Luke Cage, Marvel's Reluctant Hero In A Hoodie

Oct 3, 2016
Originally published on October 3, 2016 5:43 pm

Luke Cage was one of the first black superheroes to appear in the pages of Marvel Comics, back in the 1970s.

Put in prison for a crime he didn't commit, he eventually gets put into a machine where he gains powers like super-strength and bulletproof skin. And, like many good Marvel characters, he's now on TV — in the new show Marvel's Luke Cage.

Actor Mike Colter — who plays Cage — tells NPR's Kelly McEvers that he didn't know a whole lot about the character when he initially took the role. "It was one of those things where I had heard some things through the grapevine," he says. "I had family members and friends who would reach out and go, you know, I think this is a character you could play, and they kept sending me pictures of him ... and I'm like, that is just silly. Guys, I have an agent. You're not casting directors. Calm down."


Interview Highlights

On updating original 1970s, blaxploitation-inspired version of Luke Cage

I give all credit to [showrunner] Cheo [Coker]. Basically, he had a guy that doesn't really want his abilities. They have been thrust upon him ... it's kind of a complex character because if he had his choice, he probably wouldn't be a superhero, he would just be a normal guy. And that's what the problem is, he can't.

On playing one of the first black superheroes

I try not to think about it, because it's overwhelming to think that there are people who look at me as someone they — I don't want to say idolize, but if someone's looking at this character I'm playing and they see inspiration, it's kind of hard not to welcome that or to receive that ... you know, when I started this character, I was looking at it from the standpoint of an artist, I wasn't thinking about, you know, all the people who were sitting there going, I started reading this comic book in 1972 and this and that, because that kind of stuff, that gets in the way of the creation of what you're trying to do.

On Cage's use of a hoodie, recalling Trayvon Martin

As a black man, I'll be quite honest, full disclosure, when I was a young man, my mother and I talked about not being ever confused for anyone else, because something could happen. And the hoodie, it was a thing that she felt like could be misinterpreted. And so out of fear, I never bought a hoodie. Because I knew I wasn't going to wear it. And then when the Trayvon Martin incident happened, I was upset because I felt like, it's not fair. It's not fair to always have to think about this kind of stuff, because if you're a black kid you have to think twice. You put that hoodie on, all of a sudden you could be unfairly targeted and it seems that the person could get away with it. It doesn't make sense to me. I can't fathom it. So all of a sudden I went out and bought hoodies, because I felt like I needed to somehow make a stand and I felt like I was tired of walking around thinking about this subconsciously.

It's a difficult subject but I felt like what we're doing with the show is saying there can be some heroes in hoodies.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Luke Cage is a superhero who first appeared in the '70s in Marvel Comics. Put in prison for a crime he didn't commit, he eventually gets put into a machine where he gains powers like super strength and bulletproof skin. And like many good Marvel characters, he's now on TV. But he doesn't really want to be a superhero.

Here he is, played by actor Mike Colter, who in this scene is talking to an older mentor at a barbershop, who encourages Luke Cage to step up.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LUKE CAGE")

MIKE COLTER: (As Luke Cage) You think I asked for any of this? I was framed, beaten and put in some tank like an exotic fish - came out with abilities.

FRANKIE FAISON: (As Pop) Saved your life.

COLTER: (As Luke Cage) More like ruined it.

MCEVERS: Marvel's "Luke Cage" is out now on Netflix.

And actor Mike Colter joins us now at NPR West. Welcome.

COLTER: Thank you so much for having me.

MCEVERS: You first played this character on the Netflix show "Jessica Jones." She's another Marvel Comics character. How much did you know about Luke Cage, the character, when you took that job?

COLTER: I knew very little. It was one of those things where I'd heard some things through the grapevine. I had family members and friends who would reach out and go, you know, this is a character I think you could play. And they kept sending me pictures of him and stuff like that.

MCEVERS: Really?

COLTER: And I'm like, that is just silly.

MCEVERS: (Laughter).

COLTER: Guys, you're not casting directors. I have an agent, calm down.

MCEVERS: Were you able to, like, look at the character 'cause, I mean, he's this guy who wears this, like, yellow shirt, like, buttoned down to the navel...

COLTER: (Laughter) OK. No, wait a minute...

MCEVERS: ...With, like, a tiara (laughter).

COLTER: Let me be clear, that wasn't the version they sent to me.

MCEVERS: Oh, OK.

COLTER: They sent me the updated version.

MCEVERS: The really tough one, of course, clearly.

COLTER: Yeah, that guy has hair. No, they sent me the modern-day version, the bald-head guy kind of, you know, yeah.

MCEVERS: Right, right, right. He's, like, just the shirtless, super muscular dude.

COLTER: Something like that.

MCEVERS: Right.

