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Interview: Alfre Woodard talks Marvel’s ‘Luke Cage’

NetflixMahershala Ali and Alfre Woodard in “Luke Cage” (photo: Netflix)

It’s been an eventful year for Oscar-nominated actress Alfre Woodard, who had the rare opportunity to act in not one, but two different projects in the Marvel Universe. After making a brief but pivotal appearance opposite her longtime friend Robert Downey Jr. in the summer blockbuster feature “Captain America: Civil War,” Woodard is now playing a major role in the new Netflix superhero drama “Luke Cage.”

Woodard said the common denominator in the superhero projects was the novel idea of story first, then visual effects. Having characters with  superhuman abilities is all well and good, Woodard said, yet those abilities are less likely to enthrall a viewer unless there’s substance there.

“You can have all the special effects in the world and pour hundreds of millions of dollars into them, but so many times people walk out of these films and say, ‘Of all the execs involved, didn’t anybody read the script?'” Woodard said in a recent phone conversation from Los Angeles. “No matter how much technology we have, it comes down to the stories and storytellers.”

Now streaming on Netflix, “Luke Cage” is based on the indestructible Marvel Comics character who debuted in print in 1972. Having first made an appearance in Marvel’s New York City-set Netflix series “Jessica Jones” last year, Luke Cage (Mike Colter) returns in this new series to his Harlem roots to hopefully blend into the background and keep his superhuman strength and impenetrable skin a secret.

But when a vicious club owner, Cornell Stokes (Mahershala Ali), and his cousin, Councilwoman Mariah Dillard (Woodard), start wreaking havoc in the neighborhood, Luke has no choice but to emerge from the shadows to protect the innocent people they are targeting.

Woodard chalks the success of “Luke Cage” up to the show’s creator and showrunner, Cheo Hodari Coker, who studied journalism at Stanford — background Woodard believes helps inform the look and feel of the series.

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“Cheo’s an amazing man. He understands, appreciates and revels in the culture and the history of Harlem,” Woodard said. “He’s also a hip-hop aficionado. He’s the first journalist to realize that hip-hop was not just a passing phase and would be a successful world culture for generations. He brings all that creative intelligence to telling the stories to ‘Luke Cage.’ That’s why I signed on, and I have not been disappointed any step of the way.”

Playing Mariah over the course of several episodes instead of in a movie is a dream for Woodard, who thrives on developing a character over a longer period of time rather than trying to squeeze everything about her into a two-hour frame. On the whole, Woodard, 63, doesn’t think Mariah should be flat-out labeled as a corrupt politician, but just a person who happens to be a councilwoman with ambitions — albeit ambitions she’s been blinded by.

“It’s not just politicians who are like this. The role is not about how much we are willing to sink (to get things done), but how much we’re willing to wager to do what we think is right or helpful,” Woodard said.

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Ultimately, Woodard said, Mariah is far from being a one-note villain.

“I love Mariah because I think she is very complex, as we all are, and I love being able to play somebody that we all run into in real life. She has all the cuts and bruises, yet she has a sunny side,” Woodard said. “As an actor, I love that. I feel like she’s a real human being. In this case, people may feel like, ‘I can identify with them’ until the character’s life takes a dramatic turn and then go, ‘Oh, my God. I couldn’t go all the way there.’

“But that’s why we tell stories,” Woodard added. “To entertain, yes, but also to have audiences reflect and imagine themselves in these situations.”

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Movie review: ‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’

Photo: Disney/Marvel

“Avengers: Age of Ultron” (PG-13) 3 1/2 stars (out of four)

Earth’s mightiest heroes are disassembled and reconfigured in an exciting new way in “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” a thrilling, complex and action-packed sequel to the overrated 2012 original.

Once again written and directed by Joss Whedon, the hotly anticipated follow-up to “The Avengers” delves deeper into the fragile psyches of the seemingly unstoppable band of superheroes. It also skillfully blends a new villain and additional super-powered characters to the mix, thereby distancing it from any potential threats of sequelitis. The progression of the narrative feels natural and doesn’t try to rest in any way on its laurels, even though the film is a sure-fire box office blockbuster.

“Age of Ultron” picks up in the fictional Eastern European country of Sokovia, where the villainous organization HYDRA holds Loki’s scepter from the first “Avengers” film in their bid to develop weapo

ns of mass destruction. The team recaptures it, but thanks to the wicked, mind-altering powers of Wanda Maximoff (Elisabeth Olson) and hyper-speed of her twin brother, Pietro Maximoff (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a trap is set by Hydra when Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) uses the scepter’s power to jumpstart his dormant global peacekeeping “Ultron” program. Stark has the support of Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), but the rest of the team – Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) feel left out in the dark.

The final execution of the program, which helps Stark finally realizes his goal of artificial intelligence, ultimately manifests itself in a super robot named Ultron (voice of James Spader), who not only wants to kill his creator, but rule the Earth after he realizes his plan of global annihilation. And that’s especially a big problem when the Avengers as a team find themselves at breaking point, where loyalties are questioned and trust becomes a big issue, since members of the group have different ideas on how to proceed with stopping the enemy and creating a peaceful future.

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Coming in at just over 2 hours and 20 minutes, “Avengers: Age of Ultron” doesn’t feel too long, but rather a complete story because Whedon wisely uses his time to weave in the darker, complex vignettes of each team member in between all the action. For this reason, the film has more of a Christopher Nolan “Dark Knight” sort of edge to it, making the narrative that much more satisfying. While there are plenty of gags and laughs in the “Age of Ultron,” to be sure (a burgeoning romance between Hulk and Black Widow spurs some saucy humor, and there are also running jokes about Cap’s clean-cut demeanor and Thor’s hammer), it’s just refreshing to see that Whedon has adapted to the darker path of the Marvel movie series, where life for its superheroes moves onto shakier ground.

Of course, “Age of Ultron” is packed to the hilt with action, and the special visual effects are about as good as it gets. Particularly impressive is how the fluidness of the metal-based Ultron allows for some expressiveness, and you can really feel Spader’s smarmy characterization flowing through it. The hotly anticipated Hulkbuster scene is also hugely entertaining and diehard fans will definitely not be disappointed.

While the core cast of “Age of Ultron” delivers as expected, it’s exciting to see the introduction of new Marvel Universe characters to the mix like Vision (Paul Bettany) — who is a particularly thrilling addition — and the Maximoffs, who are finely realized by Olsen and Taylor-Johnson. And, without revealing too much, it’s great to see a hint of how the Avengers team is undergoing changes as the film series heads into the two part “Avengers: Infinity War” chapters coming in 2018 and 2019. There will be more in between, though, with “Ant-Man” (in July) and more “Captain America” and “Thor,” because the Marvel Universe is an expansive one – and we can’t get enough of it.

Tim Lammers is a veteran entertainment reporter and a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association, and annually votes on the Critics Choice Movie Awards. Locally, he reviews films for “KARE 11 News at 11” and various Minnesota radio stations.

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