Photo: Marvel Entertainment
Mild spoilers below for Marvel's Luke Cage season two.
Jelani Cobb has become canon. As of today, the Columbia University journalism professor, staff writer for The New Yorker, and widely praised commentator on race in America can add a new distinction to his résumé: resident of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Early on in the final episode of Marvel's Luke Cage season two, Cobb appears as himself on a talk show, speaking about how the titular hero isn't up to the task of fixing Harlem in the wake of a new round of criminal chaos. It's not the first time the show has put real-life notables into the MCU as themselves — last season saw an appearance from Method Man, and this one also brings ESPN personalities Michael Smith, Jemele Hill, and Stephen A. Smith into the fold. Nevertheless, there's something particularly surprising about a serious public intellectual like Cobb showing up in a series about a metahuman crime-fighter.
However, maybe we shouldn't be so surprised. After all, Cobb says he was a huge superhero geek and a voracious reader of Marvel Comics while growing up in Queens. "I loved Wolverine, who, I think, is one of everyone's favorite characters," he tells Vulture. "Storm, I like a whole lot — I was an X-Men guy. Tony Stark and the Avengers. And, weirdly enough, I really liked the Vision. He's this character who's deeply involved in human situations, but is not human and is standing just outside; logical, reasonable. But his powers were also pretty cool."
And what about Luke, that bastion of the '70s blaxploitation era? Well, it's not so simple. "I have an ambivalent relationship to the character," Cobb says. As a kid, he didn't find Luke that interesting because "whereas other characters got to fight battles that had the fate of the universe in the balance, Luke Cage was fighting people in the 'hood — that was my initial thing that kept me away." But now, he sees an even deeper problem: "Luke Cage, like a lot of black characters in comic books, reflected this recognition that the medium has to be more inclusive, but it also showed the limitations of good intentions. [Luke's comic] was riddled with stereotypes," he says.
Cobb is particularly irked by the initial comics' depictions of Black Mariah, a character who was aggressively changed onscreen with Alfre Woodard's performance. "Black Mariah, in her earlier incarnation, was an overweight, loudmouthed, Black-English-speaking woman who would be closely associated with the 'welfare queen' stereotype," he says. All these years later, his feelings about Mariah have changed, thanks to the show and the vision of its creator, Cheo Hodari Coker. "That was one of the things I liked about Netflix and what Cheo did with the series. He stripped that character to the studs and said, 'What is a kind of villain that's interesting but also doesn't conform to these very flat ideas about black women, about Harlem, about community?'"
That sentiment is more or less in line with Cobb's view about the first season as a whole (he hadn't seen the second at the time of our interview). "The original Luke Cage [in comics] came out under the blaxploitation era, and a lot of those movies lionized the outlaws — in an unjust society, the outlaw is a hero," he says. "One of the things that was important about the show was it came out in the Black Lives Matter era. Look at what the implications of what that means. A black male character who's bulletproof — that's utilitarian. It's not the same idle aspiration of, What if I had all the cool tech Tony Stark has, or arrows that do different things like with Hawkeye, or Thor with his hammer. Those characters speak to a very different sense of imagination. For black people, that imagination is connected to something like, Damn, I wish we were bulletproof." Plus, he, like so many viewers, fell in love with Mahershala Ali's sinister Cottonmouth: "I really thought that was one of the best villains I'd ever seen."
So impressed was Cobb that he and Coker did a dialogue for The New Yorker in 2016. It was their first notable interaction, though they'd likely met before then. "We traveled in similar circles, though we didn't know each other very well," Cobb says. "His cousin was a classmate of mine in college, so we were one person removed for a long time." Their quasi-relationship paid off while the second season was in production. "His people reached out to me and asked if I would be interested in doing that interview scene," Cobb recalls.
Despite the fact that he'd already made his acting debut by appearing as himself on Queen Sugar, Cobb had trepidation about this opportunity. "I went back and forth on it," he says. "I really like the show and thought it'd be a fun thing to do, but I also think that sometimes it's important for journalists to keep a separate line from what they're actually doing versus the imaginary stuff that they're doing, especially in the era of fake news. But I talked with some of the people I respect in the field and asked what they thought of it, and they said they didn't think it was a terrible thing to do, so I went ahead and did it."
Marvel is notoriously secretive, so once Cobb said yes, he only received a micro-script featuring his scene and a little bit of the one before it. He went to the show's soundstage in his native Queens, was there for about three hours, and that was it. Due to that Marvel confidentiality, he then had the challenge of staying mum about his cameo. "My strategy was just to make myself forget," he says. "So I did it, and then pushed it out of my mind so it wasn't something there for me to even talk about. It was just, Okay, I guess I've done this cameo. I was super self-conscious."
So how does Cobb feel about his fictional doppelgänger living alongside Captain America, Iron Man, and his beloved Vision? When asked about becoming canon, he responds with a massive belly laugh. "It's a short step from being a cameo giving commentary to being the professor who is struck by some bolt of lightning and gains superpowers," he says. "So I'm waiting for that to happen."
Wait, How Did Jelani Cobb Wind Up in Luke Cage?