COLTER: Yeah.

MCEVERS: But the original character from the '70s, I mean, he was kind of a blacksploitation...

COLTER: Yeah.

MCEVERS: ...Kind of character. I mean, he says stuff like...

COLTER: Oh.

MCEVERS: ...Step aside, jive mouth.

COLTER: Jive Turkey...

MCEVERS: Yeah.

COLTER: ...Right on, yeah. Oh, yeah.

MCEVERS: And his, like, signature phrase is sweet Christmas.

COLTER: Sweet Christmas, yeah...

MCEVERS: Yeah.

COLTER: ...Sweet sister. Yeah, a lot of that.

MCEVERS: So when you came to understand all of that about him, how did you do it? How did you start to get into this character?

COLTER: Well, I'll give all credit to Cheo Hodari Coker, who had the vision.

MCEVERS: And Cheo Hodari Coker, we should just say, is the showrunner.

COLTER: Is the showrunner and creator, yeah, of the show. Basically, he had a guy that doesn't really want his abilities. They have been thrust upon him. And so he's just one of those people that are really - it's kind of a complex character because if he had his choice, he probably wouldn't be a superhero. He would just be a normal guy. And that's what the problem is. He can't.

MCEVERS: I also think about Luke Cage, the hero, and the responsibility of playing a black hero.

COLTER: I try not to think about it because it's overwhelming to think that there are people who look at me as someone they - I don't want to say idolize. But if someone's looking at this character that I'm playing and they see inspiration in it, it's kind of hard not to welcome that or to receive that. And so I try not to think about it because it is overwhelming, in a sense.

You know, when I started this character, I was looking at it from the standpoint of an artist. I wasn't thinking about, you know, all the people who were sitting there going, oh, I started reading this comic book in 1972 and this and that because that kind of stuff, that gets in the way of the creation of what...

MCEVERS: It's going to get in your head.

COLTER: ...You're trying to do, get in your head.

MCEVERS: Yeah. As we talked about, Luke Cage is a reluctant superhero. And I want to listen to a clip from when you first use your super powers to do some good. You've just fended off some kind of gangster types...

COLTER: Riff-raff.

MCEVERS: Yeah, from shaking down the owners of a restaurant. And one of the owners is mad at you at first. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LUKE CAGE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) We want to hire you.

COLTER: (As Luke Cage) I'm not for hire. But you have my word, ma'am, I've got you.

MCEVERS: And then right after this moment, he finally has decided that he's going to do good. He pulls on his hoodie, right?

COLTER: Yeah.

MCEVERS: It's kind of a thing.

COLTER: Yeah.

MCEVERS: In another scene when he's about to do good, he puts on the hoodie...

COLTER: Puts on the hoodie, yeah.

MCEVERS: ...Turns up the Wu-Tang, goes out and does a bunch of good deeds. This must have been deliberate.

COLTER: Oh, yeah, yeah, definitely not an accident. I mean, obviously Trayvon Martin has been a symbol that people have rallied around because it's such an unfortunate incident. As a black man, I'll be quite honest, full disclosure, when I was a young man, my mother and I talked about several different things and one was, you know, hoods. I mean, it was one of those things where we talked about not being ever confused for anyone else because something could happen.

And the hoodie, it was a thing that she felt like could be misinterpreted. And so out of fear, I never bought a hoodie. And then when the Trayvon Martin incident happened, I was upset because I felt like, you know, it's not fair. If you're a black kid, you put that hoodie on, all of a sudden, you could be, you know, unfairly targeted. And it seems that the person could get away with it.

It doesn't make sense to me. I can't fathom it. So all of a sudden, I went out and I bought hoodies, you know? And I - 'cause I felt like I needed to somehow make a stand. And I felt like I was tired of walking around thinking about this subconsciously. It was a difficult subject, but I felt like what we were doing with the show is basically saying there can be some heroes in hoodies. And that's a small thing.

But we wanted to, you know, make a stand and hopefully get some conversation going again.

MCEVERS: Yeah, I mean, it's interesting because he puts the hoodie on when he's doing good because part of him is that he wants to remain...

COLTER: Yeah, anonymous. He wants to keep - yeah.

MCEVERS: Right, so, I mean, he's putting it on in some ways to, like, stay, you know, away from the cops and away from people who might figure out who he is. So it's kind of this amazingly complex moment, actually, when he puts the hoodie on.

COLTER: It's got different levels. I mean, some things are meant to, you know, provoke people. You're giving them images that actually resonate with them. But when you get into the series, I think we have a full-fledged drama. It's not about one thing. It's about a lot of things. So hopefully, you know, we have a bit of romance, we have a bit of action, politics. It's a lot going on.

MCEVERS: Well, Mike Colter, thank you so much for coming in today.

COLTER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.