Trouble in Paradise: “Luke Cage” by Netflix

W. Chris Waithaka, Contributing Writer

Netflix, in a decision that surprised everyone, has cancelled “Luke Cage.” The show, a recipient of several awards including a Primetime Emmy, is the latest casualty in the ongoing tensions between Marvel and streaming juggernaut Netflix. Coming a week after the cancellation of “Iron Fist,” which many also felt was just finding its stride in Season 2 after an underwhelming first season, “Luke Cage” was by all accounts one of Netflix’s most impactful shows. The show was lauded for its socially conscious approach to the superhero genre and positive African-American representation in addition to its writing and stellar performances.

The premiere of the first season was widely anticipated and actually caused Netflix service to crash due to the high traffic. The positive critical response to the second season, and the show’s wild new direction and cliffhanger ending, almost guaranteed the audience an exciting third season. Yet, here we are. What happened between Marvel, Disney and Netflix to cause the cancellation of such an important show?

A month before its cancellation reports of “creative differences” began circulating, stating that Netflix and the writers couldn’t agree on the story’s direction going forward. That, plus the increasing pressure of Disney pulling all other Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) properties from Netflix by the end of 2018 in a lead up to the launch of their own streaming service ultimately resulted in “Luke Cage” getting cut.

While other streaming services have yet to put a dent in Netflix’s ownership of the platform, Disney’s upcoming offerings are already building fan buzz and threatening Netflix’s unilateral hold on streaming. Disney’s CEO, Bob Iger, announced that not only would their streaming service Marvel shows be under Marvel Studios president and MCU producer Kevin Feige, but they would also star actors from the hugely popular films reprising their roles. The announcement of a Loki series starring Tom Hiddleston, and a Scarlet Witch series starring Elizabeth Olsen, both of Avengers fame, are of particular interest from fans and investors alike.

The other thing Disney brings to the table is a seemingly unlimited budget, which is something that Netflix has always struggled with. Marvel shows on Netflix are some of their most expensive to make. When Netflix announced its flagship shows in partnership with Marvel in 2013, the streaming service ended up paying a high price for shows that they wouldn’t even own. To justify their extraordinary cost, there has been pressure on the Marvel series, especially more socially aware and pointed shows like Luke Cage and fellow Marvel series Jessica Jones, to overperform in viewership. This seemed simple in the early days when they were some of the only originals offered from the service but has become significantly harder to justify as they compete with a cadre of other popular Netflix originals that have developed since.

In this light, the cancelation can be seen as Netflix throwing its weight around a bit; they cancel what was once among their premier offerings before Disney can pull anything business wise regarding their own streaming service. It shows that, unlike some other companies, they aren’t willing to just crumble when Disney enters the arena. This is only inflamed by Netflix’s assurance that the cancellations had nothing to do with any “other company’s services” which, given the information present, just rings false.

So, what’s the future for Luke Cage, or any of the other (or soon to be) cancelled Netflix shows? That’s currently unknown, though Netflix has stated it wouldn’t be the last time the characters appeared. Some fans have clamored for a “Heroes for Hire” show, based on the comics of the same name which star Luke Cage and Iron Fist as a duo. Netflix has the expertise since we’ve already seen the duo together in episode 10 of Luke Cage Season 2, to great success. It would also ease Netflix’s budget issues with the characters. The service would still be in a bind to Disney, however, having to pay for the rights and perhaps draw up a new contract for the rights to the team name. They would also be subject to any shenanigans should Disney decide to pull the characters for their own streaming service. For Netflix, cancellation seems the safest move at the moment.

Disney has also said that they have no plans to pick up the shows. Though they technically have the rights to the characters, they can’t be seen to loot a cancelled series from another network to launch their service on, as it would reflect poorly on them to investors. They could circumvent this by starting a “Heroes for Hire” show themselves, but it would still get complicated quickly. The decision to recast the characters would upset too many fans and bringing original the cast back would require a careful merging of the two show’s styles and characters, but still separate them from the many writers and other creatives that made the shows work on Netflix, as well as any characters they once crossed over with which remain at Netflix.

Losing these shows in what was ostensibly their prime is a great loss for Marvel fans and well-made television fans everywhere. “Luke Cage” especially represented something important and filled a very specific void in the television landscape. Hopefully, Netflix or Disney can come to some sort of agreement and the show can find its way back somehow, but with Netflix basically ignoring the response to the utterly superb third season of “Daredevil” and having nothing Marvel planned after the already shot “Punisher” Season 2 and the well underway “Jessica Jones” Season 3, things don’t look great for the Marvel universe on Netflix.