Will a black superhero be TV's next Tony Soprano?

Luke Cage, a superhero for hire with a checkered past, could be poised to join the pantheon of TV antiheroes

By Neil Drumming

Published November 8, 2013 11:59PM (EST)


It's been almost a decade since director John Singleton began developing a feature film based on the Marvel superhero Luke Cage. It was shortly afterward that Singleton began suggesting that the project would never see the light of day and hinting that the cause was racism -- or at least narrow-mindedness on the part of Hollywood's powers that be. Indeed, no such film was ever made under Singleton's charge. In 2011, the website SuperHeroHype.com reported that actor Isaiah Mustafa was claiming he'd met with Marvel Studios about another Luke Cage project in the early stages of conception. Not to question the credibility of the "Old Spice" pitchman, but that film didn't materialize either. Last year, Quentin Tarantino told Screenrant that he'd considered adapting Luke Cage prior to making "Pulp Fiction." He's since abandoned the idea.

Fans of Luke Cage, prepare to get your hopes up once again. And, while you may not have your wish fulfilled on the big screen, this time the chances seem fair enough that said hopes will not be so easily dashed. This week, Marvel announced an ambitious partnership with Netflix that will result in four original television series, each based on one of the comic empire's lesser-known superhero properties and airing beginning in 2015. The lineup goes like this: Daredevil, Iron Fist, Jessica Jones and, finally, Luke Cage. (OK, neither Marvel nor Netflix has specified in what order the series will debut, but it seems likely that the most well-known, Daredevil, will premiere first. And I'm willing to bet my Netflix subscription that Cage follows up at the rear.)

For those unaware, Luke Cage, aka Power Man, is one of the first African-American superheroes to be the main character of his own comic book. He was created in the early '70s -- the era that also saw the emergence of the polarizing blaxploitation film genre -- and, in his earliest incarnations, bears some of the hallmarks of that time. Cage, born Carl Lucas, was a Harlem-bred petty crook and gang member who was sent to prison after being framed for heroin possession. While behind bars, Lucas submitted to one of those wacky experiments always being conducted by unscrupulous scientists in comic fare and ended up, not only with rapidly regenerating cells as intended, but with steel-tough skin and superhuman strength. (Such ill-advised clinical trials always go wrong, right, Dr. Banner? But that doesn't completely obscure the slightly uncomfortable Tuskegee-like undertones of this particular experiment, botched or otherwise.)

After the four series have aired, Netflix will follow up with a Defenders miniseries presumably tying all four of the heroes together. Marvel has had an enormous amount of success with this approach in recent years, rolling out each member of the Avengers in their own individual cineplex-ready adventures in a sequence that culminated in the blockbuster film "The Avengers." In that particular, lucrative example, while neither of the Hulk films were well-received, die-hard Avengers fans would not have stood for the omission of the Big Guy from the team. And so, the Incredible Hulk's inclusion was assured. In the same way, whoever is least known among the Defenders -- I'm feeling a dead heat between Jones and Cage -- is still likely to end up in the final series simply by virtue of the fact that a full bench is expected.

Nevertheless, it is a long way until 2015 and there's plenty that can go wrong with getting this tough brother his super-fame. For one, Cage is not your typical superhero. His most common epithet is "Hero for Hire," meaning that he is more of a mercenary than a do-gooder purist. The Marvel.com Wiki describes Lucas' post-prison career thusly: "He used his new power to escape Seagate and made his way back to New York, where a chance encounter with criminals inspired him to use his new powers for profit. Adopting the alias Luke Cage and donning a distinctive costume, he launched a career as a Hero for Hire, helping anyone who could meet his price."

Still, in this era of the dramatically compelling antihero, Cage's murky allegiances will serve him greatly if Marvel and Netflix decide to veer gritty with the narrative. Speaking of allegiances, Marvel fans are undoubtedly familiar with the torrid love affair between Luke Cage and Jessica Jones. As far back as the character's creation and as recently as a few years ago, this depiction of interracial romance may have been considered controversial and possibly too polarizing for television. But "Scandal" is only the latest bulldozer to shift that tired, old grief out of the way.

More problematic than Cage's love story may be his back story. Hannibal Tabu, editor in chief of the "black geek website" Komplicated and writer for Comic Book Resources, takes issue with how Luke Cage's origin myth -- the backbone of any great superhero -- lines up perfectly and disturbingly with commonly accepted beliefs about African-American males:

While it's encouraging to see any hero of color come to silver or small screens, the fact that Luke Cage falls so stereotypically into what some call the Black Hero Origin Algorithm for Major Publishers (criminal background, raised in poverty, military service, in the Olympics or some combination of the previous) makes him a less than encouraging symbol for our youth, reinforced by the fact that very few Black creatives had a hand in the creation or definition of the character.

It's possible that, come production, Marvel and Netflix may attempt to clean up Cage's image a bit. But given what has already been written about him in the Marvel canon, it is unlikely that his back story will be much altered. As previously mentioned, many of our current and most beloved TV heroes are fairly dark customers. It might be more insulting to African-Americans to conclude that Luke Cage should, for propriety's sake, not have skeletons as rotten as Don Draper's, Tony Soprano's or Dexter's and still rise to the level of "hero." It's all in the execution, how the details are fleshed out. Oh, and don't forget the casting.

Even though we're many seasons away, TV -- especially binge-oriented Netflix TV -- can move pretty fast. And so I'd like to suggest some possibilities for casting Luke Cage as an intelligently-written, nuanced, conflicted superhero. During his time on his version, John Singleton championed Tyrese Gibson. The jovial, charismatic actor is still not a horrible choice if you want to give Cage a sense of humor to offset his toughness. Following the critical acclaim of "12 Years a Slave," Chiwetel Ejiofor will soon be a name on everyone's lips even if they can't pronounce it. Good luck luring him to genre television after Oscar season. Michael B. Jordan ("Fruitvale Station," "Parenthood") and Gaius Charles ("Friday Night Lights") are both solid picks with respectable TV credentials if you want to go much younger. But my suggestion is a bit counterintuitive.

"The Wire's" Jamie Hector is hardly the physically intimidating type you might imagine Luke Cage to be. But Cage's physical strength is artificial like Spider-Man's. So why couldn't he be wiry and tough like Peter Parker? Also, Hector was remarkably formidable as the pensive, soft-spoken drug dealer Marlo on "The Wire," adept at internalizing and delicately revealing that man's most grievous intentions. Yet, in person, the actor is wonderfully affable. Luke Cage still has a long road to travel before we finally see him escape the familiar frames of the standard comic book. Hopefully, Marvel and Netflix will get him off to a strong start.

Neil Drumming

Neil Drumming is a staff writer for Salon. Follow him on Twitter @Neil_Salon.

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