“How do you deal with Luke Cage on a kid’s cartoon?” is a question a lot of people were asking when Disney XD announced the “Ultimate Spider-Man” line-up would feature the character as one of the young heroes working for S.H.I.E.L.D. alongside the web-slinger. Longtime comic fans know that Cage’s origin includes heroine, prison, prison guard brutality, attempted murder and secret experiments, none of which are exactly the kind of things you expect to see on Sundays at 11:00 AM.Â
But, Man of Action and the rest of the “Ultimate Spider-Man” crew, consisting of comic book superstars like Brian Michael Bendis, Jeph Loeb, Paul Dini and Joe Quesada and Supervising Producer Cort Lane, brainstormed and developed a different version of Power Man, while retaining the same powers and emotional backstory. This past weekend, viewers finally got a look at the origin of Nova, Iron Fist, White Tiger and Spidey’s teammate in “The Parent Trap.”
While on a mission to get the Zodiac Key back from Nick Fury’s evil brother Scorpio, Luke Cage and Spider-Man stumble upon a discovery: Luke’s supposedly dead parents are working for Scorpio! After a quick flashback that showed his S.H.I.E.L.D. scientist parents giving him a version of the Super Soldier Serum before an attack by the Zodiac, Luke discovers that his parents are actually alive, having been kidnapped and forced to work on the serum for Scorpio. With the help of Spidey, Power Man not only saves his folks, but also helps take out the terrorist organization.
In order to dig into the origins of this new history for Luke Cage for UNMASKING ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN, CBR News spoke with Cort Lane and Luke Cage voice actor Ogie Banks about the episode, what it took to get into the proper headspace for the character and, since it is the season, what their Comic-Con experiences have been like.
CBR News: First off, I saw the news come out of Comic Con International in San Diego that “Ultimate Spider-Man” got renewed for another season. Congrats on that.
Cort Lane: Thanks. In Season Three we have a lot of new adventures and get to meet some other characters. Spidey has a big adventure with The Avengers in the beginning of the season, and we get to meet Ka-Zar and Cloak and Dagger and some other young heroes, so that’s really cool.
Ogie, thanks for joining us this week. I’m curious, were you a comic fan going into “Ultimate Spider-Man” or did you enter fresh?
Ogie Banks: I was a comic book fan. I knew about Luke Cage. I knew about the original backstory that came out in the 70s going into it. That’s why I knew this was so important, bringing new stuff into it and I take it very seriously.
How did you mold the voice for Power Man when you were first thinking about the audition process?
Banks: It was with the help of Collette [Sunderman] our [voice] director. Working with her in the past and then coming together with her on this project, I just opened myself up to her and trusted her. Just looking at the character and the description that they gave me of the character, I went with my feelings and went for it.
Lane: When Ogie came into the show, it was by audition and it was the best audition, clearly. Luke is one of the hardest characters in the show to play because there’s a fine balance between keeping him young and genuinely a teenager and making him really tough and believable as Luke Cage, particularly in action scenes, because he’s trying to be the nicest character in the show. Providing extra depth and dimension on top of all that, Ogie’s done a fantastic job with a really interesting role that, frankly, is more difficult than it looks.
Ogie, has the way you approach the character changed as you’ve spent more time with him?
Banks: Just as Luke Cage on the show has grown, I’ve grown with my character, acting as the character and becoming the character. All those little things of not playing him too cool, keeping him superhero-esque, but still nice. All these different dynamics, episode by episode, I’ve grown into it just like the character has grown into himself.
What did you think when you first heard about the change in origin for Luke Cage from the comic to the show?
Banks: A few weeks prior, a few of the writers said they had some nice stories coming up for Luke with some backstory. I started getting excited ahead of time. Once I got ahold of the script, I was pretty much blown away how they came up with the new backstory and how it came together. I thought it was tight and right. I really identified with losing his parents and then finding them again, the whole emotional concept of the script. I thought it was awesome.
Cort, how far back did you and the rest of the writing and producing team nail down this origin for Luke? Was it in the early development phases of the show, or did it come about as the series evolved?
Lane: We knew from the very beginning that we were going to have to change his origin. Most of the fundamental pieces of his classic ’70s origin we simply couldn’t put on kids’ television, in all honesty. We wanted Luke so much — he was such a good character and his origin doesn’t define him in a way that it defines Spider-Man. We knew we wanted it to be a scientific experiment because that’s true to the origin, and we didn’t want to get into supernatural powers.
We knew we wanted to come to the question of, “Where are his parents?” from the very beginning. It was in the beginning of Season Two that we beat out and really fleshed it out. We also knew that his origin was going to be related to S.H.I.E.L.D. in some way.
I noticed with the episodes featuring Spider-Man teaming up with just one of his teammates, like “Legend of Iron Fist,” last week’s “Guardians of the Galaxy” and this one, that there’s a strong theme of family, either the one you’re born into or the one you make. Was that a theme you wanted to play up from the beginning?
Lane: It’s intentional. Spider-Man has certainly created his own family with Fury, and we touch on those familial themes. In this episode in particular it was out in front with the subtle contrast of Luke and his parents and Nick and his evil brother. The most important thing for us is the Spider-Man story in relation to this episode. The family element is very important to him. He himself is an orphan like Luke believes he is, and the decision he has to make in this episode is, is he going to fulfill the mission — and the mission is incredibly important for the fate of the world — or is he going to help his friend find his parents? It’s a wonderful story about Luke discovering his parents, so we bring Spidey into the story with a family angle.
