The third of Netflix’s Marvel series, Luke Cage, is almost upon us. The 13-episodes will all be released for your binge-watching pleasure on 30 October. Luke Cage first appeared in Jessica Jones, but we’re promised a much deeper look at Marvel’s impenetrable superhero in his own series as he returns to his native Harlem. In the comics Cage was introduced as Power Man in Luke Cage, Hero For Hire #1 (1972) and was as ’70s as flares and lava lamps. This new TV version may owes as much to music from the ’90s and TV from the 2010s… So let’s explore!
1 The Perfect Showrunner
Marvel’s Luke Cage’s showrunner is Cheo Hodari Coker, a former music journalist and writer on SouthLAnd and Ray Donovan. “I really was one of those people who, every Wednesday, was trying to go to the comic book store,” says Coker. “Reading Marvel comics for me was like a doorway to another world and the amazing thing, particularly about Marvel comics, is that they take place in the real world. It’s New York City and the heroes live amongst us. To be able to work in this world is such an amazing opportunity and experience.”
2 The Episode Titles Are More Like A Track Listing
Coker’s musical past influences every level of the show, as you’ll discover as you read on. And that influence even extends the episode titles, each of which is the name of a track by legendary East Coast hip hop group Gang Starr (the first three being, “Blowin’ Up the Spot”, “Code Of The Streets” and “DWYCK”)
3 Tapping Into A Black Voice
On the choice of Coker to lead this series, Marvel TV boss Jeph Loeb says, “Cheo has a very unique voice that was important to us in a lot of ways. He’s a young African American writer, writing about a young African American hero. From the first day he came in, he brought his first issue of Luke Cage and he told us the story of what this character meant to him as a kid growing up and the impact of having a black superhero when you’re growing up in a black world. His own personal knowledge of music, Harlem and of the black experience was entirely unique to him as a writer and as a creator. To be able to tap into that and bring that voice not just to Luke, but to all the characters, because it is predominantly an African American cast, we wanted it to ring true and we wanted it to feel authentic.”
4 Going Back To His Roots
The series starts with Cage returning to his native Harlem after the events of Jessica Jones which took place in Hell’s Kitchen. “He is uptown trying to find work because, as you may know from Marvel’s Jessica Jones, his bar was blown up and he lived above the bar,” says the actor playing Cage, Mike Colter. “He doesn’t have a place to work and he’s got to find a new place to live. He finds people that he knew before and he relies on them to give him safe haven. He’s just trying to figure things out and trying to find himself and what I love about it is that he is really trying to let people live their own lives and he doesn’t want to be involved.”
5 Cutting Edge Job
And the place he finds work, is in a barber’s shop! “He’s working now at a barber shop,” says Jeph Loeb. “He’s the guy who sweeps the floor and at night, he works at a kitchen in a nightclub. He’s sort of off the grid. He gets paid in cash and he is not trying to attract attention to himself in any way. Unfortunately, the world around him is not really interested in what he wants. It is just interested in what it wants. That is very often the problem with being a Marvel hero – just because you have abilities doesn’t mean that your life is suddenly special. In fact, it probably means that you carry a burden that you’re going to need to do something about. As much as Luke would like to hide the fact that he has incredible strength and is bulletproof, it is not going to be hidden. In fact, the exact opposite is going to happen.”
6 Hurting The Unhurtable
The first question Coker wanted to address in the overarching story was, how do you hurt a man who is bulletproof? “If you hurt someone who’s close to him, you’ve hurt him, so that’s one of the things we explore. He has impenetrable skin, but that doesn’t mean that his soul is impenetrable. That was one of the things I felt was really important to communicate both through the writing and also, we were obviously blessed to have Mike Colter.”
7 Introducing Smack-Fu!
Cage’s impenetrable skin also required a new breed of fight scene. “Audiences will absolutely get to see a different kind of action in Marvel’s Luke Cage,” says Jeph Loeb. “We are talking about someone who has extraordinary strength, but it’s also an awful lot of fun to watch someone that bullets can bounce off of and he has the ability to, dare I say it, bend steel with his bare hands. There’s a different kind of plot that you get when you have a hero like Luke.”
