— By Carly Twehous —
In case you’ve been living under a rock for the past few years or in case you’re one of the four remaining American citizens without a Netflix account, Marvel has been creating an empire for the small screen, starring everyone’s favorite vigilantes of Hell’s Kitchen. Luke Cage and the preceding Jessica Jones and Daredevil serve as the prequels to Marvel’s Defenders: a superhero mash-up protecting about twenty blocks of Western Manhattan from drug lords and the Chinese mafia, rather than dealing with Avenger-level alien invasion mayhem.
The Defenders… Well, they’re small scale, but they deal more with everyday evil and a more complex moral ambiguity than the Avengers ever could, simply due to the hard truth of name recognition. Further, although the Marvel Cinematic Universe brilliantly provided us with individual origin-story movies leading up to The Avengers, each member of the Defenders has their own TV series that allows for more complex storytelling, more ups and downs, and a healthy dash of harsh reality that’s seldom seen on the IMAX screen.
In theory, Marvel’s Defenders, which drops on Netflix later this year, has had every opportunity to be brilliant: a great ensemble cast with pre-established and developed characters, a fantastic world in which to operate, and, if we’re lucky, some name-drops and vague connections to both the comics and the MCU to keep the die-hard fans’ brains reeling with theories and speculations of what comes next.
That being said, the success of Marvel’s Defenders hinges entirely on the success of its prequels. Season One of Daredevil was brilliant, by all counts. Season Two got a little rocky with the over-emphasis on the Elektra storyline, but was almost completely redeemed by the Punisher. Jessica Jones certainly had its sins, but its overall characterization of the title character was entertaining, especially in contrast to David Tennant’s bone-chilling performance as Killgrave.
Luke Cage? Well, it had its moments, but I’m not entirely sure it completely lived up to the standards set by its predecessors.
Luke Cage, for those who aren’t aware, possesses superhuman strength and unbreakable skin. He’s basically Superman, but without the tights and weakness to green alien rocks. Comparatively, however, Luke Cage has much more of a heart, a compelling backstory, and is definitely not the impervious Superman Boy Scout. That is, at least in the source material.
This particular incarnation of Luke Cage was introduced in Jessica Jones as her on-again, off-again partner in crime-fighting and friend with benefits. Frankly, his introduction in that show did nothing to aid his believability as a “hero” nor did it live up to how he’s characterized in the comics. Luke Cage in Jessica Jones served mainly as a 6’3” incarnation of Jessica’s habitual brokenness.
Instead of developing his character further in his own series, Luke Cage assumed the audience was familiar enough with the character and jumped right into a new story, with only vague references to both his time with Jessica and his shady past. It gives absolutely no proper context to his motivations and, as such, his character comes off as a bit one-sided and bland. The story, too, is by the book, with no unforeseeable twists: status quo, murdered father figure, greedy, one-off bad guy, and a hero that’s perhaps a bit too reluctant to actually be considered a hero. Unfortunately, Luke Cage adopts almost all of Superman’s sins: a man on the fringe of society, so completely impervious that the writers struggle to come up with some reason why he won’t just snap the villain’s neck, and, ultimately, a very unsatisfactory answer as to why he didn’t.
Further—because, if we’re honest, comparison to the preceding Marvel Netflix shows is inevitable—Luke Cage lacked a certain flavor of moral ambiguity and dichotomy of hero to villain that was so prevalent in both Jessica Jones and Daredevil.
Of course, there are far worse things out there and Luke Cage wasn’t all bad. It very accurately portrays the seedy underbelly of poverty-stricken New York neighborhoods. The cinematography—particularly during the monologue given by Mahershala Ali, in which he “steps into his crown”—is powerful and masterfully executed. And, of course, the vastly entertaining Claire Temple—the nurse who seemingly patches up every vigilante in Hell’s Kitchen—is never too dull to watch on screen.
Luke Cage, as a standalone series, did not deliver on its premise nor did it live up to the standards set by its predecessors. Given the incredible source material and prospect of his eventual reappearance in The Defenders, it’s really quite tragic that this particular series didn’t land right on its feet.