Luke Cage doesn’t want to be your hero, and Marvel doesn’t want to be political, but frankly, they can’t help but be both in Netflix’s well-timed “Luke Cage.”
With his super strength and unbreakable skin, Luke can’t be harmed by anyone — not any thug, criminal or cop. The invulnerable superhero emerges amidst today’s racially charged political climate in which the nation is divided over police shootings of unarmed black men and the corresponding #BlackLivesMatter movement.
“This is really an era in which it’s a fascinating time to have a bulletproof black man that exists in the world,” showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker said during interviews at Comic-Con.
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Head of Marvel Television Jeph Loeb added, “Marvel always works best when it’s a reflection of our times. The show is never intended to to be a soapbox on any political agenda. It’s just not how we tell our stories. What we do is tell our stories in a real world… We had a responsibility, which is if we’re going to bring a black superhero from the streets, onto television, we had to speak truthfully about what’s going on.”
Truth isn’t always easy to ascertain though (just ask anyone about HBO’s “The Night Of”). Therefore Luke Cage won’t be running around in an “I CAN’T BREATHE” t-shirt or outright siding with or against any one group.
“People right now are thinking it’s two sides: there’s the cops and there’s… the perceived suspects,” said Mike Colter, who plays the superhero. “Really, it’s all one. We are all one, but right now there’s a fear because of the unknown, right now we have to bridge that gap, and I think Luke Cage is the kind of person [who] deals on both sides. He’s able to walk into the neighborhood and talk to the guy on the corner. At the same time, he can go back and also talk to a cop. You have to merge.”
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Unlike fellow Defender-in-the-making Daredevil though, Luke doesn’t have a burning desire to mete out vigilante justice… yet. After leaving “Jessica Jones” and his blown-up bar behind, Luke is in Harlem, making an honest living helping out Pop (Frankie Faison) at the local barbershop by day and moonlighting washing dishes at the Harlem’s Paradise nightclub. Just because he’s had these superpowers thrust upon him doesn’t mean he has to use them, no matter what sort of guilt trips Pop may employ.
“When you look at neighborhoods, people step aside or don’t step up because of the consequences,” said Coker. “Why don’t people snitch? Snitches not only get stitches, they get bullets. So what happens if you introduce a bulletproof black man to a situation? If this hero himself is reluctant about being a hero, how does that help him when he thinks about coming into this mantle of responsibility? It’s not necessarily a responsibility that people want.”
Loeb doesn’t see this reluctance to stick your neck out as unusual or reprehensible at all. “There are heroes all around us, whether it’s cops or nurses or firemen or people that are in the armed services,” he pointed out in an interview with IndieWire at TCA. “To a lot of people, they don’t want that job. They just want to know that there’s somebody that’s doing that job.
“One of the things that Luke fears is the truth,” he continued. “Every hero has their vulnerability — they have their Achilles [heel], so to speak. When you’re talking about a bulletproof man, the thing that actually brings Luke down more than anything else is how big his heart is. His search for the truth, not just about himself but as to the way the world needs to be. That job and accepting that job and accepting responsibility for the job is the hero’s journey of our show.”
Despite his hesitation, despite his unwillingness, at some point Luke does answer the call and take up the mantle — although it’s not any stereotypical superhero mantle. True to his low-profile nature, Luke wears a hoodie, or hooded sweatshirt, which is primarily a practical choice. Although Luke Cage was originally conceived in the 1970s as a way for Marvel Comics to capitalize on the popularity of the blaxploitation genre, his struggles and costume have been updated.
“I thought of putting Luke immediately in yellow and with a tiara. Unless we were doing a ‘70s parody, that wouldn’t have gone over well,” Coker explained. “At the same time, it’s very much about you have somebody that is trying to blend in. Most superheroes, when you look at origin stories — before they invent their costume, they just go with what’s around.
“Also, it’s not just a hoodie, it’s a Carhartt hoodie. Carhartt hoodies, if you look at a certain segment of ‘92 hip-hop, if you look at Das EFX, if you look at Lords of the Underground… it’s basically a nod to the fact that he’s got a mid-’90s vibe.”
The hoodie is a deliberate political statement as well. Ever since the shooting death of teenager Trayvon Martin in 2012, wearing a hoodie by any non-white male has taken on greater significance since it has been used for racial profiling.
“Of course Trayvon Martin haunts us all,” Coker said. “My thing about that was showing that heroes can wear hoodies too. From the standpoint of seeing that fact that somebody saw him as being suspect because he had a hoodie on, we’re flipping that and saying, ‘Look, heroes come from everywhere. Yes, heroes, black men in hoodies can also be heroic.’ And so rather than thinking that somebody is a suspect, they could be coming to save you too.”
For Colter, this superhero attire was especially potent because he’s had to come to terms with wearing hoodies himself and still has issues with them.
“When I was growing up I consciously didn’t wear or buy hoodies because I was afraid of this kind of thing, this mistaken identity, this kind of perception,” said Colter. “My mother always was talking to me about this, it’s like, ‘Don’t fit the description.’ Again, this conversation doesn’t happen in homes outside of black homes because they’re not concerned. So to understand what a hoodie means is that I can’t necessarily be comfortable and do things I want to do because of how people perceive me. So I consciously decided not to buy hoodies.
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“But when the Trayvon Martin thing happened, I actually went out and got hoodies because I was hurt, I was frustrated and it was a show of unity because I said, ‘I can’t walk around consciously thinking about what am I wearing?’ And, ‘This is putting me at risk of being shot because of what someone was thinking,’” Colter added. “It made me upset that I had to consciously think that and that I had been thinking that way for 30-something-odd years because of this exact thing. I can’t tell you how many white women on airplanes [wear] hoodies sleeping, because when you travel it’s comfortable. You sleep, you put it on your head and you don’t think about it. There were times I was traveling in the cold and rain and I was afraid to put my hoodie up.”
“Bruce Willis in ‘Unbreakable,’ his uniform in that movie being another ‘unbreakable’ hero coming from the shadows was a hoodie,” Coker said. “And so it’s kind of the same thing. There is a political context, but it’s also very utilitarian and kind of practical.”
“Marvel’s Luke Cage” will be available Friday, Sept. 30 exclusively on Netflix.
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