Stunt Coordinator James Lew adds, “I think we were all trying to figure it out because he’s so powerful and there had to be limitations. They didn’t want Luke Cage to kill people. He’s a good person. So to produce a fight we had to come to a point where he cannot actually strike somebody or punch somebody in the head because literally his opponent’s head would be gone. So we played around with ideas and we came up with what we called ‘Smack-Fu’. It was more open-handed pushing, where he would use that kind of power to get people away without lethal force and flipping people. We had to find a compromise of getting the action in there, but with the limitations of not really punching or kicking people. It was a challenge.”
Colter elaborates, “Cage kicks through people. It’s not fancy. He just puts his foot in your chest and just drives you back. He does a lot of boxing and he’s very strong so he doesn’t have to have a lot of finesse. He has to pull back a lot. It’s really been fun trying to do fight sequences and be creative because you’re limited in what you can do because of your strength and that’s something I think James has dealt well with. Every episode we talked about trying to amp up the fight sequences.”
8 But There Will Be Superhero Moments
Luke doesn’t always pull his punches. Rosario Dawson, who’s reprising her role as Claire Temple from Daredevil and Jessica Jones, reveals, “There are these big sweeping gestures with these really powerful effects. Luke Cage just comes in and smashes through a whole wall… He comes in and he can pick up a car and throw it. He really saves the day.”
9 Meet Misty
The support cast includes Misty Knight, a police detective who is determined to learn the truth about Luke Cage. Based on a character in the comics, she’s played by Simone Missick who says, “She grew up in Harlem and never wanted to leave and so she knows everybody.” Colter thinks the casting of this iconic Marvel character was spot on: “It was just a specific kind of thing that I think everyone was looking for and she brings that to the table. She comes with this appeal and this certain charm.” Co-star Alfre Woodard agrees, “Simone is really going to be the big discovery of this whole thing. She is so hot and cute and sexy and powerful and you completely believe she is a detective.”
10 The Show’s Marlon Brando
Alfre Woodard (Star Trek: First Contact) plays ruthless Harlem politician Mariah Dillard who is looking to bring a new era of change to the streets where she grew up. “The thing about Alfre Woodard is that she is such an incredible actress and has such presence in a room,” says Coker. “She is basically Marlon Brando for our show. Every single actor that acts opposite Alfre Woodard ups their game. To give her a conflicted antagonist to play and to make sure that her character had different shades of, on one hand, wanting to do right by the community, but then at the same time, falling to her baser nature and having that ambition to be ruthless is really something to watch.”
11 Snake, Rattle And Roll
Mahershala Ali (House Of Cards, The 4400) plays Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes, Mariah Dillard’s cousin and the owner of Harlem’s Paradise, one of the hottest clubs in the neighbourhood. He becomes an unexpected foe in Luke’s life when his criminal activities threaten Luke’s world. “Mahershala plays a great adversary,” says Mike Colter. “He brings a certain zeal and flamboyance and flash that plays really well against Cage who’s more reserved, because he’s just a different personality completely.”
12 Cottonmouth’s Wardrobe
Costume designer Stephanie Maslansky kitted out Cottonmouth in a green Dolce & Gabbana suit for his first appearance to emphasise his “snake” nature.
13 Cottonmouth’s Ivory Tinkling
Cottonmouth also gets to show off his musical side. Co-composer of the score Ali Shaheed Muhammad reveals, “Cottonmouth plays piano and so Cheo asked us to write certain music for him that they used in the actual shooting before anything else was done. That was an extra special part on top of our job as composers, because it gave us a real part of the script and Mahershala did such a great job!” Co-composer Adrian Younge adds, “They would have someone on set who would help him to play like a pianist, but he took it really seriously. We’d watch him and we couldn’t believe it.”
14 Cool Shades
Theo Rossi plays Shades, an opportunistic childhood friend of Cottonmouth’s and a hard-hearted criminal with ties to Cage’s mysterious past. Mike Colter loved the casting: “Theo Rossi brings this great, cool, calm demeano. I cannot think of anybody else to play Shades Alvarez. He just owns it. Every single gesture, there’s a way that he’s able to pivot a scene by not saying anything.”
15 Cop This!
Veteran actor Frank Whaley plays Rafael Scarfe, a longtime NYPD detective who partners with Misty Knight in their investigations. Whaley, who was born and raised in New York, loved having the chance to play such a “tough, world weary and sarcastic” character.
