Marvel's Luke Cage aims to be slick superhero show with subtle political commentary

Mike Colter stars as Luke Cage, a superhero with impenetrable, bulletproof skin, in the Netflix series of the same name.
Mike Colter stars as Luke Cage, a superhero with impenetrable, bulletproof skin, in the Netflix series of the same name.PHOTO: NETFLIX

Netflix's Luke Cage is a slick superhero series with a subtle commentary on the African-American experience up its sleeve

The makers of the new Netflix series Luke Cage are well aware that their protagonist is the first black superhero to headline a show or film in the Marvel or DC Comics universes.

Instead of beating viewers over the head with the milestone, they set out to craft a slick superhero series - albeit one that has a subtle commentary on the African-American experience up its sleeve, with a hip-hop soundtrack, Harlem setting and the politically charged decision to have Cage wear a hoodie.

Debuting on Netflix globally on Friday, the drama stars Mike Colter as Cage, a character with impenetrable, bulletproof skin who first appeared in a Marvel comic in 1972 and was most recently the love interest in last year's acclaimed superhero show Jessica Jones.

When Colter and showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker met The Straits Times and other press on the set in New York earlier this year, they both recognised the need to acknowledge the ground-breaking nature of the production, which boasts a mostly African-American cast and writing staff, something unheard of for a superhero film or series.

I want a world where a kid can wear a hoodie and someone can look at him and give him the benefit of the doubt about who he is.

LUKE CAGE SHOWRUNNER CHEO HODARI COKER on the show's African-American superhero sporting a hoodie, a garment that has become a politically charged symbol of the racial profiling of black men in the US

Yet at the same time, they took pains to point out that there is more to the show, which follows the wrongfully imprisoned ex-convict as he comes to terms with his superpowers, than its racial subtext.

Colter, a 40-year-old best known for playing Chicago drug lord Lemond Bishop in the legal drama The Good Wife (2009-2016), promises that the show will be "relevant to a lot of different ethnicities and cultures".

And he says that if fans identify with the narrative, his ethnicity, in some respects, does not matter.

This was the case with the diverse fanbase of late action star Bruce Lee. "I'm a Bruce Lee fan and it never crossed my mind that he is Asian. So I don't know that (the character's race) is that important," he adds.

At the same time, he concedes that seeing a black hero on screen could leave a lasting impression on young viewers, "especially if you're a person who happens to be black and you don't see yourself being portrayed in a lot of positive light" by Hollywood.

Writer and showrunner Coker, a comic-book fan and former music journalist who peppers his sentences with hip-hop references, says the show will first be about the characters and story.

He describes it as "City Of God meets Belly, as written by the staff of The Wire", referring respectively to a 2002 film about organised crime in a Brazilian slum, a 1998 hip-hop movie and a venerated 2002 to 2008 television series about crime and corruption in Baltimore.

"My main responsibility is to tell a good story," he says.

That said, the cultural and social subtext will be hard to miss.

It is no accident that Cage sports a hoodie, a garment that has become part of the contemporary hip-hop uniform as well as a politically charged symbol of the racial profiling of black men in the United States - particularly in the wake of the controversial 2012 shooting of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin. Watchman George Zimmerman, who shot the teen, said he acted because Martin was wearing a hoodie and looked suspicious.

The hoodie's hip-hop associations date from the rise of the group Run D.M.C. in the 1980s and a look that featured brands such as Adidas and Kangol, when "the hip-hop uniform all of a sudden became universal", Coker says.

"So Cage is wearing a hoodie because he is a superhero who lives in the modern world and the hoodie is utilitarian. But at the same time, we know the politics we're playing.

"You have people, particularly African-American males, who have been victimised for nothing more than wearing a hoodie, and people saying if you're wearing a hoodie, that's a thug look, 'cos 'thugga' has unfortunately replaced the n-word," says the 44-year-old producer and writer, who worked on acclaimed crime series Southland (2009-2013).

Colter, who is married to 41-yearold Iva Colter, director of talent acquisition at Netflix, says: "I, too, grew up in a time when my mother said there are certain things you don't want to wear because they draw attention to you. It would be nice to not assume that everyone who wears a hoodie is a criminal or someone you should be afraid of.

"I get the concern, but it shouldn't be that way, so it would be nice if we could help change that narrative."

Coker adds: "I want a world where a kid can wear a hoodie and someone can look at him and give him the benefit of the doubt about who he is.

"But we're not trapped by the politics. It was the same way with (hip-hop group) Public Enemy: they managed to be an incredibly political group, but it wasn't just politics - their music was also funky."

In the same way, he wants the show to talk about a lot of things, but to "always do it in a way that's fun and doesn't feel different from anything you would expect from the Marvel universe".

Within that universe, Cage will be like no other superhero, he adds.

"What makes Luke special is he's one of the rare Marvel characters who doesn't have a secret identity. He doesn't wear a mask and he's somebody you know how to find."

Cage will, however, join a long line of superheroes who are reluctant to use their powers.

"He's got his own problems, he's on the run for something he didn't do and he just wants to live a normal life and not draw attention," Colter says.

"But he has these abilities and sees things around him that are wrong and he has to decide.

"He doesn't want to deal with it at first, but you're going to see that he can't help but get involved, and becomes inspired by others who care, but who don't have his abilities. So because of that, he rises to the challenge."

•Marvel's Luke Cage is available in Singapore on Netflix from Friday at 3.01pm.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 28, 2016, with the headline 'Hero in a hoodie'. Print Edition | Subscribe