When you hear the word “diversity”, you probably think it’s a way of making all aspects of society more inclusive to reflect the changing nature of all our cultures and ensuring we learn as much as possible from people with different life experience and beliefs than yours.
Or you might think it’s a way of trying to shoehorn in major changes to society in order to keep politically correct lobbyists happy.
Whichever side of the fence you fall on, it’s interesting to note the reaction of people when decision are made by both publishers and studios to make characters interesting and engaging, regardless of their race. Consider the reaction when Sam Wilson took on the Captain America mantle in Marvel Comics, the outrage was palpable, as was the decision to cast Michael B. Jordan as Johnny Storm in the ill-fated Fantastic Four reboot. In both cases, race was an issue, because some people didn’t like to see traditionally white heroes recast as black – and there’s convincing arguments for and against.
But those arguments detracted from the true issue: Where are the diverse characters within the comic universe? The case put forward for altering the ethnicity of Captain America and Johnny Storm was the need to reflect diversity in modern society, but resentment came from taking to high profile characters and changing them. The sad part is there was already a strong character reflecting a diverse community in Marvel’s pages – and now he’s getting his own Netflix series: Luke Cage.
But who is he? Why is his nickname Power Man? How does he fit in with the other heroes in Marvel and Netflix’s universe, and how does he reflect a community that in many a blockbuster movie, get stereotyped or even ignored?
Let’s start with a brief history lesson. Luke Cage started out as Carl Lucas when he first appears in the pages of his own book: Luke Cage: Hero for Hire. Created by Archie Goodwin and John Romita Sr, Cage’s adventures were set in a grungier, more crime-dominated New York City than that inhabited by other Marvel superheroes of the time. His powers come from a medical experiment gone wrong while he was wrongly incarcerated, granting him bulletproof skin, superhuman strength and stamina. He was also created to feed off the then-popularity of Blaxploitation movies – ironic considering what he now represents. As the Blaxploitation genre’s popularity faded, Cage became unable to support his own series and was paired with another superhero whose popularity was based on a declining film genre, the martial arts hero Iron Fist, in an effort to save both characters from cancellation.
His fortunes would become closely linked with Iron Fist (who also has a Netflix series in the works) over the years, sometimes because their books didn’t hold an audience on their own, but also because they seem such a good fit. Iron Fist, or Danny Rand to give him his real name, is a businessman, with a focus on the ethical and spiritual strengths of his beliefs and those of the people he protects. Luke Cage is much more pragmatic, dealing in the real world, facing the real life problems and dealing with them in the most straightforward way, rather than worrying about the more long term implications. Together, they make a good team, and their relationship has endured throughout their history.
Cage as a whole has come to embody both the best and worst of Marvel’s output. At his best, he champions the cause of the downtrodden minority, bringing their voice to the table that the Avengers or other major groups sit at. Cage is a leader, and a father, having a son with Jessica Jones in the comics. He’s shown often fighting drug dealers and people who threaten the community in Harlem where he grew up and still lives from time to time, just as often as fighting the international and cosmic threats that come with his Avengers membership.
At his worst, he was the original stereotype. His outfit, with a loud yellow shirt open to the waist, silver headband and voluminous hairstyle, screamed just that. Cage was created to cash in on a series of films that were known for a less than sympathetic and deep exploration of ethnic communities – but thankfully, things have now changed.
To such an extent, that the series Netflix is showing, purposely or not, shows Cage as a positive role model. He has reformed his life, and strives to fight on behalf of those who need his protection. More importantly, he’s now a role model and a reflection of both the prejudices minorities still suffer, and the strength to deal with them and make people think twice about how they perceive people.
Crucially though, the cast have extolled the virtues of the more modern take on Cage that is featured in the series. Star Mike Colter told ComicBook.com:
“When I saw the tiara, all the 1970s blaxsploitation stuff, I was like, ‘oh my God…’ But they assured me, ‘that’s not what we’re doing, we’re doing a modern day version.’ But yeah, Luke Cage is production-codenamed ‘Tiara’. It’s so funny. We’re gonna give them what they want, though.”
Colter though, in an interview with IGN.com, is keen to show that race isn’t necessarily at the forefront of his mind when playing the character. He would rather make Luke Cage a good person than an example:
“I’m one of those people who is colour blind to a certain degree. And that doesn’t mean I’m not acutely aware of race in our country and abroad and in the world. I know what’s going on and I’m very aware of it. If you are a certain race, you know that. It’s not a big thing with me. I’m a black male who’s playing a character who has historically been black. The approach with the character for me is more about the human qualities and the things that make Luke Cage tick. And the writers have to then decide to bring in the race of the character, if there’s an angle there. But I don’t look at it as something I have to prep differently for, because I am what I am and I approach the characters as they have to then be played by me, Mike Colter – the actor who happens to be black. It’s more of an aside, rather than something I take on by the horns. It doesn’t really factor for me at all.”
Much like his streaming contemporaries Matt Murdock and Jessica Jones, this incarnation of Luke Cage prefers to keep a low profile, but with Colter’s excellent performances and knowledge of what’s really important about the character, the series has the potential to be a firecracker.
Oh, and he’s called Power Man, because he’s really, really strong.