Luke Cage and the Challenges of Bringing Lesser Known Marvel Characters to TV

Marvel isn't afraid to introduce new characters and new settings on their Luke Cage Netflix series.

You might not think characters like Luke Cage, Shades, Cottonmouth, or Mariah Dillard are the most high profile characters in the Marvel Universe, but then again, there was a time when Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America were considered second-stringers behind Spider-Man and the X-Men. Marvel’s Netflix shows have been more than just mature, ambitious attempts at making the first genuine prestige superhero TV dramas, they’re also making household names of some of their lesser-known characters. And if Marvel Studios has proven anything in the last eight years, it’s that they can shine the spotlight on just about anyone (we’re about to get a Guardians of the Galaxy sequel in 2017, for cryin’ out loud!).

Den of Geek attended roundtable interviews with the cast and creative talent behind Marvel’s Luke Cage at the 2016 San Diego Comic-Con. Marvel TV Executive Vice President Jeph Loeb and Theo Rossi, who plays the villainous Shades on Luke Cage, were paired up for a chat with reporters, and I asked them about what the thought process is for bringing a stable of lesser-known Marvel characters to a high-visibility Netflix series.

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Jeph Loeb certainly expected this question, and it’s not something that phases him. “We try to tell the best story we can, and the part that makes me smile is my favorite. There’s this Los Angeles Times page that from 2008 that is framed at the offices of Marvel and it says ‘Without Spider-Man and without the X-Men, Marvel rolls out the B-listers, starting with Iron Man.’ And now, Iron Man is the most popular character in the world.”

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It seems like that little bit of press gave Marvel even more motivation for their rollout of less visible character. “I love the fact that Netflix came up with this idea for Jessica Jones which was ‘soon everyone will know her name.'” Loeb said. “That was the ad campaign. And now we’re all sitting around talking about Jessica Jones like, ‘Oh yeah you know about Jessica Jones?'”

“I knew of Jessica Jones, but I didn’t read Jessica Jones,” Theo Rossi added. “And when I even first heard it, I was like, ‘that’s interesting, Jessica Jones,’ You know? And now, is there a more popular female character than Jessica Jones? So I think the brilliance is in that because there is no preconceived notion, you don’t have this certain history that people are just like, ‘Oh it has to be this way.’ It’s open for interpretation.”

But Jessica Jones is one thing, but a character with historic and cultural significance like Luke Cage is another. “When you start with Luke Cage, you have a responsibility,” Loeb says. “Luke Cage in the early ’70s was, for all intents and purposes, the first black superhero. And so being that way and taking that responsibility on is to show people this is a new character. This is someone you might not know.”

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But it seems that everyone behind the series also understands the importance of representation, which is why getting Luke Cage right on screen was so important. “For a number of people, and starting with [Luke Cage showrunner] Cheo Coker, you know, growing up young and black in America, when he saw that comic book, that comic book touched him in a way that no other comic book had before,” Loeb said. “He was now being represented in a way that he’d never been before.”

But it’s more than just the characters who set Luke Cage apart, it’s the setting. This is the first Marvel Studios project to take things uptown, to New York City’s Harlem. “You also have to understand that we’re exploring a world that no one talked about, that no one has gone into,” Theo Rossi said. “This is Harlem. This is the history of New York. As a born and bred New Yorker, you’re plumbing into a place that’s a huge character in the show. Because every single thing about it, every flavor about it, from the music to the people who’ve come out of it, to the artists, to the streets, to the soul of the place is a huge part of this show. And I think that’s what’s make it so incredibly different than anything else we’ve ever done with this. It’s truly like nothing anybody has ever seen, and I’m really excited for everybody to really see it.”

Marvel’s Luke Cage arrives on Netflix on September 30th.

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