil suit, and Luke’s Defenders comrades Danny Rand (Finn Jones) and Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick) drop by for appearances that further develop those characters – and, perhaps not coincidentally, continue the subtle course correction on the awful, awful Iron Fist.

Those scenes matter, because they’re written to matter. You can see the show making the calculation: these characters are valuable properties, and we only have so much time with them, so let’s make it count! Which makes this season even more frustrating: it can work just fine, if it wants to. But so much of Luke Cage is just playing for time somewhere around episode four, I realized that literally every other scene could be dropped without damaging the narrative.

And again, this is a flaw common to most of the Marvel shows. Think of Jeri Hogarth’s subplot in the last season of Jessica Jones, which gave Carrie-Anne Moss some powerful moments but ended up with the character in precisely the same emotional place she was when the season began. At least Luke Cage gives Simone Missick’s dedicated police detective Misty Knight – who lost an arm at the end of The Defenders – some genuine progression with a subplot focused on her recovery and eventual return to ass-kicking. 

Another problem in Luke Cage is its insistence on returning, over and over again, to the splashy Harlem’s Paradise nightclub. On one level, it’s a budgetary decision: comics creators can invent a new location for the cost of pencils and ink, while television producers don’t have that luxury. 

Luke Cage situates about a third of the second season in Harlem’s Paradise because the sets were designed and constructed last season, whether there’s a story to tell there or not. And there really isn’t, which becomes obvious very quickly. Every episode includes at least one long scene where Mariah and Shades are alone together so she can express doubt about their latest plan and he can convince her it will work. (It doesn’t help that Rossi is so one-note in his role that he drags the formidable Woodard down with him.)

The whole endeavour is further undermined by a season-long attempt to reposition Luke Cage on the alignment chart from “lawful good” to… well, something the character just can’t be. It’s based on an intriguing notion: if he can’t be burned, broken or bribed, maybe the only thing that can hurt Luke Cage is Luke Cage himself. But the execution simply doesn’t work.

I stress again that none of this is Colter’s fault. He’s consistently great as Luke Cage, and he has been all along, shining most when he gets a chance to play Luke’s empathy and warmth. (A skills contest early in the season is a particular highlight.)

But as strong as Colter is, he can’t carry a show that keeps pivoting away from him. 

Luke Cage will be back for a third season, because Netflix will keep renewing its Marvel shows as long as they pull eyeballs and keep the fans coming back. I just hope Coker and his team bring the focus back where it matters or just decide to produce a shorter run. 

It’s not TV, it’s Netflix – and eight episodes was plenty for The Defenders, after all.

normw@nowtoronto.com | @normwilner

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