The critical consensus seems to be that Luke Cage is the superhero show we’ve all been waiting for. It’s urban, it’s gritty, it’s powerful.
Unfortunately, it also has some of the worst writing I’ve seen since I accidentally watched an episode of CSI: Miami a few years ago.
For the sake of those who haven’t watched the whole thing yet, I’m not going to focus too much on the weird dramatic structure, erratic pacing, lack of dramatic tension, or painful expository scenes. Other than the horrendous dialog, the show’s biggest sin is probably that far too often the viewer is faced with questions that don’t seem to have occurred to anyone on the show.
Luke Cage is an escaped prisoner who is doing his best to keep a low profile so as not to attract the attention of the authorities. At least, that seems to be what he’s doing. His mentor, “Pops,” knows that Luke Cage is super-strong and nigh invulnerable, and he urges Luke Cage to embrace his role as a superhero. But Luke Cage is reluctant because… well, he doesn’t ever actually say. You’d think he might say something like, “I’m kinda hiding from the cops right now, so maybe I shouldn’t be throwing criminals through windows and having bullets bounce off my skin,” but he doesn’t. He just keeps muttering stuff about how he isn’t a hero. I assume this is because if the writers had Luke admit he’s letting criminals run amok because he’s scared of getting caught, he would come off as kind of a pussy. Also, it would lead to an awkward conversation about why he just doesn’t put on a damn mask, like every other superhero ever. I get that the writers are trying to be true to the comics, but seriously, if there is one guy in the Marvel universe who is justified in wearing a mask, it’s Luke Cage. After all, who really cares that Daredevil is secretly a lawyer? What’s the worst that’s going to happen to Matt Murdock? He gets disbarred? Luke Cage will be sent to prison for life. The idea of a mask comes up a couple of times, but Luke dismisses it with the unassailable argument that Luke Cage doesn’t wear a mask.
Anyway, by episode six, Luke Cage is famous throughout Harlem. (You might think a bulletproof human would be world-famous, but apparently in a world that has gotten used to the Hulk and Thor, Luke Cage only rates as a local sensation.) He’s been spotted at several crime scenes and seems to be connected to organized crime figures. He’s gotten the attention of a crack local police detective. And yet, somehow no one has noticed he looks very much like a dangerous convict who has escaped from a maximum security prison. Not only that, but one of the main bad guys was in prison with him. These bad guys are desperate to rid themselves of the scourge of Luke Cage, who has laid waste to their criminal enterprise, but it doesn’t occur to anyone to drop a dime on his ass. It’s also baffling that despite Luke’s presence at these crime scenes, the cops have never dusted for Luke Cage’s fingerprints or called him downtown for questioning. Some of these lapses are explained later, sort of, but only well after the viewer is left to wonder if everyone in Harlem is blind (no offense, Matt) or irredeemably stupid.
One person who is definitely irredeemably stupid is the guy we’re initially set up to believe is a brilliant crime boss, Cottonmouth. Cottonmouth is Luke Cage’s nemesis through the first half of the show, but he spends most of his time preening, killing his own henchmen for being stupid, and doing things that make his henchmen look like Rhodes scholars. In the sort of symmetry that only makes sense in comic books, Cottonmouth is replaced halfway through the season as Luke’s chief concern by a guy who goes by the name Diamondback. (Is there an awkward line reflecting on the fact that both “Cottonmouth” and “Diamondback” are types of snakes? Yes. Yes, there is.) Diamondback, we quickly learn, is nearly as stupid as Cottonmouth. At one point he gets himself into a hostage standoff with the police completely by accident. Honestly, these guys are so awful at their jobs as crime bosses that Luke Cage seems entirely unnecessary. He could just have stayed in hiding and waited for their criminal empire to collapse under the weight of their incompetence.
The writers apparently exhausted their supply of ominous-sounding dialog with Cottonmouth, because Diamondback’s gimmick is randomly quoting scary Bible versus. Dear writers everywhere: can we please retire this trope? I understand that the KJV is in the public domain and it’s easier than writing your own dialog, but we’ve already seen Pulp Fiction. Try something different.
At least there’s a good reason for this affectation of Diamondback’s: his dad left him a Bible or something. In Diamondback’s own words:
God had me at hello with Genesis.
No, seriously, that’s an actual line that the character speaks. Because nothing says “badass bad guy” like mangling a line from Jerry Maguire.
And then there are riveting exchanges like this one, which occurs during the aforementioned accidental hostage standoff:
Diamondback: I ain’t testifying. Are you?
Shades: Why would I? Would you really want me to confirm that you had no plan. Do you have any idea how stupid that would make us look?
