• Contested Boundaries and Conflicting Identities in Marvel’s Luke Cage

    [Retrospective: Like my other post on Ms. Marvel, this one’s pretty old. I wrote it in Fall 2017 for the South Central MLA Conference, which was my first “real” conference outside of graduate symposia. The paper itself was also the first time I’d tried to present something unrelated to my research in college, so I was more than a bit nervous — I even went in for a bit of bourbon before my early afternoon presentation…]

    The character known as Luke Cage, or Power Man, first appeared during the rise of Blaxploitation films in the early-1970s. Marvel’s Luke Cage repositions the eponymous superhero within the broader Marvel Cinematic Universe, a realm split by growing division between powered and non-powered humans. In the wake of the events of Jessica Jones, Cage has retreated into hiding and now seeks to rebuild his life in Harlem. Before long, though, figures from his past resurface and he’s forced to confront not only the world outside, but also the self he sought to leave behind.

    My paper explores the ways in which Luke Cage attempts to negotiate his religious, social, and ethnic identities over against the boundaries imposed by the individuals and institutions around him. I argue that in each case, Cage de-emphasizes the respective identification in favor of some measure of anonymity and, more importantly, normalcy. But, as he’s thrust into conflict with Diamondback, non-powered humans, and a white, militarized police force, he’s progressively stripped of any real semblance of agency, and effectively rendered powerless. It’s only when he finally faces and overcomes these artificial boundaries that he manages to reclaim his real strength.

    Identity Formation

    Identity formation is popularly understood as an internal process. We tend to believe that we maintain control over our identities because we choose to define ourselves in certain ways. An individual might, for example, identify as Korean because her parents were born in South Korea, even if she herself was born in the United States or Australia. Another might consider himself to be a musician because he plays bass at a local bar every weekend, even if he works as an electrician during the weekdays. Both choose their own identities by emphasizing the factors they consider to be most important in their lives.

    But the process doesn’t stop there. Without knowing another person fairly well, we cannot instinctively know how she views herself. We instead use visual cues — age, height, weight, sex, skin tone, and clothing — to categorize and stereotype before we have the opportunity or ability to fully appreciate her sense of self. We might therefore label our first example “Asian” because of her appearance, regardless of whether or not she ever thinks about herself as part of a broader Asian community. As a result, her attempt at identity formation becomes multi-directional in nature. Although she understands and projects herself in one way (i.e., Korean), we impose our own image of her identity (i.e., “Asian”) back upon her.

    The problem with external categorization is that it necessarily minimizes or disregards the emphases of the individual. In some cases, the resulting impact can be relatively small. If we mistakenly identify our musician as an electrician, for instance, he could very well correct us, but likely will not be too upset. According to sociologist Mary Waters, much the same can be said about the ways in which white Americans view their own ethnicity. For her subjects, third- and fourth-generation Catholic European-Americans, ethnic identity was largely voluntary and symbolic. It was something that brought pleasure to individuals because it allowed them to feel like part of a “special” community. Mis-identification was thus more likely to harm their sense of pride than their social or economic wellbeing.

    The same can’t be said for all groups. Waters also argues that “the ways in which ethnicity is flexible and symbolic and voluntary for white middle-class Americans are the very ways in which it is not so for non-white and Hispanic Americans.” For the latter, “the situation is very different” because their “lives are strongly influenced by their race or national origin regardless of how much they may choose not to identify themselves in ethnic or racial terms.” Skin tone and other physical attributes overwhelm nearly every other cultural factor members of these groups attempt to use to establish a unique identity. Like our example, then, they’re forced to accept the labels given to them, and thereby stripped of the ability to define themselves.

    Identity in Marvel’s Luke Cage

    In Marvel’s Luke Cage, the titular character attempts to exert this freedom by deemphasizing his religious, social, and ethnic identities. And this isn’t particularly surprising. Cage is a wanted man, a former Marine and cop framed for a crime he did not commit. As we later learn, he was sentenced to Seagate Prison, coerced into joining an illegal fighting ring, subjected to an unethical experiment — one that gave him super-strength and unbreakable skin — while on the brink of death, and is now hunted for escaping. All he wants now, he tells Pop, is to “sweep hair, wash dishes, and be left the hell alone.”

    Of course, he’s not given this opportunity.

