Meanwhile, on the other side of the MCU, a bulletproof dude with bulging muscles enters the fray for some serious Netflix and chill.
"OUT OF HELL… A HERO!”
With these words in June 1972, Marvel Comics introduced “a strangely unique super-hero” for what it confidently declared “a blazing new Marvel milestone”. But it wasn’t his superstrength or invulnerability that made Luke Cage,
Hero For Hire so “strangely unique”. Nor his crime-fighting attire, an inadvisable ensemble of canary-yellow shirt, metal tiara and belt fashioned from a stage escapologist’s chain. It was the fact Cage was the first African-american superhero ever to front an ongoing solo title.
Forty-four years later, Netflix showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker unveiled his 13-episode take on the character at San Diego Comic-con 2016, a debut no less confident and attention-grabbing. But Coker took a very different tack. This Cage came soberly swathed in a black, bullethole-pocked hoodie, accompanied by the sound of Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s Shimmy Shimmy Ya. And he arrived with a message. “When I think about what’s going on in the world right now,” the showrunner told the hyped crowd after the
Luke Cage teaser played, “the world is ready for a bulletproof black man.”
THE ORIGIN OF Luke Cage (once redubbed Power Man) should make anyone squirm these days — and not just because of the hokey outfit. A 1972 Marvel Comics marketing plan stated, “Wherever there is a trend that has been spotted, wherever there is a reading need to be satisfied amongst the ‘now generation’ readership, Marvel will make every effort to capture such trends and fill such needs.” The film Shaft had put the Blaxploitation genre into overdrive in 1971, with Isaac Hayes’ Oscarwinning funk-soul theme describing Harlembased private dick John Shaft (Richard Roundtree) as “the cat that won’t cop out / When there’s danger all about”. Marvel saw an opportunity to emulate the PI in comic-book form.
The result — created by Archie Goodwin, George Tuska and John Romita Sr (all white) — was well-intentioned but often dubious. Cage was an escaped convict given his abilities during a botched experiment, who sets up in Harlem as a vigilante who’ll only help for money. The writers’ attempts to recreate Shaft’s jive dialogue were clumsy at best, and at times blundered horribly. Writer Steve Englhart once had Cage described as a nice “schvartze” boy and later had to print an apology for unwittingly using the offensive term. The title struggled to maintain sales and after 50 issues was melded with another ailing, pop-culture-riffing title: Bruce Lee cash-in Iron Fist.
Yet none of this gave Coker pause when, in 2014, he pitched to run the Marvel/netflix show Luke Cage — then intended as the final solo show (following Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Iron Fist) before the four street-level heroes teamed up for The Defenders.
“You have to understand what Blaxploitation was,” Coker tells Empire. “It was the opportunity for black central characters to do the same thing you would see Steve Mcqueen, or Lee Marvin, or John Wayne, or Sean Connery do in a movie — which is kick ass, get the girl, ride off on a horse. So it isn’t really about the fact that the guys who created Luke Cage were white. It’s not about whether or not the white guys got it right. It’s really more about execution. It’s more about, when given the opportunity, what do you do with it?”
Coker, who was a journalist on hip-hop magazines Vibe and The Source before working as a producer on shows such as Southland and Ray
Donovan, draws a comparison with the way Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese brought their Italian-american “flavour” to the gangster movie with The Godfather and Mean Streets. They took a culturally exploitative genre and brought it home. “There are some kind of ‘Sweet Christmas’ [Cage’s catchphrase] Blaxploitation moments in [my] Luke Cage,” he says, “but within the context of modernising it while giving it a certain swagger and flavour that comes from the black experience. It’s not about thinking about the past and rectifying the past. It’s about embracing it and then making it new for this new generation.”
Mike Colter, who’d already played Luke Cage as a supporting character in Jessica Jones, confesses he had little awareness of the character before being cast by Jessica showrunner Melissa Rosenberg. “I saw pictures [of him] that made me think this was gonna be a bit weird if I was gonna have to wear that costume,” he says. But he took solace from the fact that “he’s travelled through decades of transformation”, in particular finding a strong, modern voice under writer Brian Michael Bendis, who created Jessica Jones, and whose Daredevil run (20012006) most closely inspired this Netflix series.
Colter admits that he was somewhat “taken aback” when Coker made his “bulletproof black man” statement. But he takes the showrunner’s point. The series absorbs “the flair, the panache, the swagger that black culture had in the post-civil Rights ’70s,” he says, but points out that now we have a character who is the product of “an era with Obama in it, an era that’s seen hip-hop, that’s seen Black Lives Matter, this surge of interest in police brutality, Trayvon Martin… It’s an incarnation of the character for our times.”
