BROOKLYN, N.Y. — TV’s newest superhero has bulletproof skin and super-strength, but right now he’s getting tossed into a wall, with shards flying from a crushed mirror.
It’s getting messy on the set of Luke Cage, Netflix’s latest Marvel series, which streams its 13-episode first season Friday. Pop’s Barber Shop is in shambles, and usually Luke Cage (Mike Colter) is the guy sweeping up the hair on the floor and keeping the place tidy. Not so on this March night, however: Colter’s good guy is in for the fight of his life.
Trouble might as well be Luke’s best friend: He was introduced to the larger street-level Marvel world in Netflix’s Jessica Jones — in which Luke created a connection with the hard-living private investigator played by Krysten Ritter — and watched his Hell’s Kitchen bar blow up. Now he’s trying to keep a low profile in Harlem working for Pop (Frankie Faison), but antagonists put the hero and his friends in danger.
Every Netflix Marvel project has its own flavor: Daredevil is a crime drama with a blind vigilante, and Jessica Jones is a neo-noir psychological thriller. And Luke?
“Well, we’re black,” executive producer and creator Cheo Hodari Coker says with a hearty laugh during a break in the action. “There’s no way around it, but that’s a good thing. I see that as an asset.”
Viewers might as well get to know Luke now, because he’s not going anywhere: Colter will reprise the character in Marvel’s The Defenders, set for 2017, that will team him with Jessica, Daredevil (Charlie Cox) and Danny Rand (Finn Jones), the martial-arts master of Marvel’s Iron Fist (now filming for its own 2017 premiere).
Coker pitched his take on Luke, a comic book character who first appeared in 1972, as a “hip-hop Western,” recalls Jeph Loeb, executive producer and head of Marvel Television. “He has to clean up the town — it happens to be Harlem — and does so against what would appear to be insurmountable odds, and at a terrible cost to him personally.”
As comic book shows and movies have grown in popularity, they’ve emphasized diversity: Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Suicide Squad, The Flash, Arrow and Legends of Tomorrow all boast deep casts of various racial and ethnic backgrounds, and Agent Carter, Supergirl and Jessica Jones have put women front and center. But until Luke, a black character has not anchored one of these big-time projects, and Colter’s hero for hire lays the groundwork for Marvel’s big-screen Black Panther (due in 2018) and a potential Black Lightning series for CBS spearheaded by Greg Berlanti.
Luke “is a blue-collar superhero with faults and weaknesses,” Colter says. “He’s not Superman. I’m proud of that.”
Rather than wield a magical hammer or wear a high-tech Iron Man suit like some of his higher-profile brethren, Luke has a hoodie as a signature accessory. Coker says that piece of clothing will always be political because of the shooting death of Trayvon Martin in 2012 and today’s Black Lives Matter movement, but the show is proudly leaning into tackling tough questions of police violence and urban gentrification.
“My kids didn’t sign the (non-disclosure agreement) but have seen a few things” despite Marvel’s penchant for secrecy, says Coker, a former music journalist for Vibe and The Source magazines. “When they were saying, ‘Dad, why’s Luke Cage dressed like a thug?’ it just hit me. I’ve worn hoodies for years, and the fact of the matter is I wanted to show that a black man can be in a hoodie and be a hero. ‘Thug’ has become the new n-word to a certain extent. This, in a way, is turning it around.”
Luke Cage squarely deals with the social responsibility of being a hero. Sometimes beating up bad guys doesn’t solve the problem at hand, and it’s more important to inspire those around you, Colter explains. “You can give people the right and freedom and liberty to make their own decisions and walk the right path, and eventually they have to make that decision themselves.”
In that vein, Coker wanted to explore how the ecology of a neighborhood changes when you insert a guy with superpowers, and how that affects cops and crooks alike. Luke offers a different kind of role model for his fellow residents than the primary villains of the show: Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes (Mahershala Ali), a ruthless crime boss who runs a local nightclub, and his cousin Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard), a town councilwoman who will do whatever’s necessary to keep Harlem a “crown jewel” of the African-American community.