Ogie, what’s it like when you’re recording an episode that’s just you, [Spider-Man voice actor] Drake Bell and a few others? What’s your rapport like in the booth?
Banks: The cool thing is that Drake and I have formed a really good friendship and we have a good working rapport with each other. Moving into Aunt May’s house and doing all that stuff at the end of the first episode, reading the lines, we’d go off of each others’ facial expressions and get that support. When this episode came about, it was kind of heavy with the drama. Having that history of working together and having that friendship, we really felt that support from a friend and finding one’s parents and just getting into it. It was an easy flow.
Cort, you’ve mentioned before that the actors’ interactions in the booth can influence how the writers write for them, was that the case with this episode?
Lane: Yeah, a little bit. The cast’s relationships are similar in person. We wanted to give Luke more dimension this season so he didn’t come across as just this really nice guy. This episode provided us an opportunity to do that and another one as well. The Rhino episode was another example of that. In the booth, Ogie is a bit of a troublemaker. He cracks Drake up and they get in trouble. [Banks laughs]
You mentioned the family dynamic between Nick Fury and Scorpio earlier. Did that idea just mesh right away with the Luke story when you were trying to figure out the villain for this episode?
Lane: It just fell together very naturally. We knew his parents were going to be S.H.I.E.L.D. scientists, and we knew Scorpio was Nick’s brother. It was one of those things where we were just like, “We’re going to do this.” It was just so obvious.
A lot of comic fans can’t help but think of Jim Steranko when a Nick Fury and Scorpio story comes up. Did the crew look at any of that source material for inspiration?
Lane: Yeah. I know that the director Roy Burdine and Alex Soto, our supervising director for this episode, they did look at a lot of that classic S.H.I.E.L.D. stuff and [the episode] does have that feel. The teaser sequence is like one of those classic stories brought to life. For me, that’s really fun, especially because our group is working on “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” To get a cool episode of Agent Coulson [voiced by Clark Gregg] leading agents in the field is a like a little taste of that world, so all of that was very cool.
In the past, we’ve discussed how everything’s building up to a larger story at the end of the season. Will Luke’s parents play into that?
Lane: We will see them again, not as characters who drive story, but as part of S.H.I.E.L.D. which continues to support Spidey and be involved in his adventures. We have an episode coming up in a couple weeks where we’re going to see them again. It’s nice to know they’re out there — Luke has his parents back and gets to work with them and have a relationship with them. We knew we had to see them again.
Ogie, I’m not sure if you went to SDCC this year or not, but how has the interaction with fans been at conventions? You probably have a good deal of experiences considering you’ve done a variety of projects like “Naruto” and the Saints Row games.
Banks: I didn’t go this year, but the fans have been great. As the years go by, it grows and grows and become more, especially with Twitter, Facebook and all that. I’ve had fans that have developed fan pages for me and all that kind of stuff. When I went to Comic-Con last year, the fan turnout was great. Everybody just seems really cool and supportive. One thing I’ve noticed is that they all do their homework. They all know everything, and I think that’s so cool. It keeps me on my toes — I better not slip up, because they know every detail.
There’s a lot of interest around voice acting right now, between the “Talkin’ Toons with Rob Paulsen” podcast, Mary Jane voice actress Tara Strong being a Twitter superstar and the documentary “I Know That Voice.” Do you think that’s contributed to the fan enthusiasm?
Banks: Definitely. Before, people didn’t really know anything, but now they have all the information and know who’s doing what, who’s directing what, who’s on what. People are just really in the know. The information is out there and people are grabbing it and learning it.
Cort, you and the gang were absolutely at SDCC this year. What was your experience like? Do you have any time to walk the floor, or is it all business?
Lane: It was a big year. Comic-Con is usually a gauntlet for me. I’ve actually been going since I was 13 because I grew up in San Diego, so I’ve seen it evolve over the years, from a real, tiny comic book convention in a hotel basement to what it is now. Now, it’s work for me — and a lot of work — but I had a couple of highlights. This year I got to hang out a little bit with Tara Strong, who you just mentioned. She is a rock star. She has a huge following and what she’s been able to do to evangelize and educate people about what voice actors do and how talented they truly are is amazing.
It’s so much work at Comic-Con, so many meetings and so many people, but this year the Make-A-Wish foundation asked us to arrange some things for some kids. We were able to do that both with our voice talent and the “Agents of S.H.I.EL.D.” actors. That was really fun because it was heart-warming and a rewarding experience which you don’t always get at Comic-Con when you’re working there.
A third thing that was really cool for me is that I’ve been working on helping Disney with the “Phineas and Ferb: Mission Marvel” special. We unveiled a big clip from that at Comic-Con and the crowd just went crazy. That was really cool because I’m really proud of how that came out.
Next week’s episode is “Stan By Me,” starring Stan Lee’s janitor character who’s been seen throughout the series. What can fans expect from that episode?
Lane: They can expect a lot of great Agent Coulson stuff. Mary Jane comes back in a big way. They’ll also see that Stan is really kick-ass and has links to the Marvel Universe that span decades and has, actually, secretly been an important character in the series from episode one — and even before that. He’s just been waiting all this time to reveal it to the fans.
The Stan Lee-centric episode of Disney XD’s “Ultimate Spider-Man,” titled “Stan By Me,” airs at 11:00 AM this Sunday.