Which isn’t to say we should expect a polemic against American law enforcement. The point of the drama, Colter insists, is not to “fly in the face of authority. We’re definitely not against the police,” and in fact the show tweaks the Cage lore to make him an ex-cop. “Luke is just standing up for what’s right and ethical. When law enforcement falls short, he would like to
think he’s there to even things out, or try to clean up. Even though at first he doesn’t want to be, he’s the kinda guy that the neighbourhood goes to to give them some guidance and some protection.”
Cage’s evenly stated, ‘stand tall’ morality pulses through every episode. His distaste for the N-word becomes a refrain, and in one early scene he chides a crook for sullying the memory of Marcus Garvey by plying his criminal trade in the park named after the celebrated proponent of Pan-africanism.
It’s gangsters, not cops, who put the bulletholes in Cage’s increasingly tattered wardrobe, and the lead villain, Cornell ‘Cottonmouth’ Stokes (House Of Cards’ Mahershala Ali), is a club-owning kingpin (with a small ‘k’) on the verge of going legitimate when Cage disrupts his plans. “Things have been running fine in Harlem until Luke Cage comes along,” says Ali. “Cornell is just willing to do absolutely anything to maintain order.”
While Coker describes himself as a “comic-book geek”, and cites the likes of the
X-men graphic novel God Loves, Man Kills and the 1982 four-issue Wolverine limited series as big influences, he insists he never saw Luke Cage as merely a comic-book show. “And what I mean by that is, you know: good drama is good drama. I think people expect Luke Cage to be brawny. I think they expect it to have a certain sense of cool. I don’t think they expect it to work on a dramatic level that’s equal to anything on Netflix, beyond the excellence of Jessica Jones and
Daredevil. I really want this show to go places that people never thought a comicbook show could go before.”
COKER HAS ACHIEVED this in a number of ways, all of which he laid out in a pitch that so impressed Marvel that the studio accelerated production to move the show ahead of Iron
Fist. There is an effortless eloquence to the scripts, a naturalistic flow to the dialogue that springs from Coker’s love of modern, socially conscious crime fiction — writers such as Walter Mosley (Coker’s “close friend”), George P Pelecanos and Richard Price, whose novel Clockers Coker singles out as a particular inspiration. It’s significant, too, that both Pelecanos and Price were writers on Best Ever TV Cop Show™ The Wire, which exerts its own influence on Luke Cage (to give nothing away, you’ll probably feel it most during the seventh episode).
Perhaps more surprisingly, Coker also mentions Sherlock as an important influence. The Paul Mcguigan-directed episode A Scandal
In Belgravia particularly struck him. “There was something about the energy that episode had, and certain things he did with the camera that made me think, ‘This guy could be really interesting to do Luke Cage.’ Probably the most important decision that I made as a showrunner was signing off on Paul to direct the first two episodes.” In addition, Coker’s been careful to make
Luke Cage an ensemble piece. He might describe his leading man as “a dream”, and says he thanks Melissa Rosenberg whenever he can for recruiting Colter (“It’s the best casting since Sean Connery for James Bond”), but the show’s other key cast members get their fair share of screen-time — in particular, Ali’s Cottonmouth and Simone Missick as savvy police detective Misty Knight.
“She was unlike anything I had seen on TV before,” says Missick of the scene-stealing Knight. “I think women, a lot of times, don’t have as many layers as I’m allowed to play with as Misty… Plus there’s the added bonus of having her be the first black female superhero — she preceded Storm by I think six months.” (It’s not clear yet whether Knight will get her bionic arm in this series and technically become a superhero.) Ali, meanwhile, says Cottonmouth — a lesserknown villain in the Marvel canon — gave him the opportunity, as an actor, “to be stretched and grow and do something I hadn’t done before.”
The showrunner also jacks the drama into the culture of Harlem, drawing threads from the district’s rich history and its current tussle with gentrification, and using its real locations as a backdrop. This helps differentiate it from
Daredevil and Jessica Jones, explains Ali. “Each borough in New York has its own personality,” he says. It’s important that Luke Cage is set “in a traditionally African-american part of the city that, at a certain point, was the Mecca for black culture in the United States.”
Most crucial, though, is the inventive, energising way Coker channels his love and understanding of music. Each episode is named after a Gang Starr album track whose title
(‘Moment Of Truth’, for example, or ‘Code Of The Streets’) in some way defines its plot. “I’ve always loved their music and their titles are really dramatic, so I said, ‘What if we paced this entire season like an album?’”