Ali believes Cottonmouth is, like Jessica‘s arch-enemy Kilgrave (David Tennant) and chief Daredevil foe Wilson Fisk (Vincent D’Onofrio) before him, a watchably complex antagonist. Had this tragic figure’s childhood been a little different, he could have been the successful guy playing piano at his nightspot. Instead, he’s a cruel man who keeps a keyboard in the corner of his office, where the most noticeable decoration is a giant picture of rapper Notorious B.I.G.
Following in the footsteps of his fellow on-screen ne’er-do-wells, Ali says he embraced the chance “to be angry and insane and bring rage but also the vulnerability.”
Luke has his share of allies, too. Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson) is a nurse who brings out the good guy’s “flirty, jovial side,” Colter says. And Misty Knight (Simone Missick) is an NYPD detective who has an instant mutual attraction with Luke, though trusting each other doesn’t come easy.
Missick sees Luke and Misty as star-crossed lovers. “They’re the Romeo and Juliet of Harlem,” she says. “As much as she might care for Luke and have a strong feeling for him, at the same time she likes to do her job, and that’s more important for her.”
Colter’s protagonist could use a friend on the set during a hellacious fight scene in the season finale. The towering muscular guy figure has his hands full with an equally powerful foe as a sign reading “Classy Cuts for Classic Men” hangs nearby.
Between takes of getting hit in the chest, Colter keeps the on-set banter light when sexual innuendo rears its saucy head. “Claire and I still haven’t had coffee yet!” he quips.
Then it’s time to get serious. The actor practices a key ducking move for a stunt while a crew member visits Loeb, hanging out by the monitors, with a “powers question”: Should Colter struggle for a second as Luke rips a barber’s chair out of the floor so he can throw it? “Glad I was here today,” Loeb deadpans.
Missick was constantly impressed by Colter’s athleticism and dedication. “It’s not just some big guy flopping around,” she says. “He’s really doing an amazing job being a superhero.” She wouldn’t hesitate to needle him, however: “He’d have his weights on set and his little protein shakes. He’d be like, ‘I can’t eat that,’ and I’m like, ‘Oh, shut up.’ He’s unnecessarily large.”
Coker calls Colter a perfect blend of handsomeness and smooth cool — “he’s almost like Billy Dee Williams on steroids” — able to capture the deep emotions of a man who’s constantly trying to avoid letting personal tragedy infect how he deals with the rest of the world.
“Particularly with African-American men — and I can say this as being someone who’s 6-foot-2, 245 pounds — when you’re big and you’re passionate, sometimes that scares people,” Coker says. “When you see black men of this size, it’s always the big bad dude who can kick down doors.”
David F. Walker, who writes the on-page adventures of Luke Cage in Marvel’s current Power Man and Iron Fist comic book, was a fan of the character in the 1970s and sees the Netflix series as important, not just in as superhero entertainment but in terms of representation and diversity.
“It gives us a great chance to talk about things that need to be talked about, and sometimes in a way that’s less intimidating,” he says.
When he’s overwhelmed by how a hero like Luke Cage might be key to black culture, Coker thinks about lessons learned from his grandfather Bertram W. Wilson, a Tuskegee Airman who flew with the 100th Fighter Squadron.
“No matter the responsibility of what you are going to do and how it impacts the lives of people back home, you can’t forget to fly the damn plane,” Coker says. Luke Cage “has the potential to have a huge social impact. And absolutely we take it seriously. But first and foremost, we’re trying to be entertaining.”
Loeb agrees. “If some people watch the show and have a greater understanding as to what the black experience is like in present day, terrific. But if some people go, ‘Wow, I really liked it when he tore off that car door and went inside and opened up a can of whoop-ass,’ that’s good, too.”