At the start of Luke Cage‘s 11th episode, “Now You’re Mine,” the villains Hernan “Shades” Alvarez (Theo Rossi) and Willis “Diamondback” Stryker (Erik LaRay Harvey) have a heart to heart amidst the wreckage of Harlem’s Paradise. Cage (Mike Colter) is on the loose somewhere in the club, protesters trapped inside have now become hostages, and the police are on their way. Shades isn’t particularly fond of the situation and thinks everyone should bail, but Diamondback — who only just entered the picture three episodes prior — won’t budge. For reasons unknown to Shades and somewhat understood by the audience, he won’t rest until both Cage and his cop friend, Misty Knight (Simone Missick) are dead.
“With them dead, we control the story,” Diamondback explains. “The bigger the stall, the more time we have for other diversions. Misty will be dead, I’ll have another shot at Cage, and there’s bound to be another way out of here. We’ll cross that bridge soon enough.”
Unimpressed, Shades quips, “That’s your plan? That’s it?”
The playful (but serious) animosity expressed between the two speaks volumes about their relationship. After all, Diamondback serves as Luke Cage‘s Thanos-like big bad, pulling the strings throughout the first half and ultimately showing up to do it himself. And Shades? Considering just how often he coerces individuals and manipulates events throughout all 13 episodes to serve the whims of Diamondback, Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes (Mahershala Ali) and Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard), he’s more like Loki’s string-puller (or as Rossi explains to us, the Marvel/Netflix world’s closest equivalent to Game of Thrones‘ Littlefinger).
However, this scene (and others like it) also demonstrates what the Marvel/Netflix partnership has accomplished that — aside from a handful of examples — its cinematic forebears never could: The creation and execution of complex, well-rounded villains whose individual story arcs are almost as complete as their heroic rivals. David Tennant’s Kilgrave achieved a horrifying version of this in Jessica Jones, and if Rossi and Harvey’s performances alongside Ali and Woodard are any indication, so too has Luke Cage.
From the first moment Rossi’s Shades enters the picture in “Moment of Truth,” the question of who he is and what he wants becomes central to the show. The guns Diamondback had given to Cottonmouth to sell are being held by the police, the money for the failed exchange is missing, and here’s Shades — wearing his trademark sunglasses indoors while offering his services. “Why is this feeling like a takeover?” Cottonmouth demands of his old friend, who responds: “It’s not. If it was, you would never even see Diamondback coming. He wants you to win. How can I help?”
“Shades is strictly about power, and he’s playing the long game. It’s a marathon to him. This isn’t a sprint. From the second he came in, people had no idea what was going on,” Rossi says. “He’s happy in a position of power, but nobody knowing it. That’s why I’ve always loved that reference Cheo said about the Littlefinger, like Littlefinger from Game of Thrones. He’s the Littlefinger of Harlem in a way, because he’s kind of dictating the way things are going and nobody sees it. Though the really astute fans and the smart fans are starting to see it.”
Rossi, who first gained fame on Sons of Anarchy, “grew up drawing comics and reading comics” long before the Marvel/Netflix collaboration ever came to be. So when the opportunity to play a comic book villain in Luke Cage arose, he jumped at the chance. “To me, the villains that I’ve always looked up to were the ones for whom it didn’t matter who the hero was. They were just going for power. They didn’t have a personal vendetta against somebody. They didn’t have whatever. They were just going for this thing and the hero was trying to stop them. It’s like Wilson Fisk [in Daredevil]. Fisk is just going for power. He doesn’t care who’s trying to stop him.”
Sure enough, Shades is the series’ only bad guy who never becomes infatuated with the idea of Cage’s demise. Cottonmouth gets involved in the first half of the season, though only because the neighborhood hero starts messing with his money. Dillard, in turn, targets Cage when his random acts of bulletproof kindness put a dent in her political aspirations. As for Diamondback, his reasons for wanting to kill Cage are the most personal of all. But Shades? He doesn’t really care whether the so-called “Power Man” lives or dies, and changes his tune only when his or Dillard’s quest for power is interrupted.
“I love that there’s a #ShadyMariah hashtag,” Rossi jokes. “Mariah was the perfect vessel to get him into a position of power. He helped find her dark side, then pushed it out with the help of someone like Diamondback, who kept putting her in all of these bad positions and raising her anger. Though Shades was doing it in more of a cerebral way, which I loved.” Hence his favorite fan reaction to Luke Cage‘s ending: “‘Luke’s in jail and Shades and Mariah are in a club hanging out. That’s not the way superhero shows are supposed to work.’ That’s what I love about it so much. You have these two people — one started as a politician, and the other is this shady guy who might be more villainous than any other person we saw the whole time.”
Meanwhile, the audience is never confused about Boardwalk Empire alum Erik LaRay Harvey’s Diamondback. Luke Cage‘s second serpentine villain shared many of Shades, Dillard and Cottonmouth’s aspirations. Yet his sole drive was to mount a vengeful campaign of violence against Cage for reasons that finally became clear once the two former friends’ paternal connection came to light. The first and second issues of Hero for Hire feature Diamondback’s short-lived beef with Cage, and the former’s animosity has more to do with the latter having dated his girlfriend. However, showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker added a new twist that immediately piqued Harvey’s interest.
