Superheroes reinvented: ‘Supacell’ is about to change the game

Wormholes, spectacular VFX and Avirex jackets as far as the eye can see. No, this isn’t Marvel. We’re behind-the-scenes on Netflix’s new superhero epic ‘Supacell’. It’s a genre-twisting slice of London life that’s giving superpowered heroes as we’ve never seen them before. And it’s the handiwork of Peckham’s own Andrew ‘Rapman’ Onwubolu.

‘Supacell’ is a long way from the rapper-writer-and-filmmaker’s guerilla-style ‘Shiro’s Story’. That attention-grabbing YouTube short signalled the arrival of a significant new talent back in 2018. If the bullish Londoner has anything to do with it, there’s a lot further to go.

‘I know the ting’s levels above anything we’ve seen come out of the UK,’ Rapman says of his new superhero series. ‘I’m going big! I’ve put everything into this and I’m expecting to get everything back: the accolades, the numbers, the critical acclaim. I want all of it.’

He’s staying true to his roots, which is why I’m talking to him on a freezing November day on a set in Hounslow and not in, say, Hawaii. Like ‘Shiro’s Story’ and his headline-grabbing feature debut ‘Blue Story’ — another urban drama that, uniquely, featured a rapping Greek chorus  ‘Supacell’ is set in the streets and estates of Deptford and Peckham, his old turf. ‘Top Boy’ meets ‘X-Men’? Maybe.

Photograph: Olly Courtney/NetflixLondon’s new superheroes assemble

Super civilians

‘Supacell’ follows five South Londoners who mysteriously gain superpowers and have their worlds turned upside down. For drug dealer Rodney (Calvin Demba), super speed solves his distribution worries, but for recently engaged delivery driver Michael (Tosin Cole) time-travelling alone won’t be enough to save the love of his life. Then there’s telekinetic Sabrina (Nadine Mills), strongman Andre (Eric-Kofi Abrefa) and Tazer (Josh Tedeku), a teenage gang leader with the power of invisibility.

This is much more than your typical hood story

It’s a fitting next step for a man whose moniker might have come straight out of a comic book. Instead of flying through Metropolis in bright leotards, you’ll find Rapman’s superheroes in Daphanie’s Taste of the Caribbean restaurant on Peckham High Street.

Although on this particular shooting day, a freezing night in November 2022, Hounslow is standing in for South London. And the only thing preventing hypothermia are the raw flames emanating from the prop barrels as the crew prepares the next action-heavy set-up. 

Photograph: NetflixRodney (Calvin Demba) charges up for a supersonic dash

Mo’ Powers, Mo’ Problems

‘Supacell’, though, isn’t just the ‘Peckham Black Panther’. Rapman wants to make that clear right at the top.

‘Spider-Man, The Fantastic Four, Captain America… there are so many stories about people getting superpowers and using them to save the world,’ he says, ‘but I wanted to tell a story about what it would look like when people like us get powers.’

What would it look like when people like us get powers?

Filtering the oh-so-familiar superhero origin story through a more realistic prism of race and social status is the name of the game. What would it actually look like? ‘Black people already go through life with an extra layer of scrutiny and judgement,’ says Rapman. ‘As much as having powers is amazing, it would also attract more unwanted attention.’  

So there’s no Thanos to vanquish here; no gauntlets to safeguard. ‘Instead of defeating an intergalactic supervillain, these heroes are putting their powers to more relatable use,’ explains Rapman. ‘One of the characters is using his powers to save the love of his life, another is trying to keep his son safe. As a father, I can relate to that.’

Photograph: NetflixTosin Cole as Michael and Adelayo Adedayo as Dionne

Putting South on top

As a teenager, Rapman spent his idle moments hanging out in his neighbourhood of Deptford, formative years that saw him crafting his spoken-word storytelling style. It found its voice in 2019’s ‘Blue Story’, a unique mix of London gang thriller and Greek tragedy.

‘They say to write what you know – and I know South London,’ he laughs. ‘I’ve never lived anywhere else and I still live there now. I know the energies, the personalities and the surroundings – and they know me. They remember how I used to run through these streets as a little kid and now I’m shooting a big show there.’

They say to write what you know – and I know South London

In its early drafts, ‘Supacell’s characters were going to represent different areas of London. Then Netflix executive Anne Mensah stepped in with a key note. ‘She wanted it all in South,’ he remembers. ‘I said: “No problem! Let’s throw in all of the Morleys that we can.”’

For his star, Tosin Cole, it meant everything to be back on his home turf. ‘To film in South London was just perfect, bro,’ he grins. ‘I would literally see cousins and family members walking past.’ The actor, who moved back to London from New York as an eight-year-old, was shooting at his old haunts: Deptford High Street, Thamesmead and Peckham. ‘We did so many things on that [Thamesmead] strip: we linked girls there, the mandem would chill there on the block, we’d ride bikes and kick ball and all sorts. It all made me step back and think: We’ve come a long way!’ 

Photograph: Kevin Baker/NetflixRapman on the set of ‘Supacell’

Risky business

Unlike his previous, self-funded projects, Rapman is spending someone else’s cash this time – plenty more of it – and he’s mindful of the risk that comes with trying something new.

‘The world has an obsession with London street culture,’ he notes, ‘and if I’d followed the same model as “Top Boy” or some of my previous work, it would have been a guaranteed win. Not to mention that it would’ve been much lower budget. The pyrotechnics, stunt coordinators and CGI aren’t cheap,’ he says, pointing to the climactic set-up taking shape across the set. 

‘But I don’t want people to look at “Supacell” that way. It is based in the hood, but it’s much more than your typical hood story.’

Photograph: NetflixEric Kofi Abrefa and Nadine Mills in action on set

For us, by us

You might assume that the inspiration for Rapman’s Black superheroes came from the viral Twitter joke that Black people would gain superpowers on December 21, 2020. Not so, says Rapman. ‘It was funny that I was writing a story about the same thing. For me, it was a sign that “Supacell” needs to come out to the world.’

And the Londoner is confident that the world will be ready for his vision. ‘There’s no point taking a swing if you’re not going to swing hard,’ he says, name-checking Netflix smashes like ‘Stranger Things’ and ‘Ozark’ when I ask what his hopes are for ‘Supacell’.

‘I’m the first Black man to write, direct and run his own show on Netflix. The first,’ he says, ‘and I won’t be the last.’

Supacell is on Netflix worldwide Jun 27.

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