Three alumni of the Mason Gross School of the Arts are bringing Marvel and DC Comics characters to life in fresh television and film interpretations.
We routinely marvel over alumni who become successful actors, but who would have thought that some would become Marvel and DC comics characters? But, lo and behold, that’s just what Calista Flockhart, Mike Colter, and Sebastian Stan have done—to dramatic effect—presenting their contemporary interpretations of yesterday’s comic book personalities on television, the internet, and the silver screen.
Flockhart MGSA’88, best known for her starring role as Ally McBeal on the eponymous television series, plays Cat Grant, an imperious media mogul. In her earlier comic book appearances, Grant worked at the Daily Planet and vied with Lois Lane for the amorous attention of Superman. These days, she is contending with the Man of Steel’s cousin, who is also her assistant, Kara Danvers. Danvers also happens to be Supergirl, played by Melissa Benoist. The two star in Supergirl, which has been airing weekly on CBS.
Colter MGSA’01 is Luke Cage, the comic book character from 1972 who was wrongfully imprisoned but has since developed some serious superpowers. In the Netflix original series Marvel’s Jessica Jones, he plays opposite Krysten Ritter, who has become a private investigator since jettisoning her former superpowers, but she remains a formidable person, as Cage finds out.
Stan MGSA’05 is an unassuming guy—which is why he makes such an excellent James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes, the dependable sidekick to Captain America. Stan has starred in the films Captain America: The First Avenger and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and he will appear in Captain America: Civil War, which will be released in May.
A Celebration of Girl Power
Alumna Calista Flockhart stars in CBS’s Supergirl as the shrewd media mogul Cat Grant, based on the DC Comics character, whose underling in the office doubles as Supergirl.
I am scared. I am scared because I have been watching the new TV series Supergirl and Cat Grant, the character played by Calista Flockhart, scares me. If you’ve ever had a boss who is exceptionally demanding and maybe a bit unhinged, then you know what I mean: That is Cat Grant. And I’m writing about her.
Will this end well? I do not know.
Of course, I’m really writing about Flockhart MGSA’88 (a 2003 inductee into the Rutgers Hall of Distinguished Alumni), Cat Grant being wholly fictional. But after watching Supergirl, I have Grant’s smarts and suffer-no-fools attitude spinning in my head, and there’s no escaping her. That’s sort of what she’s like for Kara Danvers, Supergirl’s alter ego: you get the sense Grant is always with her, this larger-than-life presence occupying a prime spot in Supergirl’s psyche. You watch Calista Flockhart as Grant, and you forget that this is the actress who played opposite Rob Lowe in Brothers & Sisters. You’re not thinking of the Flockhart who was the cultural phenomenon known as Ally McBeal. Flockhart occupied those television roles, and many others, with the agility and skill of a professional who has a Golden Globe and has appeared in everything from The Glass Menagerie (on Broadway opposite Julie Harris) to the films The Birdcage and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
In much the same way, Flockhart is now inhabiting the role of Grant, the founder and CEO of CatCo Worldwide Media. The media empire is at the heart of Supergirl, which is based on the DC Comics character; Supergirl also happens to be Superman’s cousin. Grant’s a media mogul, with a modernist wall of screens behind her desk, and although there have been comparisons to the editor played by Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada, Streep didn’t have to manage an assistant who’s also a superhero.
“She’s unapologetic and uncompromising,” Flockhart told People magazine. “She’s kind of earned this position in her life. She can be really nasty at times, but I don’t want to cross over into the world of making people not like her.”
That’s the genius of the role—this boss who’s likable even with her formidable demeanor and her flaws.
In one episode, after Grant is the subject of what is described as “a vicious cyberattack,” she gets advice from a pair of lawyers and dismisses them with an underhand flip of the hand, as if she couldn’t be bothered. She is not beneath referring to one of her employees, in a scene with Danvers, as “that handsome little hobbit who has more cardigans than you do.” A review of Supergirl in the New York Times notes the “charisma and amoral zest Ms. Flockhart brings to Cat.” You don’t want to cross her.
Now, don’t get the wrong idea: Grant is not the villain of Supergirl, though, it should be noted, one of her employees—in fact, the aforementioned “hobbit”—does refer to her (or, really, to her emails) as “evil.” As Grant admits at one point, “You don’t build a company like CatCo by being a wallflower and not having an opinion and a strong point of view.” You wouldn’t want her as your boss—well, maybe you would if you had superpowers—but you would want her on your side. And she is a delicious presence—one that’s generating buzz and fans, with the hashtag #CatGrant trending on Twitter.
“I knew I’d love Kara/#Supergirl, but wasn’t expecting #CatGrant to be my SuperWoman,” wrote one fan. “LOVE her!”
“#CatGrant really surprised me & gave me a lot of inspiration!” tweeted another.
Or this: “#CatGrant is the best. She gives hope and inspiration when it’s needed. Not to mention she’s all for #GirlPower.”
Even Chelsea Clinton tweeted about the series: “Glad to see Supergirl female heroes as lead characters in comic books and TV shows.”
Flockhart sees the strong female role models as a real asset of the show. “Our show is a real celebration of girl power,” she says in the People interview. “I think it’s refreshing and really important for young girls to have role models to look up to.”
And, somewhat surprisingly, it’s Cat Grant who is one of those role models—not just Danvers/Supergirl. Viewers are noting Grant’s evolution, even within just the initial batch of episodes. She’s a far more nuanced character than one might have imagined at the start of the series. “Cat Grant is easily my favorite character on this show because of the many layers that we’re seeing slowly revealed,” writes Alyssa Barbieri, an editor at website Fangirlish. “She’s a character who poses herself as a bad guy of sorts, but she’s actually someone who’s incredibly honorable and loving.”
