WARNING: Spoilers ahead! Steer clear unless you’ve watched at least the first four episodes of Luke Cage.
Every superhero has an origin story.
In episode four of Luke Cage’s first season, fans get to see how cop-turned-convict Carl Lucas became the indestructible Power Man we know and love. ET’s Leanne Aguilera recently spoke with Luke Cage himself, Mike Colter, as well as the show’s executive producer, Cheo Hodari Coker, and Marvel Television EVP Jeph Loeb about how the epic flashback episode came together.
“It's important to us that you get to know who Luke Cage is,” Loeb explained. “For the comic book aficionado, he's a character that everybody knows, but to most people -- like the other [Marvel] characters on Netflix -- they're not as well known. So the idea was to take the first few episodes to introduce Luke, to introduce you to the world of Harlem, and to introduce you to the world of what Marvel is doing to this particular character in a very compelling way, so that you're caught up in it.”
For Loeb, the process of explaining who Luke Cage is began as early as the development process for Jessica Jones a few years back, when Colter proved to be pitch-perfect casting.
“The story that I love to tell is, when we were casting Jessica Jones, we wanted to make sure that, obviously, we had the right Luke and it was really important,” he explained. “He's not a leading character in Jessica Jones, he's in a half dozen episodes, but we wanted to make sure we got that right.”
“When Mike Colter walked in, six people went, ‘Is this the guy?’ He literally walked off the page and into real life,” Loeb continued. “[Comic book writer] Brian Michael Bendis -- who is one of the main reasons why Luke Cage enjoys his success today, and who's the creator of Jessica Jones -- when he saw Jessica Jones, said that Mike Colter was the best casting of a comic book character since Robert Downey Jr. became Tony Stark.”
Episode four of the hero for hire's new headlining series -- which shows an origin story as central and personal as any we’ve seen before in the Marvel ‘verse -- plays out almost entirely in flashbacks, as the uninjured strongman struggles to escape the rubble of his exploded bar in the present day.
We meet Luke Cage before he adopts his superhero moniker, but that’s not the only telling sign. Unlike the impeccably manicured man to come, Seagate Prison inmate Carl Lucas sports an unruly afro and overgrown beard. Plus, when he punches the wall of his cell in a fit of frustrated grief, he bleeds.
After falling into the bad graces of Rackham, a corrupt prison guard (who employs Theo Rossi’s Shades as muscle), Carl is forced to fight in underground brawls that the guards bet on and stream live on the internet. He nearly loses himself, but finds a spark of hope in Reva Conners (Parisa Fitz-Henley, reprising her role from Jessica Jones), a prison therapist who leads group sessions.
Inspired by this hope, and showing glimpses of his heroic potential, Carl decides not only to stop fighting, but to bring down the ring, a move that doesn’t sit well with Rackham and other corrupt guards who profit off the bloodbath. He gets beaten within an inch of his life, and that’s when Reva pleads with the shady Dr. Burstein (Michael Kostroff) to save him, using a submersion tank and a chemical bath designed to speed healing.
“That felt like that episode would never end,” Colter admitted of the climactic scene, where Rackham storms in just as Carl is being submerged and attempts to stop Dr. Burstein’s healing experiment. “It was claustrophobic, putting the mask on, being underwater, the pressure of the water on your chest...It took a lot longer than I thought, and it was cold and it was not ideal at all. But we got the shot and they made it look really cool and I bought into it. In the end, I'm really pleased with the outcome, but I don’t ever want to do that again.”
As is often the case in superhero lore, the experiment goes wrong. Rackham pulls a lever that ups the acidity level of the healing bath, and a light in the dingy basement lab shorts out, causing an explosive flash before everything goes black.
Carl wakes up a changed man, and the first thing he does is punch his way through the concrete prison wall, surprising himself with his character’s signature catchphrase in the process: “Sweet Christmas.” He swims to freedom, still donning the metal headband that strapped him into the healing chamber that, when coupled with a mustard yellow shirt and blue pants swiped from the nearest laundry line, gives fans a look at Colter in Luke Cage’s ‘70s-era costume from the comic books.
“The thing that was important to Charles [Murray, Luke Cage EP and the writer of episode four] is that it reflects the character that we created for the screen, but at the same time also reflects the comic book,” Coker explained of the tribute. “That was what was so great about being able to incorporate the traditional classic Luke Cage look and then understand how we got to this.”
The style doesn’t last long, however, as the hero-to-be catches a glimpse of himself in a nearby car window, declaring, “You look like a damn fool,” before ditching the headband. But for the show’s creators and star, it was an important nod to the character’s origins.
“I was happy that I was able to give the fanboys what they wanted, but I did want to keep the look that we had established -- just for the sake of being credible and being taken seriously,” Colter explained. “It was really important.”
“For many people, that is the look of what he is, and for many people, you also have to understand that that was the look in the early '70s,” Loeb added. “While a lot of that [style] is coming back, and is part of it, this is a show that takes place in present day.”
And with the updated look, comes Carl Lucas’ updated moniker. He meets up with Reva on the outside world, and together, they look forward to the start of his new life, laying low from the law as he begins to understand his new abilities.
“My father’s a preacher,” Carl tells his new love, reciting a verse from the book of Luke. “He used to tell me that no one can cage a man if he truly wants to be free.”
“So, Luke Freeman?” Reva guesses.
“Nah,” he smirks, “that’s a bit on the nose.”