Over the course of eight years, Marvel has built an extensive universe, featuring the likes of Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), and Thor (Chris Hemsworth), all of which have gone on to lead their own solo films while also teaming up with their fellow heroes in the Avengers films. As exciting as it has been to see the studio continue to build this interconnected cinematic universe on the big screen, the lack of diversity hasn’t gone unnoticed. While the movie side of the Marvel Cinematic Universe will finally add some much-needed diversity when Black Panther releases in 2018, the television side has done a rather great job at showcasing the types of heroes we’ve been yearning to see on screen for some time now. From Chloe Bennet (Daisy “Quake” Johnson) and Ming-Na Wen (Agent May) on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. to Krsyten Ritter (Jessica Jones) and Mike Colter (Luke Cage) in last year’s Jessica Jones.
And while all of those shows have proven to be great in their own right, there was no denying the impressive praise heaped upon Jessica Jones which introduced Ritter and Colter to Marvel fans. That series showed just how expansive this world could truly be. It wasn’t a “save the world” type story like we’re used to with the films, but rather a smaller-scale story that showcased a street-level hero just trying to get by – and afford her drinks, of course. For Marvel, Jessica Jones proved to be huge not only in praise, but also in that they’d managed to convey a deeply rich, and thoroughly relatable story, at the center of a comic book show. Which is why I’m sure when Luke Cage finally hits Netflix next month, it’ll prove to be yet another important step for Marvel. See, like Jessica Jones (and Agent Carter, for that matter), Luke Cage provides fans the chance to see themselves as a hero – to see someone that looks like them portrayed as the savior. That shouldn’t be such a huge deal, but it is. At a time when Hollywood is trying to play catch-up with diversity, and the Black Lives Matter movement plays such a huge part of our society, a series like Luke Cage is exactly what we need.
In a recent cover story by Wired magazine – which featured Luke Cage himself, Mike Colter, on the cover – showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker, alongside Jeph Loeb and John Singleton, comments on what it is that makes Marvel and Netflix’s latest series so important.
As we’ve become accustomed to with the Netflix corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the stories, while centered around superheroes, are on a smaller scale and incredibly personal. Going into Luke Cage, which is the third co-production between Marvel and Netflix, we can expect the series to retain that personal scale of storytelling. In fact, such as the case with last year’s Jessica Jones, we can expect Luke Cage to present another look at a larger problem we face in reality. Jessica Jones shined a light on sexual abuse and its victims, and Luke Cage looks to be set to shine a light on gun violence.
Cage’s heroic journey is similarly personal. His mission isn’t to track down Doctor Doom like he did in the ’70s but to accept his responsibility to help defend Harlem from the many forces that threaten it. Coker says he was inspired to serve as showrunner when he realized the ramifications of a series about a black man with impenetrable skin and how that might empower him to take on both criminals and crooked authority figures. “The main reason people don’t speak out, their main fear, is getting shot,” Coker says. “So what happens if someone is bulletproof? What happens if you take that fear away? That changes the whole ecosystem.”
One of the most exciting aspects of the Luke Cage series is just how diverse it is both in front and behind the camera. While Marvel Studios is finally beginning to bring in non-white male directors, such as Taika Waititi (Thor: Ragnarok) and Ryan Coogler (Black Panther), as well as a broader range of writers – Nicole Perlman (Guardians of the Galaxy, Captain Marvel), Meg LeFauve (Captain Marvel), Stephany Folsom (Thor: Ragnarok), and Joe Robert Cole (Black Panther) – they still have a long way to go compared to Marvel Television. Although we only know a couple of the directors involved with the series, it’s nice to hear that the writing room was just as diverse as the all-star cast they managed to snag for the series.
The script name-checks such black cultural and political figures as Ralph Ellison, Donald Goines, Zora Neale Hurston, Adam Clayton Powell Jr., and Crispus Attucks. There have been African American superheroes on our screens before—such as Wesley Snipes’ titular turn in Blade—but Luke Cage is the first to be surrounded by an almost completely black cast and writing team and whose powers and challenges are so explicitly linked to the black experience in America. “I pretty much made the blackest show in the history of TV,” Coker says, laughing.
One of the biggest surprises from the Wired article was that director John Singleton was on hand to provide his own comments regarding the upcoming series. Singleton, who is known for his work on projects such as Boyz n the Hood and Shaft, went on to proclaim that it’s the right time for a hero like Luke Cage to take center stage. For the director, seeing a hero like Cage, who isn’t entirely perfect is long overdue.