16 Claire Temple Returns
As mentioned above, Rosario Dawson is back Claire Temple. For showrunner Coker,“ It was important for us to make sure that Claire Temple could be an influence on Luke Cage without being a foil. We wanted her to be an active participant in Luke’s world, but at the same time, because she doesn’t have any powers, she’s trying to figure out how and where she fits. And where she fits, honestly, is that she’s able to give Luke perspective on what it means to be a hero and what he’s accomplished and what he can do.”
Dawson adds, “I think she’s recognising that she hasn’t been utilising her full capacity and that she’s got a particular niche that she can fulfil in the lives of all of these amazing people she keeps meeting.”
17 Designing Cage’s Harlem
In his research, production designer Loren Weeks referenced classic New York films from the 1970s including A Rage In Harlem, Black Caesar, Across 110th Street and the original Shaft. “The other thing that excited me about this show when I first read the script,” says Weeks, “was the music. Reading Cheo’s script, he had all these musical cues in there and he had cultural references and historical references and musical references. Some of them I knew and some of them I didn’t know. If I didn’t have the music, I bought it and played it while I was reading it and I think I understood where Cheo was going with the story, just from the music.”\
18 Welcome To Paradise
The show’s central, iconic, two-storey set, Cottonmouth’s Harlem’s Paradise club, became the most challenging and ambitious aspect of Weeks’ job. Not only would real musical acts need to be able to perform in the space, but it held a lot of importance overall to the story and Weeks felt an extraordinary amount of pressure to get it right. He researched iconic Harlem clubs as well as the overall music scene during the Harlem Renaissance, a cultural, social, and artistic movement that took place in the 1920s. “I drew upon art deco architectural elements and created an art deco club. I created this back history for the club, that it was a contemporary of The Cotton Club and Small’s Paradise. It was the place to be seen and had the top musical acts of the day. Over the course of the decades, like many things, its fortunes rose and fell and it eventually fell into total disrepair. It probably became a strip club or something like that. But then Cottonmouth comes in, buys the club, refurbishes it and restores it to its full grandeur.”
19 Pop In For A Cut
The other set and location crucial to the authenticity of the show was Pop’s Barbershop. Mike Colter reflects on the history of the east coast cultural institution: “It was a place that people gravitated towards to spend time. They waited for their haircut and while they were waiting, they were talking about current events of the day. They debated hot topics. It was water cooler talk. They watched television. They watched the game. It was a place where a lot of the youth would come and spend time in because it was a safe haven. Luke starts working at Pop’s Barbershop and he becomes familiar with a lot of these people, but he’s more of a voyeur – he watches, learns and listens.”
20 Cheap Costume Required
Luke Cage has to think practically when it comes to clothes. According to Jeph Loeb: “Some of [the look] came from the comic itself. Luke is very much a t-shirt and jeans kind of guy. We really evolved the clothes from the beginning of Luke Cage until the end, because he so often got shot up! He says more than once ‘I’m sick and tired of buying new clothes’. It really made sense for him to stick to the t-shirts and the hoodies.”
21 Hip Hop Soundtrack
The composers of the show’s original score are producer and musician Ali Shaheed Muhammad, one of the founders of the hip hop trio A Tribe Called Quest, along with producer and composer Adrian Younge, whom Coker had known from his days as a music journalist.
The starting point given to the composers was to create a score with ’90s era hip hop as its starting inspiration. “That era of hip-hop is really special to a lot of people, so Cheo wanted to retain the authenticity of that era and to make it really match the backdrop of everything related to Luke Cage,” says Muhammad. “That was the prime time era for A Tribe Called Quest, but also the music that we sampled specifically had great importance in terms of sound and in terms of emotion and Adrian, who does not sample, also draws from that same sort of music. I think this gave Cheo the feeling that we would really understand what he was looking for. It was just like we all spoke the same language, which I think is a rarity.”
Despite the emphasis on hip hop the composers haven’t abandoned that good old standby of the film soundtrack – an orchestra. “There are only a handful of shows that use live orchestras,” says Muhammad, “but this music is such an important part in the emotional aspect of moving with the characters.”