We don’t know what’s in Grant’s future, but there’s no doubt Flockhart brings a special verve to her media-mogul persona, and we’re eager to learn what’s next. •
— Allan Hoffman
Hero for Hire
As the Marvel Comics superhero Luke Cage, alumnus Mike Colter stars in the Netflix series Marvel’s Jessica Jones, coming to the aid of the eponymous private eye.
Mike Colter doesn’t feel any pressure being the first actor to play the Marvel Comics superhero Luke Cage on the Netflix series Marvel’s Jessica Jones. “When the director, the producers, the writers, and I work on this stuff, we’re kind of in a bubble,” says Colter MGSA’01. “We just hope that people enjoy what we’re creating.”
The buzz began soon after Marvel’s Jessica Jones premiered in the fall, when Netflix posted the first season and viewers began binge-watching. First appearing in Luke Cage, Hero for Hire #1, the African-American comic book character of Cage was created in 1972 because of the popularity of blaxploitation films. A street-level hero with superhuman strength and diamond-hard skin, he is linked to Jessica Jones, who is played in the series by Krysten Ritter. A former super-hero recovering from post-traumatic stress disorder, she has become a private detective in New York City, solving cases that involve encounters with people possessing extraordinary abilities such as the villain Killgrave.
Colter, who began making television and film appearances in 2002, has had roles in Law & Order, ER, Ringer, The Good Wife, Zero Dark Thirty, and Salt, and Clint Eastwood’s hit movie Million Dollar Baby. Colter credits the Mason Gross instructor Maggie Flanigan with giving him an arduous theatrical education. “When I went to Rutgers, I ran into a real brick wall,” says Colter. “I was immature and I wasn’t serious about studying. The technique was so different and all encompassing that I just couldn’t keep up. There were teachers who saw my potential, and they were really hard on me. They always wanted you to reach your potential.”
Originally, Colter wasn’t familiar with Cage because he didn’t read comics as a kid growing up in South Carolina. With a vivid imagination that allowed him to roam in an interior world of his own making, he found inspiring roles on television as a kid and was enamored with Howard E. Rollins Jr. in the movie A Soldier’s Story. When auditioning for Marvel’s Jessica Jones, he had no plans to play a superhero. “I was looking to branch out and do some action stuff, to diversify,” says Colter. “But this came along and I got lucky.”
When he auditioned, Colter had only a scene to work with, not a full script, because executives at Marvel were guarding its contents so closely. To brush up on the role, he read the comics featuring Cage. “One thing I did know was that the producers were going to do something grounded in realism, and it wasn’t going to read like a comic book,” says Colter, who will star in his own series, Luke Cage, which will be a spin off of Jessica Jones. “I was pretty certain that all that stuff would be applicable to the scripts. You’re talking about a modern-day super- hero in 2015 versus a superhero from the early 1970s. I knew we had a chance to do something special.” •
— Kurt Anthony Krug
The Dynamic Duo
Alumnus Sebastian Stan stars in the Captain America movie series, playing Bucky Barnes, the indispensable sidekick to the famous superhero.
Sebastian Stan originally auditioned for the title role in Captain America: The First Avenger. Instead, he was cast in the 2011 film as James Buchanan Barnes—alias Bucky, alias the Winter Soldier. Bucky was Cap’s partner during World War II as they battled the Nazis. “I didn’t really know anything about the story or comic,” says Stan MGSA’05. “This movie was just another audition, one that happened to click. Fortunately, I did my research and got to fall in love with the Marvel Universe.”
Bucky first appeared in 1941 in Captain America Comics #1. According to Avengers #4, Bucky died at the end of World War II, and Cap was frozen in suspended animation for decades. (In comics, characters always return from the dead; however, in Bucky’s case, he wasn’t resurrected until 2005.) It was revealed that Bucky survived World War II and was captured by the Russians. They brainwashed him into becoming the Winter Soldier, a deadly assassin whom they’d “put on ice” until he was needed again. He even battled Cap, who restored his memories and set him straight. Bucky then became the new Captain America when the original died (but got better) and has appeared in Marvel titles ever since.
Stan knew none of this. “I became aware of all that after I learned I got the part,” says Stan, who appeared in the 2015 films The Martian and Ricki and the Flash, starring Meryl Streep, as well as The Covenant, Hot Tub Time Machine, and The Apparition. “When I met with the filmmakers, they educated me about the character. I loved that the character was to have a certain physical presence and look a certain way. That aspect was a nice challenge.”
The story was adapted into the 2014 film Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Stan made a cameo in Ant-Man in 2015 and will appear in this year’s Captain America: Civil War, starring Robert Downey Jr. and Scarlett Johansson. Stan is grateful for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, believing now is the best time for the comics to be adapted into movies, thanks to special effects and fan enthusiasm.
“You know what you’re getting, in scope and volume, when you hear the word Marvel,” he says. “Filmmakers continue to revolutionize these stories and make them special. Each is a specific film, yet all are connected in some way—which is the reason why they’re doing well. Marvel doesn’t leave a page unturned.”
Stan credits much of his success to two professors at Mason Gross, Kevin Kittle MGSA’04 and Barbara Marchant, who were big influences. “There are still times I look back and feel some of the work I did at Rutgers is some of the best work I’ve done,” says Stan, who also appeared in the TV series Gossip Girl, Kings, and Once Upon a Time. “I really loved my experience, and those teachers were very inspirational. I still go over my notes I have from Rutgers; that’s how much it has stayed with me.” •
— Kurt Anthony Krug