Four episodes into Netflix’s Luke Cage—that’s four 60-minute episodes into a 13-part season—the show finally seems to be done setting its basic story in motion. The titular hero is motivated by the death of his mentor and the proliferation of crime in his neighborhood. Viewers have seen flashbacks explaining the origins of his bulletproof superpowers, and they’ve met the ensemble of heroes and villains around him,. It’s the kind of setup a pilot can accomplish in 42 minutes on network TV. So why do Luke Cage and the other superhero shows in Netflix’s growing catalog take 240 minutes to pull everything together?
When Daredevil premiered on Netflix in April 2015, I praised it as a perfect model for presenting a classic serialized format: the comic book. Rather than cramming a hero’s origin story, a villain’s origin story, a romance, and a climactic battle into the formula of a two-hour movie, the longer-form capabilities of television seemed to suit the grand arcs of superhero comics well, building their case issue by issue—or episode by episode. But the ultimate result has been frustrating. After two seasons of Daredevil, one of Jessica Jones, and now one of Luke Cage, the Netflix model feels fundamentally flawed, encouraging the kind of molasses-slow plotting comic books are designed to eschew. The problem isn’t that these shows are bad, necessarily—Luke Cage is certainly one of the most interesting drama offerings of the year. But they all take far too long to get going, by which point many viewers will have already tuned out.
Part of the problem is that Netflix doesn’t care about viewers tuning out, since its model isn’t just based on rapid binge-watching. The streaming service cares more about subscribers, not viewer data, so if audiences lose interest, they can take as long as they want to catch up on Luke Cage—as long as they keep paying their subscription fee every month. This is a much more freeing creative model than the classic network-TV approach. The latter pits shows against each other in ratings free-for-alls and demands big twists from dramas and a return to the comfortable status quo from comedies to keep people coming back week after week. The network-TV model, which depends on new viewers being able to pick up a series midway through a season, can be the enemy of serialization.
Meanwhile, the longer-form approach lets a show like Luke Cage thrive in its details, with its villains Cottonmouth (beautifully played by Mahershala Ali) and Mariah Dillard (a commanding Alfre Woodard) spouting long, open-ended monologues about the history and future of Harlem to each other. But a comic-book series needs its villains to have real plans and purpose beyond perpetuating crime. Four episodes into Luke Cage, there isn’t much for the show’s hero to fight, just vague, foreboding menace and street-level criminals to bust up.
Daredevil and Jessica Jones were also small-scale tales of heroism centered on Manhattan, and both gave in to many of the same indulgences as Luke Cage. Lengthy flashbacks deepened each hero’s origin and backstory, and supporting members of the ensemble got whole adventures to themselves, even though some of this material felt like a desperate effort pad out a 13-episode season. Daredevil’s second season couldn’t repeat the origin of Matt Murdock’s superpowers, so instead it committed itself to recounting his college years and his romance with the femme fatale Elektra. A lot of this detail was good, but it could have been considerably compressed—none of the Marvel Netflix series, so far, would have lost much by being squeezed into 10 episodes, or even 8.
If Netflix shaved the 60-minute running time down quite a bit, it would likely inspire more economical—and better—storytelling from its shows. Emboldened by the advertising-free revolution of HBO dramas like The Sopranos and The Wire, prestige series have come to see 60 minutes as a standard running time for an episode. As I’ve previously written, this makes binging shows on streaming networks (like Bloodline, Sense8, Orange Is the New Black, and The Path) that much more of a daunting proposition. For comic-book TV, that length feels even more absurd—the typical comic issue runs only 22 pages, so why not divide the story into bite-sized chunks? Luke Cage episodes could easily be 45 minutes long, or even 30.
This approach has worked for other genres. One of the smartest, and most audacious, TV narrative gambles of recent years was the BBC’s 2005 adaptation of Charles Dickens’s Bleak House. Though the series had the trappings of any other Masterpiece Theater costume drama, it aired twice weekly in half-hour chunks, designed to imitate the intense serialization of Dickens’s chapter-by-chapter storytelling. Every episode ended with a shocking twist; the lean format encouraged the show to focus on plot, and it was all the better for it.
Still, despite its languid narrative style, Luke Cage is doing many fascinating things. Its mood and visual aesthetic are as well-honed as the perfectly bleak Jessica Jones; its action scenes, when they arrive, are brutal and swift; and its lead performers are uniformly terrific, most of all Mike Colter as Cage, who wrings endless charisma from his character’s resolute stoicism. The show’s creator, Cheo Hodari Coker, clearly wanted Luke Cage to be more than a typical superhero series—in a wonderful interview with The New Yorker’s Jelani Cobb, he referenced the frequent name-dropping of black authors, artists, and historic figures.
I know that there’s going to be people now that all of a sudden are going to read Donald Goines, they’re going to read Walter Mosley, because of the fact that Luke Cage was talking about it. I think that’s some of the power that you have in television.
Luke Cage certainly has power, and its philosophical intent shines through in its main characters’ frequent speechmaking, its musical interludes, and its vibrant visuals. But as a piece of superhero storytelling, it’s far less impressive (some spoilers to follow). Its best villain is dispatched midway through the season, seemingly for ineffective shock value, and the climactic episodes struggle to fill the void left behind, throwing increasingly uninteresting bad guys into the mix. Cage is sidelined and then kept out of commission late in the season, which reeks of story padding (it’s a trick Jessica Jones also pulled last year); frequent flashbacks serve little purpose, considering Cage has already been thoroughly introduced to audiences (again, in Jessica Jones).
What’s most frustrating of all is that Netflix isn’t getting rid of this approach anytime soon. Daredevil season three, Jessica Jones season two, Iron Fist, and The Punisher are all on their way, and each will follow the same 13-episode structure. With new heroes like Iron Fist, there’ll be hours of backstory to muddle through before viewers arrive at the major plot arc; with spinoff characters like The Punisher, there’ll be retelling of character details audiences may already be well aware of. The only respite may come in the form of The Defenders, a planned crossover series that will unite all the network’s heroes to do battle with some greater evil—over the course of just eight episodes. Who knows? The show might even surprise viewers and explain its villain’s motivations within the first hour. Until then, fans will be stuck needlessly giving over entire days to these series, while others are deterred from watching at all.
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