Captain America has his shield. Thor’s got his hammer. Iron Man’s got his full-body armor. Not just weapons that they wield, but iconic symbols of their mythic power. At first glance, all Luke Cage seems to have is superhuman strength, bulletproof skin, and some pretty cool street clothes. And while some purist naysayers may not agree, I have to say he looks a lot tighter in his chosen garb than if he was wearing, oh, this:
But as the new Netflix series bearing his name proceeds, it becomes fairly obvious that while Cage doesn’t have red leather fetish gear like fellow New Yorker Daredevil, he does have an iconic costume of sorts–he just has to change it more often than even MCU Cap changes his. Luke’s armor may be his own black flesh (as powerful a metaphor today as when he was created in 1972), but his symbol of justice, as potent as Cap’s red-white-and-blue, as memorable as green skin or a spider logo, is his bullet-riddled sweatshirt. TINY SPOILER AHEAD: This becomes more explicit in a kind of “I’m Spartacus” moment late in the series, but it’s clear that showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker is well aware of the mythic power of his central protagonist as well as the imagery with which he’s chosen to adorn him.
I don’t go need to go into too much real-world detail to explain the sociopolitical ramifications of that aesthetic choice. It’s not subtle, nor is it intended to be. The imagery of superhero comic book mythology is rarely subtle, and for all its nods to gritty street level realism, Marvel’s blaxploitation-savvy, issues-tweaking Luke Cage engages just as equally, and as crowd-pleasingly, with the immersive comic book multiverse from which it sprung. Case in point, during Luke’s origin story, Coker and company conspire to let us see Luke in this snazzy get-up:
As in Daredevil and Jessica Jones, references to the MCU abound, from a corner kid selling DVDs that feature footage of the “incident” where aliens invaded New York in The Avengers, to villain Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes quite accurately calling out the stoic, righteous, cursing-averse Cage as “Harlem’s Captain America.” Dependent on the viewer, these occasional nods both large and small to the hyperfantastic “world outside your window” in which these stories take place may render their Bigger Ideas cheap and facile, and it may seem that Marvel’s adult-oriented Netflix shows are scratching at the surface of bigger social issues and ills as a way to borrow a deeper relevance than they earn. And it’s a fair argument, for sure. On the other hand, if these stories are functioning as a synthesis of pop art and cultural myth, isn’t it better that they stretch to imbue the narrative with some meaning, even if the reach at time exceeds their grasp?
For better or for worse, the Netflix shows are the equivalent of Marvel’s more challenging and engaging slate of comics, like G. Willow Wilson’s Ms. Marvel, Dennis Hopeless’ Spider-Woman, and Tom King’s Vision, where creators are given a long leash to play in the Marvel sandbox and craft smart, compelling stories with relatable leads (in spite of their preposterous abilities) that reflect a bit of the real world and the way we live in it back at us. And they’re expanding the playground in a way the movies haven’t managed or even attempted yet, giving us a strong female lead confronting issues of abuse and disempowerment in Jessica Jones, and a nigh-unbreakable black protagonist who’s equal parts badass streetsmart John Shaft and steel-skinned Boy Scout Clark Kent. And in both cases, they’ve gone outside the white male box and hired showrunners (Melissa Rosenberg for Jones, Coker for Cage) with a uniquely qualified perspective on the issues they’ve chosen to address head-on. In a world brimming over with mainstream pop entertainment that often scrupulously avoids coming to terms with anything that might make us pop a social blister, there’s something refreshing, if not downright heroic, about that.
When it comes down to it, the only downside I see in having a bulletproof sweatshirt as your icon is that it’s much harder to print on a t-shirt. Though I wouldn’t mind owning one of those hoodies.