Inside the making of ‘Luke Cage,’ Marvel’s first black superhero show

Cheo Hodari Coker on the set of Marvel/Netflix’s “Luke Cage.” : Marvel-Netflix

As production on Netflix’s “Luke Cage” began, producer/writer Cheo Hodari Coker took the few spare moments he had to think of his grandfather, Bertram W. Wilson, who died in 2002 and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

“My grandfather was a Tuskegee Airman. He flew with the 100th Fighter Squadron. One of the first black fighter pilots,” Coker told The Washington Post. “The thing that he always said was, you can’t think about the opportunity in terms of the fear, it being historic, all the things that come ahead of it. You just (have to) fly the plane. Everything else, as long as you fly the plane, will take care of itself.”

His grandfather’s words guided him as he began the process of producing Marvel’s first TV show centered on a black superhero, which begins streaming Friday on Netflix. Coker said he felt a bit of pressure to get “Luke Cage” right. But he focused on getting the job done – not making history.

“The added pressure comes from the fact that, if you (mess) up, people that look like you might not get the opportunity. You focus on the work. You focus on the opportunity to tell good stories first, before anything else,” Coker said.

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If one thing put Coker at ease during production it was that he didn’t have to go out and find a star. Actor Mike Colter made his debut as Luke Cage during the first season of Netflix’s second streaming superhero offering, “Jessica Jones” in 2015.

“I think (Mike Colter) is one of the best pieces of casting since Sean Connery was cast as James Bond. Or even Robert Downy Jr. as Iron Man. It fits like a glove,” Coker said. He “so personifies (the character) just in the way he walks, his smile, when he turns gruff, when he puts the hoodie up. He makes all of it work and seem organic.”

Colter, playing the role of a reluctant, bulletproof hero in Harlem with superhuman strength, invulnerability, and a few secrets, spent many scenes portraying the effect of bullets bouncing off of him. The scenes were filmed with remote-controlled devices stuck to Colter, set to explode at the push of a button by someone overlooking the stunt behind the cameras. Colter says the devices could burn the skin if not attached properly to clothing, and he once almost lost hearing in one ear when he forgot to insert the required ear pieces.

“Those things are pretty loud. You get used to them,” Colter recalled. “I was never going to the set going, ‘Boy I hope they shoot me today.’ It was kind of a chore, but we got through it.”

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Those scenes of invulnerability came up in production meetings midway through “Luke Cage’s” first season. A scene called for guards to open fire on Cage inside a boxing gym, and Jeph Loeb, a producer on “Luke Cage” who has written more than a few Marvel Comics, wondered whether it was necessary, because the show had already established earlier in the season that Cage was bulletproof. Coker answered that question the only way he knew how.

“I said ‘Jeph, I will never get tired of seeing a bulletproof black man,’ ” Coker said. “Like Dr. Martin Luther King, like Malcolm X, like Medgar Evers or even from hip-hop in terms of Tupac and the Notorious B.I.G., so many of our heroes aren’t bulletproof, so when you have a bulletproof hero, even if you’re not telling a political story, seeing a bulletproof black man in the world, has inherent politics.”

One situation that wasn’t debated was the use of the n-word, a first in Marvel’s live-action, mostly PG-13 world (the word has appeared in previous mature content Marvel comics). Marvel’s Netflix shows don’t have hard R-rated content, but they can take things a little further than the movies and network TV shows when it comes to adult language, violence and sex (all of which appear in “Luke Cage”). Coker says Marvel’s top brass trusted him when it came to using the word, which is used casually on the show, while some characters, including Cage, prefer the word not be used at all.

“It’s never used in a way where it’s flippant. I used it from the standpoint of, if we were going to eavesdrop on a conversation with African-American people, with nobody else around, when would this word be used and how would it get used,” Coker said. “And that’s how it appears in the show. I treat (the n-word) the way music used to treat it. As opposed to it being every other world of every other chorus, because at that point, it just gets silly.”

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Hip-hop has its place in “Luke Cage” to honor the connection Coker says has always existed between Marvel Comics and the music. He points to members of the Wu-Tang Clan for example. Method Man’s preferred alter-ego? Johnny Blaze (Ghost Rider). Ghostface Killah has an album titled “Ironman” and frequently goes by the alias Tony Stark. “Luke Cage” is scored by A Tribe Called Quest’s Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Adrian Younge. Cage himself will occasionally listen to hip-hop when taking out bad guys on the show, drowning out gun blasts with heavy beats.

“Hip-hop and superheroes have kind of always been co-joined,” Coker said.

Coker spent years as a journalist covering hip-hop music and says he sees parallels between an artist who eventually realizes the power of their words, and Luke Cage, who has to decide whether he wants to inspire or stay in the shadows.

“Those (hip-hop artists) who had made it … kind of go through a similar transition,” he said. “(First) all (they) want to do is spit and be a good M.C. … (Then they say), wait a minute, I have an audience and what do I really want to say. What do I really want to do?”

Not lost on Coker is the symbolism of Luke Cage wearing a hoodie (to conceal his identity) while bullets bounce off of him.

“Of course you think of Trayvon,” Coker said, referring to Trayvon Martin, a black teenager fatally shot in Florida in 2012. “You put somebody in a hood, with a hoodie, it doesn’t mean he’s a hood. He could be a hero. I wish it was played out. I wish someone could say, ‘Hey a bulletproof black man, that’s so dated, because black guys aren’t getting killed anymore by cops for no reason.'”

Coker said he thinks about the sociological questions that his show inspires, but the most important issue for him will always be: Did he have fun?

“I don’t really think about social ramifications as much as I think, is this cool?” Coker said. “Would the 13-year-old me be as jazzed as the 43-year-old me is. And I can tell you on both fronts, absolutely.”