Courtesy: Netflix

Television

How Luke Cage Became Our Most Relevant Superhero

“With great power comes great responsibility.” We first heard those words uttered in Sam Raimi’s 2002 film Spider-Man—Uncle Ben used his final breaths to bestow the now-ubiquitous piece of wisdom on Peter Parker, who at the time was still coming to terms with his new abilities. Little did he know that he was also giving birth to what has become the leading mantra for any superhero in an existential crisis, and a can’t-miss coda for the people tasked with telling their stories.

Case and point, the first season of Luke Cage, Netflix’s third entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The man who plays Cage, Mike Colter, is so physically imposing, he could easily be mistaken for a defensive lineman, or a Greco-Roman gladiator, or a truck. But when we first meet Cage—his role as a love interest in the inaugural season of Jessica Jones notwithstanding—he wants nothing less than to stand out in a crowd. He’s a self-imposed recluse, forced to become Harlem’s savior because bullets just so happened to bounce off his body like ping-pong balls. Even when he was effortlessly tossing bad guys through windows, he was doing it reluctantly, as a hooded silhouette operating in the shadows. He was soft-spoken, stoic, workmanlike—the poster boy for Netflix’s street-level Marvel heroes.

Cage’s exploits also made him an inherently political hero. If you made the connection between a hoodie-clad, bulletproof black man and Trayvon Martin, you weren’t alone. “It's a nod to Trayvon, no question," Colter said in 2016. "Trayvon Martin and people like him. People like Jordan Davis, a kid who was shot because of the perception that he was a danger. When you're a black man in a hoodie, all of a sudden you're a criminal.” The show was hailed for the pointed way it depicted black American identity in a pre-Black Panther world, though if you were to ask Cage himself, he’d probably just shrug and tell you he was simply doing his job.

To say something that may not be popular, but to feel it in your heart as the right thing, is sometimes more heroic than anything you can do physically because it costs you more.

But in season 2—now streaming on Netflix—the trappings of the celebrity-obsessed modern world have forced our hero to shed his cloak of anonymity and embrace his life as a public figure. It’s the kind of about-face that Mike Colter can relate to.

Since landing the part of Cage three years ago, Colter has eased into life in the spotlight. When he was starring as the boxer Big Willie Little in 2004’s Million Dollar Baby, or as Lemond Bishop on The Good Wife, Colter was comfortable letting his work do the talking. But now that he’s the face of arguably the most political superhero show ever made, Colter decided he has a responsibility to give a voice to the voiceless. His chosen platform has been Twitter, which he joined in January after careful contemplation. “When Luke Cage was first released, there was a lot of attention that I just didn’t feel like dealing with,” he tells Playboy. “There was enough going on in my life without me being on social media. I have a young daughter, I had things to do. I had to take a minute to think about this and to think about what it is that I want to accomplish, and what is my reason for being there.”

Since entering the Twittersphere, Colter regularly tweets about issues facing all Americans, with a sharp focus on the plight of visible minorities. Scroll through his feed and you’ll know right away how he feels about prison reform, gun control and, most recently, the immigration debacle unfolding at the border. Earlier this week, he posted a video addressed to anyone who believes that public figures should not voice their opinion on matters outside the realm of Hollywood. “Most of us in the entertainment world came from nothing,” he says in the clip. “We worked very hard, found a way and pulled ourselves up, and somehow we’ve made it. But we also remember what it’s like to have nothing and what it’s like to grind, what it’s like to need health care, what it’s like to want taxes to go in the right places, to have a safe place to live. We care because we can relate to you. Wouldn’t you want someone that has a big platform to say things that actually might help you?”

Among the issues Colter feels most passionately about is America’s gun problem, which he has no problem speaking about at length. Take, for example, what happens when I ask him whether or not he appreciates the fact that his on-screen alter ego eschews the weapon entirely. “It’s nice that he doesn’t use weapons. It does help,” Colter begins, before getting even more fired up. “There’s a disconnect between reality and what’s going on, and there’s a lot of people who can’t tell the difference. They do not understand that the human life is precious. They do not understand that at no point you should decide that you should take someone’s life, and guns make it too easy for that to happen. If you ever notice how people talk about it, they talk about it as if it’s a video game. They talk about taking a life so frivolously and so nonchalantly, like they talk about going to get a cup of coffee. So when you give them the access, it gives me pause. If you talk about it so callously, it means you don’t have regard for human life.”

One can't help but get the sense that Colter’s sudden public wokeness is at least partly inspired by his character's newfound acceptance of the superhero life, especially since, when asked to explain Cage’s season two pivot, the actor does it in the first person. “I’m here, and I have to own this,” he tells Playboy. “And part of owning this is saying, 'Hey, you know what? I’m tired of apologizing for being me, apologizing for my abilities. I’m going to own it, and I’m going to see where this takes me.' It’s going to get you in trouble because any time you have these kinds of abilities, and you’re trying to make something happen, it’s going to take you in all kinds of directions. I’m going to have a target on my back.”

Of course, Colter isn’t conflating his activism on Twitter with a form of real-life heroism. But he does believe that real heroes exist all around us. When I mention James Shaw Jr., who ambushed an active shooter at a Waffle House in Tenn. earlier this year, Colter lights up. But he also points out that not all acts of heroism are of a physical nature. “I think bravery, sometimes, is to speak up or to go against the grain. And to say something that may not be popular, but to feel it in your heart as the right thing, is sometimes more heroic than anything you can do physically because it costs you more.” That’s when our conversation turns to Colin Kaepernick and what the quarterback perceives as the lack of support he received from the black community. “That was one of the huge reasons I got on social media,” Colter says. “I was so annoyed that we did not stand behind him in a way that made him feel supported. I feel like everybody was with him, but when it came down to stepping away from supporting football, everybody sort of stayed in line. It was very hard to watch that.” What Colter seems to be getting at is that not all heroes wear capes. Sometimes, they wear cleats—or a hoodie.

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