On social media I’ve been pretty open about how pleased I was with the second season of Iron Fist. It wasn’t perfect, but it did away with the unlikable Danny Rand of the first season and told a more interesting story, with better villains, interesting fight scenes and, unfortunately, the lingering effects of a couple of bad decisions from the first season.
It didn’t help. Nobody watched. Iron Fist was cancelled shortly after the season dropped.
And now, Netflix has cancelled Luke Cage, too. There won’t be a third season for this well-reviewed, well-received show.
With Iron Fist, it was no surprise. The first season was bogged down with terrible choices, some big and some small. The biggest was turning the show into yet another neo-noir when the material called for a lighter touch. the small–well, there were dozens of little ways that the show turned Danny Rand into an unlikable jerk, and that shit adds up.
And viewers don’t forget. Few people will feel an urgent need to revisit a seriously flawed show. Only a dedicated few–like lovers of martial arts movies, abject racists pissed about the criticism of the show’s white hero, and those (like me) who have been fans of the character since they were kids and were hoping things would turn around–are going to put a second season at the top of their watch list.
And while Netflix doesn’t publish ratings, they did say that Iron Fist S1 was one of their more popular offerings. But they sure cancelled S2 very quickly after it dropped. I’m guessing the numbers are dismal.
There are a lot of theories online about the reasons Luke Cage is gone: They’re going to combine Luke and Danny in a Heroes for Hire series; Disney wants to start it up again on their own service, maybe with the same actors; Netflix and Disney are involved in a feud over Disney’s new service; etc. But I suspect Luke Cage is going away for the same reason Iron Fist is. The show is expensive to make and the first season wasn’t compelling enough to draw in a lot of viewers for season two.
Not that season one of Luke Cage was as bad as Iron Fist’s. It had a great deal of buzz, thanks to Cage’s appearance in Jessica Jones and the general excitement for a black superhero story. Purportedly it crashed Netflix when it first dropped.
But that first season had its problems, too. Cornell Stokes was an excellent villain, but he got written out halfway through. I’ve seen the show runner talk about Diamondback as a sort of “horror movie villain”, the guy people talk about in hushed tones until he shows up all scary and dangerous.
Except, despite the actor’s charisma (and great voice), Diamondback is written as a bible-spouting psycho gangster who also by coincidence is Cage’s brother. It comes out of left field, it doesn’t feel natural, and it replaces a complex, interesting villain with a grinning evil guy with a gun. Would the first season of Luke Cage have a 94% on Rotten Tomatoes if reviewers had seen the whole season instead of just a six-ep preview with all those Cornell episodes?
How many people have said they still haven’t watched season two of Luke Cage, or Iron Fist, or even Jessica Jones? (Season one of the latter was full of great performances and had a truly great villain, but it pissed away a lot of the tension toward the end.) The Netflix model has long been engagement over quality. They’re happy enough with a 13-hour B minus or C plus show that could have been a solid A with a few cuts. But there’s a big difference between staying engaged with a bingeable season of shows and returning to a new season two years after sorta liking the first one.
Here’s a short list of shows I’ve abandoned after one season for no reason other than lack of enthusiasm: iZombie, The Magicians, Midnight Diner, Travelers, Shooter, Dark Matter, Gotham. It’s not that they’re bad shows. They’re fine. I just didn’t feel like I had a compelling reason to keep watching.
As Lawrence Block said, the first chapter sells the book the reader is holding. The last chapter sells the next book.
And season two of Luke Cage, despite the wonderful performances and amazing music, had no through-line. Characters would talk about problems that seemed to come from nowhere, because the show hadn’t bothered to *show* them. In one scene, Luke Cage is performing feats of super strength on a field surrounded by adoring fans while a Nike rep is trying to put a million dollars in his pocket. Soon after, he’s complaining that people are afraid of him because he’s a black man with powers, and he’s so angry about it that he’s punching holes in the walls.
Now, yeah, that’s an entirely reasonable thing for a character like Luke Cage to be angry about, but the show doesn’t bother to dramatize it. In scene after scene, he’s famous and beloved, taking selfies with little kids and getting The Look from every woman on the street. It’s not enough to say “It would be logical if…” and then have the characters talk about it. It’s a show. A long-ass show. Dramatize it or drop it.
Anyway, early reports are that Netflix wanted a shorter season (a smart decision but I doubt they’re making it for creative reasons) which suggests that viewership was way down. Supposedly, they were unhappy with the early scripts. How much does the show cost? How many people are still watching? And did they cancel Luke Cage on Daredevil S3 Day because they wanted their subscribers to thing Shit, I should watch these shows if I want more of them?
What remains to be seen is whether Netflix will go for a fourth season of Daredevil (even after that excellent third) and if they’ll continue with Jessica Jones (the last season for show runner Melissa Rosenberg) and The Punisher after their new seasons drop. If Netflix cancels them all, wiping the slate of Marvel shows, I think we can be confident that competition with Disney is behind it, no matter what they type into their press releases. If they don’t, we can blame the ratings.
But even if Netflix shuts them all down, I can’t say I’ll be unhappy. Most of their shows were flawed but enjoyable. We’ll have to see what comes next (and whether I drop Netflix once it drops its superhero stuff.)