“Sweet Christmas!” — Luke Cage, very 70s-sounding catchphrase
Naturally, when I started fan-casting the stars of the Marvel/Netflix series, I began with Daredevil and his primary supporting characters. For some reason, I skipped over Jessica Jones, but I’ll get back to her. Then, due to some attention he/it was getting in the press, I jumped to Iron Fist, even though his series won’t debut until 2017. Now, I decided to go ahead and fan-cast Luke Cage, whose series will debut at the end of this September.
Of course, we have already met the live-action Netflix version of Luke Cage in the “Jessica Jones” series, as played by Mike Colter. As I said in my review of that series, “Mike Colter is a better Luke Cage than I had anticipated, though ideally the character should be a little taller, have more muscle mass, and act/sound a bit more “street”, in order to be faithful to the source material.” I stand by that. However, it is becoming increasingly evident how difficult it is to find someone who has the right look, build (especially w/ big muscles), and has any acting talent. (More on that in a moment…)
For those who aren’t all that familiar with Luke Cage from the comics, I’ll try to boil it down for you…. Carl Lucas was a gangbanger from Harlem who eventually tried to go straight. His best friend, William Stryker, was still in the gangs and made the mistake of ticking off the Maggia (aka The Syndicate). Maggia thugs gave Stryker a serious beating, until Lucas stepped in and fought them off. Unfortunately, Stryker blamed Lucas for his girlfriend breaking up with him, so he framed Lucas for heroin possession. Lucas went to prison, where he was consumed with rage and resentment, and he was not exactly a model prisoner. After a transfer to Seagate Prison in Georgia, he also became the target of a brutal prison guard. Lucas agreed to be experimented on by Dr. Noah Burstein, who had developed a variation of the Super-Soldier process. The sadistic guard tried to sabotage the experiment, in hopes of injuring or killing Lucas. In the end, the experiment was more successful than anticipated, and Lucas gained superhuman strength (which has greatly increased in the years since), stamina, and durability (including bulletproof/knifeproof skin).
Lucas used his new powers to break out of prison and escaped to New York, where he adopted the name “Luke Cage” and worked as a “Hero for Hire.” For awhile, he gave himself the professional moniker “Power Man”, but he later dropped it. Over the years, Cage has battled many conventional and costumed and/or powered criminals, including his old friend Stryker. He was eventually cleared of criminal charges and became friends and even colleagues with many superheroes — e.g., Fantastic Four, Daredevil, Spider-Man, Punisher, etc. He has worked in various incarnations of the Defenders, Avengers, and (briefly) Fantastic Four. But, he is best known for his repeated partnering with Danny Rand, aka Iron Fist, sometimes under the business name of “Heroes for Hire”. Cage and Rand are also frequently joined, personally and/or professionally, by the bionic-armed Mercedes “Misty” Knight (who will debut in “Luke Cage”) and the katana-wielding Colleen Wing (who will debut in “Iron Fist”). In later years, Cage met, befriended, dated, fathered a child with, and then married the superpowered Jessica Jones.
Luke Cage is a very tall (6’6″), heavily-muscled (400+ lbs.), African-American male. The early 70s version (see 1st pic) has him with a short afro, and in the early 2000s (see 2nd pic), it was a bit closer cropped. Nowadays, he shaves his head and sometimes has a little facial hair (see 3rd pic). He is generally a pretty laid-back, cool cat (does that sound 70s?). But, if he gets ticked off, look out! He is a “self-taught hand-to-hand combatant with years of street fighting experience” and additional training with Iron Fist. He can also toss around Mack trucks and go toe-to-toe with some of the biggest superpowered bruisers out there. He has a big heart (metaphorically speaking) and is steadfastly loyal to his friends, come thick or thin. He is smart, self-educated in the law, knows several languages, and is an inspiring and charismatic speaker. But, any portrayal of the character should not forget that he spent several years in a criminal gang in Harlem, and he feels most comfortable on those streets.
I’m pretty sure Cage was in his early 20s when he got his powers. For a live-action depiction of his “origin”, I certainly wouldn’t want the actor to be over 30; mid-20s would be better. But, given Cage’s physical attributes, it is hard enough to find someone that comes close, no matter what age. And, of course, it would be nice if he had some acting talent. As usual, I considered several actors and athletes, most of which I rejected for being too old, too short, too pretty, too ugly, not black enough (e.g., “The Rock”), etc. I figured my best bet was to ease up on the height requirement — say, keep it to at least 6’2″ — and then find someone under 40 with some muscles and, if need be, hope he is willing to bulk up even further. Terry Crews (6’2.5″,b.1968) looks great and is in amazing shape, but he’s already in his late 40s. Similarly, wrestler Bob Sapp (6’5or7″,b.1973), whom I suggested to play “B.A.” in The A-Team, though he is a few years younger. Others I looked at include Henry Simmons (6’4″,b.1970), LaMonica Garrett (6’2″,b.1975), Mario D’Leon (6’5″,b.????), Boris Kodjoe (6’3.5″,b.1973), Billy Brown (6’2.5″,b.~1970), Michael Jai White (6’1″,b.1967), Erik King (5’8or10″,b.1963), Mark “Rhino” Smith (5’10”,b.1969). Then, I went looking at a few more wrestlers, bodybuilders, even football players. [Note: It is amazing how many professional bodybuilders are/were under 5’9″!] I found Quentin “Rampage” Jackson (6′,b.1978), Bobby Lashley (6’1″,b.1976), Phil “The Gift” Heath (5’9″,b.1979), Lee Haney (5’11”?,b.1959), Ettore Ewen (aka Big E Langston) (5’11”,b.1986), Lincoln Brodrick (6′,b.1984), and, finally, my top three candidates for Cage…
Brian Orakpo (6’3or4″,b.1986) obviously has the required minimum height and muscles, accompanied by athletic prowess. He is a linebacker who played several years with the Washington Redskins, before moving to the Tennessee Titans in 2015, and he is known for both his speed and strength. But, his main advantage here is his youth. On the other hand, as a professional football player, he has the least experience as an “entertainer”. I have no idea if he has any acting talent.
Titus O’Neil (6’4″ (billed at 6’6″),b.1977) — real name Thaddeus Michael Bullard Sr. — is a retired pro-footballer who is now a popular wrestler with the WWE. He is older than I would prefer. Otoh, he is (obviously) another biiiig dude who could play our hero. The fact that he is used to playing a role and performing for the audience gives me hope that he might have some acting chops, as well. O’Neil and Orakpo both have fairly deep voices, too, which I think Cage should have.
Rycklon Stephens, aka Ezekiel Jackson (6’3or4″,b.1978), is another tall and (very) muscular wrestler — formerly WWE, now independent — who just might do “Luke Cage” justice. He is the most massive of our three candidates, which works in his favor for this role. As with O’Neil, I am cautiously optimistic of his acting ability. Unfortunately, his voice isn’t as deep as those of the other two, which works slightly against him. Still, can you imagine finally having a superhero on-screen with a physique like that?
* All ideas copyright Christopher Harris, 2013-2016.