Season 1, Episode 1 – Moment of Truth
Marvel television has been very, very different from its feature film counterparts for some years now. Excluding the network-friendly Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and the short-lived Agent Carter series, Marvel’s superheroes on the small screen have been given more freedom than any of its big budget blockbusters despite being in the same brand. Daredevil is a dark, moody action crime series and Jessica Jones tackles heavy topics in its plot lines like rape and drug addiction. All of these, of course, are topped by an almost excessive amount of violence and gore that can rival the ones seen on HBO.
Luke Cage is no different and continues the trend of being strictly for adults when it comes to superheroes on Netflix. More than that, Luke Cage continues the trend of not really being a superhero show at all. At least, not in the sense that most people are familiar with. As the superhero genre gets more saturated each year, standing out becomes increasingly important. One way that studios have been doing this is by putting super-powered characters in a plotline that doesn’t follow the usual superhero tropes.
The Captain America sequels are a good example. Free from focusing on the title character’s origin story, both The Winter Soldier and Civil War are more like political action thrillers that happen to have superheroes in it. Guardians of the Galaxy is more of a sci-fi action/adventure film than a superhero film. Jessica Jones is an investigative crime/mystery drama that has more similarities with Law & Order than Supergirl.
But where Daredevil and Jessica Jones managed to balance their superhero roots with gripping drama and unexpected storylines, Luke Cage seems to be actively rejecting the “superhero” part of its identity. This is, of course, plainly stated by Luke Cage himself, where he seems to be doing just fine keeping his head down and focusing on his everyday job of cleaning up at a barbershop than fighting the bad guys. It isn’t until the end of the episode where we see him finally take action and make a difference (and only after a clumsily-written scene where he remembers some inspiring words from his deceased wife).
The problem with this approach is that it looks like Luke Cage sees helping out as a burden instead of what ultimately drives him. Whereas Daredevil makes it his life’s mission (often to the detriment of himself and those around him) to fix crime in Hell’s Kitchen and Jessica Jones strives to stop Kilgrave from victimizing others in the same way that she was victimized, watching Luke Cage finally take down the bad guys is like watching someone do their chores.
I’m not asking that every heroic lead character should be eager to help others. There is great conflict and drama that comes with lead characters who are hesitant in helping others for whatever reason. We root for Jessica Jones not because she’s an idealistic heroine who wants to see evil get vanquished. We root for her because she’s a reluctant heroine who faces Kilgrave despite her own trauma. With Luke Cage, there is a huge disconnect between the show’s main conflict and its lead character. He has next to no personal motivation to get involved and at this point, it’s hard to understand why he even decides to commit himself with the conflict other than because the script told him to (dead wife memories notwithstanding).
It also serves to highlight just how much more interesting the show’s antagonists are. It’s easy to understand why Mike Colter would have trouble rising above the material that his character is given, but it’s incredible just how much more charming and involving both Mahershala Ali and Alfre Woodard are in their respective villainous roles after just spending a few scenes with them. Luke Cage seems like an afterthought at this point because I would much rather follow an entire show centered around the two antagonists than watch Luke Cage get punched or shot in vain by some thugs.