LUKE CAGE

Mean­while, on the other side of the MCU, a bul­let­proof dude with bulging mus­cles en­ters the fray for some se­ri­ous Net­flix and chill.

Empire (UK) - - CONTENTS - WORDS DAN JOLIN IL­LUS­TRA­TION JACEY

"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.

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