Diamondback: Have you forgotten who you’re talking to?
Shades: Have you? [pause] What about the helicopter?
Diamondback: Please. There’s no way they’ll agree to that.
Shades: I know.
That’s six lines of dialog that don’t advance the plot, tell us anything we don’t know about these characters (they’re morons), or serve any purpose whatsoever, as far as I can tell. It’s like the director told the actors to ad lib until all the tension was drained from the scene.
In one of the later episodes, a scientist, explaining how Luke’s nearly impenetrable skin works, says that Luke’s cells “act like a lock and key.” Luke’s helpful nurse friend Claire then elaborates, “In order to remove the bullet, he has to weaken the lock and key.” Weaken the lock and key? What the fuck does that even mean? You mean break the lock? Turn the key? If you’re going to come up with a shitty metaphor, at least try to stick with it.
But that exchange is nothing compared to the scene where Claire and the scientist are desperately trying to figure out how to save Luke’s life by attempting to replicate the procedure that gave him superpowers in the first place:
Claire: That’s it! It’s not the pH mixture that’s the problem, it’s the temperature. We need to turn it up, all the way up!
Scientist: No, you don’t know what you’re doing. Did you bring him all the way just to kill him?
Claire: Think about what happened last time. The temperature was the only thing that you couldn’t control. That’s what you said.
Scientist: Yeah, but Albert Rachem was a racist asshole who was trying to kill Carl.
Claire: Well, maybe that redneck was onto something. Maybe the explosion is what did it. We don’t just need to heat up that soup, we need to boil it!
Scientist: You’re about to do something completely stupid… I wouldn’t be a good scientist if I let you do it alone.
If the scene plays slightly better than it reads, it’s only because Rosario Dawson is a goddess who doesn’t deserve any of this.
In probably the most laughable scene of the show, Diamondback has been cornered by a mobster (Domingo) and his four henchmen.
Domingo: Looks like you’ve downgraded. I liked the club better.
Diamondback: I’m a man who needs his space.
Domingo: Space is a good thing… especially when you’ve come to kill a man! [Domingo and his four henchmen draw their guns and point them at Diamondback]
Domingo: Someone did your boy Zip and his two homies. That’s not Cage’s style. So I’m guessing you Shades didn’t appreciate you bailing him out.
Diamondback: You know when a rattlesnake is at its most dangerous, Domingo? [Reaches into his jacket and takes roughly forever to draw his gun] When it’s cornered! [reveals his gun and begins firing, which apparently comes as a complete surprise to the five armed men surrounding him]
Diamondback somehow manages to escape the ensuing gunfight unscathed.
Another favorite is when an explosion traps Luke and a friend underground, and he is forced to explain to this woman that he has superpowers. By this point it’s been drilled into us just how intelligent and well-read Luke is, so it’s no surprise when he says:
The best way I can put this is… I’m kind of strong.
Okay, well maybe he got hit on the head or something. In other situations, he’s reasonably eloquent, like where he inexplicably delivers a monologue about Crispus Attucks to a gun-toting punk, or in the show finale where he offers a painfully earnest and cliche-ridden speech (to a roomful of jaded detectives, who stand in rapt awe) that is saved only by being unintentionally comical (“You have to fight for what’s right, every single day, bulletproof skin or not.”)
The constant name-dropping of black historical figures that goes on throughout the show is cringeworthy. I get that Luke’s Harlem background is part of the character, but over the course of this show we’ve had characters reference Crispus Attucks, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcom X, Duke Ellington, Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston, Jackie Robinson, Walter Mosely, Nelson Mandela, The Notorious BIG, Rosa Parks, Frederick Douglass, Beyoncé, Denzel Washington, Langston Hughes, Billy Strayhorn, Percy Sutton, and probably a dozen or more others that I’ve forgotten. Yes, it’s nice that black historical figures are getting some attention, and it’s refreshing to have a superhero who isn’t ashamed of being literate, but these references are so frequent and awkward that they mostly serve to pull the viewer out of the narrative. A few episodes in, I was wondering what Daredevil would be like if the writers were similarly obsessed with namedropping famous blind people. “I owe it to Helen Keller, Ray Charles and Louis Braille himself to keep fighting for the sightless people of Hell’s Kitchen!”
I can’t help but think that the people raving about this show are so enthralled with the idea of a show that is so unapologetically black that somehow they’ve managed to overlook the fact that the writing is just plain awful. I’ve heard it said that Luke Cage is like The Wire, but with superheroes. It’s not. It’s more like CSI combined with a less self-aware version of Shaft.
At least the music is good.