Before Cheo Hodari Coker began plotting Season 2 of Netflix’s “Luke Cage,” he had to address the elephant in the room.
Actually, it was more like a snake in the room. A Cottonmouth to be specific.
Coker, a director, writer and producer who can frequently be found on social media answering both positive and negative questions and comments from viewers of his works, had frequently seen comments online saying that the killing of Season 1 villain Cottonmouth (Mahershala Ali) was a huge mistake.
There was a method to Coker’s perceived madness. One reason he gleefully accepted working on “Luke Cage” in the first place was his love of superhero comics. Coker still remembers vividly how he felt the moment he read the 12th issue of “Alpha Flight” (published by Marvel Comics in 1984), when legendary comics scribe and artist John Byrne killed the character Guardian.
“When [Bryne] killed Guardian I was verklempt,” Coker told The Washington Post’s Comic Riffs. “I wanted to bring that kind of thing to Marvel television. I wanted to kind of do what Hitchcock did with ‘Psycho,’ because it was a big deal to kill Janet Leigh. And so, that was the thing. Cottonmouth in that structure was always going to die. Even though people liked him a lot.”
The move also aided the evolution of Alfre Woodard’s Black Mariah, the character who killed Cottonmouth in Season 1. Her role would be expanded and given more depth in Season 2, and she’d also share an antagonist with titular hero Luke Cage (Mike Colter) in Bushmaster (Mustafa Shakir). Three villains would have made a crowd, and Coker always knew he wanted to give Woodard an even meatier part as Black Mariah, going back to the first time the two had dinner to discuss the role.
“[Alfre’s] brilliance as an actor is that she can harness any emotion from within so that it always feels real. She really dug the first script for Luke Cage and agreed to do the part, and we met with her and we were talking about family and she says, yeah, I’m very protective of my family,” Corker said. Then she told him, “If someone comes after my family I’ll cut a” and then added an unprintable expletive. “The way that she casually flipped from being Alfre, humanitarian, [multiple award] winner . . . it was like, whoa, there’s a lot of duality here. I knew immediately that this was something that we could enhance and play with [in Season 2].”
“Luke Cage’s” second season also had to deal with the culture-changing influence of the success of Marvel Studios’ “Black Panther.” “Luke Cage” may have been the first “black” thing Marvel had done in live-action back in 2016, but “Black Panther’s” success meant the stakes had been raised. Coker never worried. By the time “Black Panther” arrived in theaters in February, he was done filming and deep into postproduction — but confident in what he knew he had.
“When I went to the ‘Black Panther’ premiere, my mind was blown,” Coker said. “The purple herb [in ‘Black Panther’] was very similar to Night Shade [in ‘Luke Cage’] and the growth of Killmonger was very similar to the arc we have to a certain extent with Bushmaster. I didn’t see it as much as oh my god they’re similar, as much as it was like, oh my god, even though [Marvel Studios and Marvel Television/Netflix are] separated, we came to the same kind of story conclusions. And seeing how successful it was for [Black Panther], it gives me hope that people are going to really love what we did for Season 2.”
Marvel Studios’ movies and Marvel television’s streaming Netflix worlds to some extent share a live-action universe, but they are still such separate entities that the two didn’t realize they’d used the same name for two different characters. Tilda Johnson, the daughter of Black Mariah on “Luke Cage” who is played by actress Gabrielle Dennis, was originally going to be the name of Erik Killmonger’s girlfriend in “Black Panther.”
“We found out luckily in time and they realized we had pre-negotiated to use that character,” Coker said. “They ended up changing that character’s name.”
When the time came to decide whether Season 2 of “Luke Cage” would include Marvel’s martial arts master, Iron Fist, Coker said he had to convince some higher ups after the polarizing “Iron Fist” Netflix series in 2017. Coker’s comic book DNA wouldn’t allow the opportunity for a Luke Cage/Iron First collaboration to pass. In the pages of Marvel Comics the two worked together frequently and were known as “heroes for hire.” Coker knew Marvel’s die-hard fans would appreciate the team-up, and he leaned on writer Akela Cooper and director Andy Goddard to make the episode as memorable as possible.
“This is where my arrogance comes into play. I just felt that Danny Rand within the Luke Cage universe. . . I just felt that he was going to be dope,” Coker said. “I don’t really care that he had two cold records. If he’s on my record he’s going to be hot.”
Coker said two standout performances in a Season 2 that had many were those of former NFL and University of Virginia running back Thomas Jones (who plays Comanche), who is revealed to be much closer to his crime boss/ally Shades (Theo Rossi) than anyone realizes, and Reg E. Cathey (“Oz,” “House of Cards”), who died shortly after production wrapped, and played James Lucas, the father of Luke Cage.
“We wanted to pick an actor who had the physical stature and the gravitas to [look at] . . . Mike Colter and say, ‘Sit down, boy,’ ” Coker said. “Every single scene [Reg] was in, he elevated the scene. When he got sick it was really tough on all of us.”
“The thing about Thomas is that the same focus that he brought on the football field, he brings as an actor,” Coker continued. “He’s humble. He knows that he’s starting from scratch in a new medium, and so as a result he takes it very seriously. He reminds me of a young Dwayne Johnson.”
Coker made sure to end Season 2 of “Luke Cage” with the focus clearly on the show’s hero. Though by season’s end, Luke Cage may not even be a hero.
“Even as we expanded the other characters . . . when the smoke clears, you see that Luke is, in the end, someone different,” Coker said. “Is Power Man corrupted by power? It’s one thing to get to the end of a season. But it’s another thing to get to the end of a season where it makes you think, did I even know this guy in the first place?”