What Marvel’s Luke Cage series on Netflix owes Peter Jackson’s Tolkien films

Cheo Hidari Coker, who helms new series featuring Marvel Comics’ black superhero, says his experience as a hip hop journalist and study of Jackson’s films helped him decide which characters to leave out and which to keep

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 06 October, 2016, 4:49pm
UPDATED : Friday, 07 October, 2016, 5:32pm

The first thing Cheo Hodari Coker wanted to do when he found out he had been entrusted with a 13-episode digital series predicated on superhero Luke Cage was to shout it from the rooftops. Until the screenwriter and producer realised that, of course, he couldn’t.

“I’ve been living with the secret of this show for two years,” Coker says about complying with the mandate from Marvel to not discuss the project. “I was lucky enough to get the opportunity to run the show and create the character in the TV space and wanted to tell everyone but couldn’t say anything. And then it was announced and the attention I got was overwhelming.”

By now, former hip hop journalist and author Coker – alongside Mike Colter, who plays Cage – are used to it. Ferociously devoted comic book fans have been anticipating the release of the series for months; it started streaming worldwide on Netflix at the end of last month.

Colter is not new to the role of Luke Cage – one of the first black superheroes – having appeared alongside Krysten Ritter in the hit Netflix series Jessica Jones, where they meet in the first episode. Luke Cage, whose superpower is unbreakable, unpenetrable skin, has been a staple of the Marvel Comics universe since 1972. On the show and in the books, he’s spent time in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, and later ends up a fugitive.

In the new Netflix incarnation, he is rebuilding his life in Harlem, which is in itself mired in corruption. Marvel’s bulletproof Luke Cage is a hero for our times

His co-stars include Mahershala Ali from House of Cards and Alfre Woodard.

“He’s the perfect Luke,” says Coker of his lead actor. “He’s got the perfect look and he’s fast, affable, charming, smart, sensitive. He’s everything you want to write towards.”

Both Colter and Coker are aware of what’s at stake: comic book fans are a notoriously obsessive lot, and expect their beloved characters to be portrayed in a way they approve of.

“My background as a hip hop journalist, and a lifelong geek, has prepared me to handle it,” says Coker. “I didn’t pander. I kind of knew instinctively what I could get away with changing, and what I could keep.

“I took a page from the work of [film director] Peter Jackson. I’m a huge, avid reader. I’ve read all of [J.R.R.] Tolkien, and then I watched the adaptations [of Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit}. He left certain characters out because it felt right. And that’s what I went with.”

The series is markedly different from a typical superhero set-up: there is something of a slow build in the first couple of episodes where the context is established, and Luke Cage becomes more of a known entity before he starts smashing things.

“What I responded to when I read the first two episodes is that he’s the lead character – but the other characters are well developed as well. They have presence on the screen. There was something there for them,” says Coker.

“An ensemble cast is only good when a story is being told in a very specific way, and all the characters have some skin in the game, and they all have good back stories.”

It’s a different approach, he says, from his time on Jessica Jones, where she’s in almost every scene.

“It’s not that I didn’t want [Cage] to be in every scene. I just didn’t think that that would do the story justice here,” says the writer.

“Luke is a person who observes. I wanted to give the character reason to step forward. They put him in a world where he’s an observer. We watch the wheels turn with him, and see this world and what’s going on, and when he steps into action, it seems justified.”