He singles out ’90s hip-hop as his greatest touchstone, “because it wasn’t really until John Singleton made Boyz N The Hood, until the Hughes Brothers made Menace II Society, that you had movies that matched the drama of the records.” Binge-watching Luke Cage, he says, should be an experience akin to sitting back and listening to a full LP, like Stevie Wonder’s Songs
In The Key Of Life, Prince’s Sign O’ The Times, or Public Enemy’s It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back.
Arguably Luke Cage is the closest Marvel has come to a musical. Many episodes feature a full, live performance: Faith Evans, Raphael Saadiq and dapper rapper Jidenna all appear as themselves during the first seven episodes, performing in Cottonmouth’s Harlem’s Paradise club. Ali Shaheed Muhammad (formerly of A Tribe Called Quest) and Adrian Younge (who composed Black Dynamite) provide an original, Blaxploitation-flavoured score, recorded with a full orchestra. Then there’s the way Coker uses music to enhance the show’s distinctive, lazily cool “smack-fu” action style. (“It’s about making it look effortless,” says Colter, “because Luke’s super-strong so I’m not working nearly as hard as most people would in a fight scene.”)
“There’s something that comes from watching Luke Cage traipse through the projects with Wu-tang [Clan] playing and kickin’ ass in rhythm that gives it a certain perspective and a pulse,” says Coker. “That’s always what hiphop music has done for me as a listener. When you listen to certain songs and you look at yourself in the mirror, you feel like you have a superpower. And, frankly, the music is cheaper than special effects!”
LUKE CAGE MIGHT have its own flavour, but its title character is set to connect with Daredevil, Cage’s troubled ex-girlfriend Jessica Jones and his future partner-in-crime-fighting Iron Fist
for supergroup mini-series The Defenders, due late in 2017. Executive producer Jeph Loeb is the man with the big plan, Marvel’s Netflix equivalent of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s chief, Kevin Feige. “Jeph said to all of us who have become creators of these shows, ‘Look, do your own thing with these characters, but if you begin to hit up against things that violate what we’re trying to do with the larger story, we’ll tell you,’” says Coker.
The seeds of The Defenders, he adds, are being planted “in a very organic sense”. There are references to Luke’s “ex-girlfriend”, “a good lawyer” downtown, and Daredevil’s nemesis Wilson Fisk. Meanwhile, Misty Knight, as fans will know, was originally the love interest for Iron Fist. But most significant is the return of Rosario Dawson as Claire Temple, the nurse who’s already almost-romanced Daredevil and saved Luke’s life in Jessica Jones. She’s shaping up to be The Defenders’ own version of Nick Fury — though, says Coker, “you don’t really feel that things are being manipulated by one character pulling everybody together. It feels like Claire is a member of the audience who happens to experience this whole superhero phenomenon in real-time.”
Colter hasn’t even met Finn Jones, who plays Iron Fist, yet (“We’re gonna spend a lot of time together, so there’s plenty of time to get acquainted”), but he’s already curious to see how the four characters will operate as a team. “These guys are their own bosses. So who’s going to listen to who, and who’s going to yield, and who’s in charge of this thing, and how do these personalities function together and unite?”
It’s an enticing proposition — and a reminder that, for all Coker’s distinctive ambition, this is still Marvel. “With what I said about ‘the world is ready for a bulletproof black man’, absolutely it’s true,” he says. “The show has a certain social relevance, but at the same time it’s fun as hell. Just like a Public Enemy record, you can be political and you can have an agenda but at the same time you gotta have some fun as well. You can do both on the same record.”
Coker’s passionate and assured, but he’s not taking a second season for granted. “After
Vinyl getting cancelled, we’re living in an era where Martin Scorsese can get fired!” Still, the smart money would be on further solo adventures for Cage. Like this ‘Power Man’ himself, a character who’s not only bulletproof but endured long beyond his uncomfortable origin, you suspect it would take a nation of millions to hold Coker back.
LUKE CAGE IS ON NETFLIX FROM 30 SEPTEMBER
Mike Colter as “bulletproof black man” Luke Cage. Sadly the wall can’t say the same.
Coker’s “dream” leading man. Top right: Slick Harlem politician Mariah Dillard (Afre Woodard) — also gangster Cottonmouth’s cousin... Right: Cornell ‘Cottonmouth’ Stokes (Mahershala Ali), the borough’s crime kingpin. Below: Rosario Dawson is Claire Temple, the ‘Nick Fury’ of The Defenders. Bottom: Simone Missick as tenacious detective Misty Knight.