I’m always in two camps when TV cancellations happen. Either I’m extremely bitter about it and ask God for the eleventh time why Supernatural is still on TV yet my new shows can’t flourish or I’m like “well, it had it coming”...mostly because the show was never good, never bothered to hit its stride, or was just an all-around poor concept.
Oddly enough, none of these extremes fit how I feel about the cancellation of Luke Cage.
Sadness that certain cast and crew have lost their jobs aside, I’m mostly...meh. But this is no “meh” of apathy. This is a “meh” that asks if Luke Cage deserved to be cancelled and acknowledges that there are some wildly complicated—good, bad, and straight-up hypocritical—aspects of the Blackest Marvel Show being cancelled.
What are some of those aspects? Well, I’m glad you asked because let’s start with the hardest one to swallow:
There are some extremely good things about Luke Cage that kept lots of people coming back. The show had great music. It had a rich supporting cast. It didn’t pretend that New York was all-White like the other Netflix shows or even popular shows like the overrated Friends. Harlem felt like a character itself. The villains were extremely compelling. And it boasted more female characters, specifically Black ones, than any other Marvel property besides Black Panther.
But one of it’s most potent downfalls was the sporadic nature of its quality.
A prime example is the nosedive it took after the death of Cottonmouth in season 1. Most can agree that the pure villainy and its delivery by Oscar winner Mahershala Ali, gave the show some much-needed gravitas and often had you split between whether or not you wanted to cheer for Cottonmouth or if you wanted to cheer for Luke. Hell, the show even made it a point to say that they were both out to protect their city, but that one had stooped to unsavory ways to do it.
His death, while deserved because of what brought it on, came entirely too early for many fans and left us with a fairly cartoonishly evil villain in Diamondback, with the nefarious Mariah Dillard operating in the background.
Season 2 sees a departure from Diamondback and a focus on Mariah, her ruthlessness, how it basically runs in her blood, and how she has [bad] history with Bushmaster and the Jamaicans. This is definitely compelling (mostly because we get to see the uglier sides of the diaspora war play out) until we run into The Curious Case of Bad Jamaican Accents and Patois subtitles that looked like you asked Jeeves what the fuck they were saying and then didn’t bother to do any additional work.
I also tried to appreciate (?) the complicated going-ons between Mariah and Tilda (her daughter), but it eventually divulges into borderline Tyler Perry drama, complete with Tilda singing a song about murdering her own mother on the very piano she gave her and I’m sorry, what???
See? The quality was not when it needed to be. But most of us supported it anyway because ... black. Because there’s always this pressure to see our art do well even if it’s not very good. Because we don’t know the next time we’ll see ourselves represented like this. It’s problematic, yes, but that’s the reality.
Still, scapegoating quality alone as the reason for its cancellation, especially for season 2, is a cop-out for one big reason:
Every Marvel/Netflix show suffered from the sophomore flop. While Luke Cage’s biggest villain was probably those Jamaican accents, Daredevil season 2 managed to shit the bed as soon as the Punisher went to jail and made comic portrayals of Elektra look like masterpieces in comparison. Especially because her whole shtick could be boiled down to evil and bored temptress of color versus the virtuous, “kind”, and white Karen Page. Everything I disliked about Jessica Jones season 1—i.e the use and disuse of men of color—returned for season 2 and we didn’t even have the twisted Dave Tennant (Purple Man) to ground most of it. What’s worse is that Trish, the insufferable friend from season 1, dials that shit up to eleven when you discover that she is vehemently jealous of Jessica and thinks she doesn’t deserve her powers. And that shit is also just so cartoonishly Susan that I threw my hands up like a Family Guy character and quit.
Ironically, Iron Fist was the only show that sought to improve its second season. But oddly enough, Daredevil and Jessica Jones got third seasons. And Luke Cage and Iron Fist did not.
That bothers me.
