Luke Cage And The 13-Episode Slump

The real villain in the Marvel universe might be Netflix’s apparent 13-episode mandate

In his June 1972 debut issue, Luke Cage, Hero for Hire, we get Luke's origin story. We learn about how Cottonmouth framed him for drug dealing, got the love of his life Reva killed, and sent him to prison. The series would eventually become Luke Cage, Power Man, but in Hero for Hire's 16-episode run, he manages to do battle with Diamondback, Mace, Black Mariah, Dr. Doom, Mr. Death, Big Ben, and a host of other villains. Of course, this was back when individual issues were still viable in comics, much like a television procedural. Soapier series like The Amazing Spider-Man, The Fantastic Four, and X-Men would weave in romance and threads that lasted for multiple issues, but it wasn't until recently that comics became so heavily serialized.

[Note: The following contains spoilers]

The light serialization that existed in comics before now has been replaced with long-running arcs in major titles to promote crossover events like Marvel's Civil War or just to keep fans coming back for more. Like in television, it's much easier to get someone to come back next time if you slap a "to be continued ..." at the end. Which can be great for a cable drama like Game of Thrones that's 10 episodes long, but it's becoming increasingly worrisome for Netflix dramas that seem to mandate 13-episode seasons.

You read comic books not only because you love the heroes who populate them, but also because you enjoy their rogues galleries, the villains they fight. Luke managed to fight all those aforementioned baddies within 16 episodes of his original series, but on his Netflix series, he's only allowed to tackle Cottonmouth, Black Mariah, and Diamondback. And he's not alone. Daredevil has a wealth of characters that populate the universe in the pages of his comics, but you'd never know it based on how many episodes Wilson "Kingpin" Fisk has been in.

Light serialization in comics used to encourage a plethora of storylines; it allowed your favorite villains to return multiple times. An approach similar to The X-Files or Buffy the Vampire Slayer — which featured monsters of the week mixed in with mythology episodes — could work wonders for the Marvel Netflix series, but instead, we're often saddled with one villain who wears out his welcome. Killgrave was an excellent bad guy on Jessica Jones, but by the time the final episode of the season rolls around, you're ready for him to kick rocks.

The death of Cottonmouth midway through Luke Cage is a welcome surprise. It allows Black Mariah and Diamondback to rise to prominence, but even still, there is far too much of Diamondback threatening people for no reason and Black Mariah holding endless press conferences. The series ultimately doesn’t feel populated with enough threats for Luke Cage, and both Jessica Jones and Daredevil have also suffered from the 13-episode Marvel slump. If there are so many superheroes popping up in New York City these days, why are there so few supervillains for them to fight?

The ironic thing about the heavily serialized Netflix series is that each hero comes with his or her own procedural engine. Daredevil's alter-ego is Matt Murdock, a defense attorney, but he tackles almost no cases throughout the two seasons of his series. Jessica is a private investigator, and we open the series with her solving a case, whereas an entire episode devoted to a case could have illuminated her character further and kept us from rehashing Killgrave scenes. Luke is the hero of Harlem, and Cottonmouth tries to get to him by targeting Harlem's citizens. What could have been accomplished in two or three episodes — in which Luke helps out different people in the city — is doled out as a montage that lasts no more than 15 minutes.

Marvel's Netflix series are often complex character studies, but it would be refreshing to see those studies occur in smaller stories that show the diversity of the Marvel universe. When you watch a Marvel film, the villains are dispatched in under two hours, but on Netflix, it takes 13 full episodes to handle men who have none of the superpowers that our villains have. With the superhero team-up series The Defenders set to debut next year [update:The Defenders is only an 8-episode season], one has to wonder if Marvel has realized it's time to trim the fat.