“When [Coker] brought in the same father aspect, I was like, ‘Just say no more.’ That’s something that’s very important in the black community — fathers and sons. Black fathers being there, and when they are there, what do they do?” Harvey explains. “In this case, to be the firstborn son of a minister, and to have a minister do this to his own son, was really powerful for me as an actor. I have my own father. I know what difficulties we’ve had. And it was going to be a universal subject because not only does it touch upon the black community, but it’s men in general who have issues with their fathers. They say fathers and sons, and mothers and daughters, are the closest bonds. It’s that same-sex familial relationship that’s really, really important.”
Like Daredevil and Jessica Jones‘ first seasons, Luke Cage makes adept use of its 13-episode running time to develop its bad guys. By giving Harvey the space to dig deep into Diamondback’s personal history, the show presents viewers with a character whose machinations are far more intriguing than any run-of-the-mill, conquer-the-world super villains. “When one starts out as fucked up as Diamondback does, how can you imagine him becoming anything else? Can you imagine a life for someone like that?” Harvey says. “This psychotic person who has to think this way in order to survive, because that’s the only way get could get through life.”
Of course, Diamondback would never have become a classic Marvel baddie without some kind of gimmick to use against his heroic foe. Cage is literally bulletproof, so any attempt to physically harm him won’t work unless the aggressor possesses his or her own enhancement. In Diamondback’s case, said enhancements included “Judas” bullets modified by alien technology recovered after The Avengers, and a suit created by Iron Man 2‘s Justin Hammer. “They didn’t give the costume to the hero. They gave it to the villain. I don’t think they do that too often, and I think I would have been the first black villain with a costume,” Harvey exclaims. “I didn’t care what it looked like. I was just like, ‘I get a costume!'” Albeit one Colter’s character, as Harvey puts it, “knocked the fuck out of.”
“The great thing about comic book and superhero stories is the villain is always flawed. He cannot be the winner. If he’s the winner, then you have no hero. The hero dies and that’s the end of the story. So through his ego and pride and wonderfulness, there’s always something fucked up,” Harvey adds. “You’ve got a villain who can’t even shoot straight! I shoot [Luke] in the stomach and the chest, but I don’t shoot him in the head or the heart. Sometimes Willis doesn’t know whether he actually wants him dead, which is family. You love them, you hate them, but you don’t want them dead.”
Between Diamondback’s familial connection to Cage and Shades’ devotion to Mariah’s success, Luke Cage affords its audience plenty of catalysts for real emotional connections to its rogues gallery. Much of this has to do with the series’ length, but as Rossi and Harvey attest, Coker’s collaborative nature and attention to detail were just as responsible for their characters’ success.
“Cheo is the most collaborative person I’ve ever worked with, hands down,” says Rossi. “The only weird thing with this as an actor is you go back after seeing certain things and think, ‘Oh I would have played that so differently in that episode if I knew that.’ So you’ve got to trust in the words that you’re saying in the moment, which really helps. You’re living in the moment not knowing what’s happening. I had no idea what was coming, I just knew that there was a long game involved.”
It’s a long game that, as Harvey’s six-episode run proves, required his full participation long before his first appearance episode eight. Before then, Diamondback was merely a whisper between Shades, Cottonmouth and a few others, but Coker still kept Harvey in the loop ahead of the reveal. “Of course I knew what was going on. I read every script, one through seven. I had to wait until they finished shooting one through seven before I got to show up on set,” he recalls. “The wonderful thing about Cheo is that he’s so open. He didn’t know exactly what he wanted, specifically at that time, but he knew he wanted something amazing. He was really open to a collaborative process, so we discussed my path and what could I bring to it.”
This includes letting the actors draw on their personal histories. Cage and Diamondback’s mutual father was a Baptist minister whose varied teachings (and parenting) shaped both men in drastically different ways. “My grandfather was a Baptist minister. I was raised in the Baptist church. Lots of cousins, aunts and uncles in the church. So the religion thing, I totally understood. The hypocrisy and the religion thing, I totally understood. He was a really hard character for me to play, personally. I don’t want to go into my father’s history,” Harvey says. “It was a really deep thing for me to play Diamondback.”
Coker, Rossi and Harvey’s dedication to such depth ultimately paid off, for Luke Cage‘s villains — both as individuals and as a group — are some of Marvel’s best antagonists to date: vicious, well-rounded characters whose motivations and scars drive them to commit just as many heinous acts of violence against themselves as against the hero. Maybe that’s why Harvey’s Diamondback always smiles whenever he’s onscreen — for protection. “He uses the smile as a mask, in effect saying, ‘Nothing bothers me. Everything’s always happy. Everything’s always good,'” the actor notes. “It’s not meant to be menacing, it’s just meant to be protective.”