Mostly because it has me asking why? Who gets to stumble and recover [in life] and who doesn’t? Of course, it’s not hard to see the answer to this, specifically because the painfully white shows that are Daredevil and Jessica Jones get to shimmy around the chopping block while Luke Cage and Iron Fist are dropped right onto it. It’s doubly annoying in that regard, because as I stated earlier, Luke Cage (and Iron Fist) had a heavy concentration of black and non-white female characters and other non-white characters of color who lead particularly layered and nuanced lives (re: Misty, Shades, Colleen, etc). This is something they do not share with Daredevil or Jessica Jones. Daredevil does what it does with Elektra, killed its main black lead (Ben Urich) in Season 1, made the other one (Turk) a recurring joke that got popped in the head by Matt every other episode, and quickly shipped off Claire. I won’t even get into The Hand and Asian rep on that show. It’s not until season 3 (!) that we get FBI Agent Nadeem, a South Asian man who gets to chew on more significant scenery that does not immediately include death or a punchline. Meanwhile, ultra-feminist Jessica Jones has no interest in developing characters of color unless Jessica gets to fuck them (did I say that out loud) or use them, which is right in line with season 1.
So you can see my annoyance with this, especially from a pair of companies that claim to be all about “diversity and inclusion”.
I can’t blame them solely, especially because this last aspect almost left them both with no other choice:
3. Having a lead who was not only less interesting than the supporting cast, but also didn’t know when to shut up in real life, hurt Luke Cage’s renewal chances too.
I try to be as forthcoming as possible when I look at things like this. And in order to be 100 percent forthcoming about the cancellation of Luke Cage, I would have to acknowledge that its lead (played Mike Colter) was not only problematic but way less interesting than anyone else on the show.
I mean, say what you want about shows like Daredevil and Jessica Jones (because I most certainly will), but their leads are what kept you coming back. They’re what prompted you to turn on your TV and go “oh, well, I wonder who is kicking Matt’s ass today or what goon he found in a hallway or what problematic part of Jessica’s past caught up with her.” Like, no one else on their supporting casts is as interesting unless we count their villains. And the Netflix villains always have that charm, so that is not new.
This was never the case for Luke Cage though. From day one, he inspired annoyance for his stiff nature and respectability politics. But even that aside, he was far less interesting than everyone else on the show. Pops and Bobby Fish led more interesting lives in the few scenes we had them. Misty’s story about recovery and internalized ableism was so compelling that I would audibly groan whenever we cut from her and back to Luke. Cottonmouth, Mariah, and Bushmaster were such good villains that they often had you questioning who you were cheering for as the episodes dragged by. Hell, I was even more interested in the neighborhood’s movie-bootlegging kid than I was Luke.
Some blamed this one Luke being “corny” in his expressions of blackness (something worth delving into) in comparison to the rest of these characters. I’m on the fence about that, but I will say that it certainly didn’t help that Luke didn’t lean into that corniness and tried to suddenly become something else in season 2.
He gave us this speech about why using “nigga” is so abhorrent in season 1 (which made me audibly say “yikes,” but we always say that blackness is not monolithic. So...) but turned around and used it a lot in season 2 ... which was puzzling. And at the climax of his “you can’t break me” season 2 speech, he does perhaps the ugliest dab I have ever seen, which is saying a lot since angry white pubescent kids who say “nigger” on Xbox Live and steal our dance moves from Fortnite have kind of made it their thing now.
And none of this is helped by the fact that Colter was the weakest actor on the show, in comparison to scene stealers like Simone Missick, Alfre Woodard and Mahershala Ali, and often could not keep himself outta trouble offline with his insistence on having “profound and mature conversations” that just further stoked the flames of bigotry or worse, made light of assault in the #MeToo era.
So once again, I’m circling back to ask if Luke Cage deserved to be cancelled in this abrupt a manner. The easy answer is not particularly. It wasn’t remarkably bad in comparison to its other Netflix peers, but as I detail above, it’s not enough to be “not remarkably bad” or “just okay” quality-wise if you are black or of color. You don’t get the same chances that white men (or white women) do. And you definitely do not get the same chances, as a lead, to show your ass online multiple times and expect to be coddled just like a Chet would be ... no matter how many of you want or crave that privilege.
With any hope, maybe Marvel decided to condense both Luke Cage and Iron Fist into Heroes For Hire like many of us asked for to begin with, shuffle it to their forthcoming streaming service, and quietly recast Luke and Danny. And maybe they heard our cries for a Daughters of The Dragon spinoff with Misty and Colleen and decided to focus on that.
Whatever the case, Luke Cage’s cancellation will remain incredibly complex for many years to come and anyone pretending it’s not is lying.