Compared to his big-screen Marvel counterparts, like Iron Man and Thor, Netflix’s Luke Cage might seem like a low-stakes superhero. He isn’t out to save the universe, and he doesn’t wear a flashy costume; he rarely even uses his superpowers, which are presented more as a behavioral quirk than a defining characteristic of his personality. He’s deeply flawed, haunted by his past, and, as Colter says, might pick up women at a funeral. But that’s precisely what makes him so heroic. He’s working on it, struggling to accept himself in the face of a world that keeps pushing him toward invisibility. “So many times, black protagonists have to be holier than thou, but he’s not an angelic figure,” says John Singleton, the Boyz n the Hood director and a friend of Coker’s. “It’s the right time for this kind of hero. He’s so needed in the world.”
When it was announced that Marvel and Netflix were teaming up to produce four individual series, which would then all led up to the mini-series, The Defenders, it’s safe to say fans were incredibly surprised. At the time, however, neither Marvel or Netflix had revealed any showrunners for the upcoming projects. It was assumed that Melissa Rosenberg would follow Jessica Jones over to Netflix as she’d previously been working on AKA Jessica Jones for ABC, but outside of her involvement, everything else was up in the air. Then as showrunner announcements began to hit, and Daredevil saw one come and go due to scheduling conflicts, only to bring in a second shortly thereafter with the addition of Steven S. DeKnight back in season one, it became clear that Marvel and Netflix were going after the right choices as opposed to just going for big names. And much like Rosenberg, when Coker came aboard the Netflix corner of the MCU, he came with a strong vision of what he wanted to produce. Of course, that isn’t to say he didn’t have some obstacles to overcome along the way.
It was very important to Marvel TV head Jeph Loeb that they got Luke Cage right. After all, as Wired notes below, this show will mark the first project set within the MCU that features a black lead. That’s huge and comes with a lot of responsibility – one that Loeb and Coker took very seriously. Going over Coker’s words on what went into his pitches for the series, and seeing how he took notes from them and ultimately made the show into his own thing is beyond exciting because you can sense the pride he takes in the show.
It was around 2014 when Coker was doing a round of touch-ups on the screenplay for Straight Outta Compton, that Marvel started looking for a showrunner for Luke Cage. From the beginning, says Jeph Loeb, head of Marvel’s television division, the company was looking for someone who could not only entertain but also address issues of race: “What is going on in this country for blacks and whites, and how can we tell that story through the eyes of a superhero?”
Still, this was Marvel’s first attempt to create a series or film with a black protagonist at its center, a responsibility that Loeb took very seriously. “If we can get one person to watch the show and to think differently about what it is to be a hero in the present day, and what it is to be a black hero, then that’s a victory,” he says.
At his first meeting with Marvel, Coker brought a photograph of his grandfather, a Tuskegee Airman who had been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. “I talked about him being from Harlem,” Coker says. “Walking up the boulevards, you’d see Duke Ellington and Chick Webb and Lionel Hampton, just walking around. You saw superheroes every day.” Initially, Coker saw Luke Cage exploring a similar dynamic, the pressures of a known superhero operating in the real world, but Marvel wanted Cage to grow into his role as a superhero, not to start out as one. Coker went back to work and developed a new story about an unfairly arrested prison escapee living anonymously in Harlem—until he finds himself unable to resist the responsibility to help his community that his superpowers impose on him. He packed his story with colorful characters and midseason plot twists. And he suggested a soundscape that leaned heavily on early ’90s hip hop.
When it’s all said and done, there are plenty of reasons why Luke Cage is such an important step for Marvel, but perhaps, the most important aspect of the series will be its nod towards the Black Lives Matter movement. As Colter explains to the folks at Wired, the hoodie we see Cage sporting in the trailer isn’t just merely meant to serve as an on-the-run outfit, but also a nod to Trayvon Martin.
So did the opportunity to work with a team of black producers and to address—even symbolically—issues of importance to the black community. At several points during the series, including during some of his most heroic moments, Cage can be seen wearing a hooded sweatshirt. To some extent, this makes sense for the character, who is on the run and trying to lie low. But it is also, Colter says, a nod to Trayvon Martin and the Black Lives Matter movement—and the idea that a black man in a hoodie isn’t necessarily a threat. He might just be a hero.
The first season of Luke Cage will hit Netflix on September 30th.