Marvel has had great success with its Netflix properties so far. It started with a plan to bring "street level heroes" in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to the streaming service, before having them team up, Avengers-style, in a mini-series now slated to arrive next year, with The Defenders. Daredevil kicked things off to critical acclaim, only for Jessica Jones season 1 to further build on its predecessor's momentum.
Both of the Marvel/Netflix shows released to date, while on the surface being stories about superheroes, also double as commentaries on social issues (Daredevil examines gentrification, while Jessica Jones tackles rape and trauma). In addition to being incredibly well-written shows, they have also been praised for their great villains, which have included Kingpin (Vincent D'Onofrio) and Kilgrave (David Tennant). With Marvel's latest addition to their Netflix universe, it seems we are in store for more memorable villains and commentary on timely social issues related to violence against the African-American community.
Tonight sees the release of Luke Cage, which chronicles the story of the African-American superhero from Harlem with unbreakable skin. Traditionally going by the alias Power Man in the comics, the character's freshman introduction to live-action took place in the first season of Jessica Jones in 2015. The character, played by Mike Colter, was so well-received that Marvel actually fast-tracked his series into production, changing up the schedule and moving Iron Fist to a later date. This will be the first property by Marvel that centers around a black character, which the studio plans to do again with Black Panther when the character's solo film is released in 2018.
IGN conducted an interview with two of the stars of Luke Cage: Actors Alfre Woodard, who plays a crooked Harlem politician named Mariah Dillard on the show, while Mahershala Ali portrays Cornell Stokes, the vicious crime boss known as Cottonmouth, who also happens to be Dillard's cousin. Alfre Woodard is already familiar to the MCU, having played a different character as someone who worked for the State Department during her small, but impactful cameo in Captain America: Civil War, where she blamed Tony Stark for her son's death in Sokovia.
Alfre Woodard reflected on the Luke Cage panel at this year's San Diego Comic-Con, where the audience in attendance was visibly excited for the series.
"They were! And they showed some scenes, and I actually— our mics were live. Whatever scene, when I first saw Luke, he did something, and we were in the dark and I went, “Oh s**t!” But my mic was live, and I was hoping they would think it was Simone [Missick]. [Laughs] But there’s a lot of those moments in this show, you’re like “Damn!”
The conversation transitioned to what Woodard felt about the enormity of taking on a Marvel project and if she felt any pressure of doing the Marvel brand justice. But she was very cavalier about it all, stating that for her it was about "your story hitting the mark."
"We tell stories for them to land on people. For people to be moved, changed, touched, whatever. And so I think of it as just like, 'Oh my, it’s landed on thousands of people, and they are telling each other about it.' So it creates community. It just happens to be a planet-wide community, but it’s community."
One of the unique aspects about this show is the dynamic between this crooked politician and her cousin the crime boss. Despite being family and in league with criminal activity, they don't always see eye-to-eye. The closest resemblance to this kind of relationship we've seen so far in the MCU is the dynamic between Loki and Thor. But the twist here is that it's a relationship between two villains in the Marvel universe, which audiences have not yet seen. As Ali describes it:
"There's another layer there."
Woodard elaborated by saying:
"By the time you discover all your differences and your different ways of approaching things, you’ve already been weaned together, played together, you already have relationships. And so that’s how we learn how to be in the world, is by learning how to be with family. We learn how to love and how to fight in families. And how to create together, and so I think it paints a very realistic picture that a politician on the up and up has in their family a successful businessman who steps in and out of the gray areas. But you don’t divorce them. What are you going to do? It’s like, none of us would have relations, even with our friends, if we were only doing business or having relationships with people that were..."
Black Mariah is a name that will be familiar to comic book fans. It is another name that Woodard's character Mariah Dillard goes by. However don't expect that to be a name constantly being thrown around on the show. Ali talked about how they found ways to include it at various points as a way for Cottonmouth to reference something from Dillard's past:
"It’s not something we necessarily talked about, but that moment we talked about. And that gets into some stuff that is really personal to black culture. I mean, you get into skin tone, when you get to insulting. And we kind of had to make that moment our own, and what that meant to us, and why that was an insult, why she would get upset about that."
Woodard went on to mention how it was important as to who would be referring to her as Black Mariah:
"This was something that we did have to work out because of the character in the original Luke Cage comics in ’72. There was a Black Mariah, who was very different from what we’re doing. I started saying, 'Well, it depends on who calls me Black Mariah.' And he (the showrunner) says, 'I want you to go after him (Cottonmouth)!' And that’s when we see, 'Oh Lord, she’s not a mild mannered city councilwoman.' And it helped that they’re cousins, and it helped that I wasn’t dark skinned, so you knew it was about something else, so what else? So we talked about those things that would set it off, and it was, it is old schoolyard poop between cousins."
Luke Cage has great potential to be another welcoming addition to the Netflix universe, adding some much needed diversity, while allowing us to explore themes in the African-American community that can get important conversations started across the web. In a time where the black community is so desperately trying to speak out against violence towards its own people, perhaps the time is just right for there to finally be a character who they can look up to - one who is immune to bullets, too.
Daredevil season 1 & 2 and Jessica Jones season 1 are now available on Netflix. Luke Cage season 1 will arrive on September 30th, 2016. The Defenders and Iron Fist arrive in 2017. Release dates for Jessica Jones season 2, The Punisher and Daredevil season 3 have not yet been announced.