    Religious Identity

    With regard to his religious identity, Cage’s most daunting obstacle comes in the form of Willis “Diamondback” Stryker, the primary antagonist of the series. And there’s a bit of history here. Cage was born Carl Lucas, the son of Etta and the Reverend James Lucas of Savannah, Georgia. His closest friend was the young Willis, son of James’ secretary, Dana Stryker, and, of course, James himself. Although Cage was unaware of their relationship until much later, Willis always knew that he and Cage were half-siblings. As Diamondback later says, “I just wanted [my father] to see me. I was a good boy. I did well in school. But he always loved Carl more.”

    Luke disagrees. He argues that “Willis hates me because my father hates the idea of him. What he doesn’t realize is that my father never really liked me very much either.” In fact, when Cage was sent to Seagate, James refused to respond to his letters, and seems to have written him off entirely. Cage, as a result, has not attempted to contact his father since the escape.

    It’s this relationship that provides insight into the way Cage approaches religion. For him, James and religiosity are essentially the same, not least because the former was a pastor. Any references to the Bible serve to remind Cage of his father, and this is undoubtedly why he invokes it so infrequently throughout the series. Over thirteen episodes, our hero cites Luke 4:18 once and Genesis 4:9 (“Am I my brother’s keeper?”) twice, all in reference to his father or half-brother. He also calls Diamondback his “cross to bear” on one other occasion. Each suggests a burden that can be linked back to his father and is cited only when Cage is forced into a situation not of his choosing. He refuses to engage with religion until he’s effectively made to do so.

    Diamondback acts as that catalyst. Unlike Luke, he embodies the religion of their father. In seven episodes, he makes a wide range of biblical references, citing Proverbs 18:24, Matthew 24:10-13, and Revelation 6:8. He refers to himself as a “snake” and “the angel of death,” and calls Cage “a false idol” and “golden calf.” During the hostage situation at Harlem’s Paradise, we learn just why he uses this language. Diamondback hands Damon Boone, a local councilman, a copy of the Bible, one that originally belonged to the Reverend James. As Boone flips through its pages, we see that certain passages are color-coded, while others are heavily annotated and circled or underlined. It’s the Bible of a delusional man, one who has lost his grip on reality simply because he wanted to gain favor with his father. And since he wasn’t able to do that, he blames and confronts his half-brother, forcing Luke to come face-to-face with the religious identity he’d hoped to leave behind.

    Social Identity

    Much the same takes place when Cage attempts to de-emphasize his social identity, the superpowers by which he tends to be defined. As we saw before, he’s initially hesitant to use these abilities to help people because he doesn’t want to be discovered. When he sees Shades, another inmate from Seagate, at Harlem’s Paradise, Cage immediately returns to his apartment and begins to pack to leave town. Not long afterward, Pop asks him to locate Chico, one of the three young men who robbed Cottonmouth, and ensure his safety. Our hero initially tells him to just forget about Chico, and only changes his mind when Pop collects on a debt. As Cage later says, “I laid in the cut until he [Pop] stepped up.”

    In fact, it isn’t until Pop is killed by Tone, an enforcer working for Cottonmouth, that Luke is finally spurred into action. Within little more than a day or two, he shuts down a number of the crime lord’s safe-houses, including the Crispus Attucks Complex, and thereby cripples Cottonmouth’s financial assets. Cage continues to fight for the people of Harlem until Cottonmouth is arrested, but makes a point of claiming that “he ain’t no hero.” All that mattered to him was that he “did right by [Pop].”18 With that task complete, he tells Claire, he’s “done.”

    Here, we see that Luke again refrained from acting until the absolute last moment, if not somewhat later. He may have played a key role in dismantling Cottonmouth’s empire, but only did so because Tone killed Pop. At that point, he had to embrace his superpowers to protect those still around him — and when all was seemingly said and done, he showed little intention of continuing to be a public hero. Instead, he turned his sights back toward the life of relative normality that had been taken from him.

    Ethnic Identity

    This leaves the ways in which Luke Cage de-emphasizes his ethnic identity. Although I normally prefer to define this term a bit more broadly, my focus here is specifically the experience of being black in Harlem. This is because, as Mariah Dillard puts it, “Harlem has been the jewel of black America.” As we see in the series, it’s a place of significant culture, one that’s marked by former institutions (i.e., the Cotton Club) as much as it is by its famous inhabitants (i.e., Dapper Dan). At the same time, it’s a real community, a place of family and friendship where everybody knows their neighbors.

    But Luke initially seems to have minimized his presence in this community. We learn fairly quickly that he’s lived and worked in Harlem for almost half a year, but he doesn’t seem to have any close friends aside from Pop. Some residents later claim that they know him from the barbershop, but, as we’ve seen, we’re led to believe that he keeps to himself. This eventually proves problematic. Cottonmouth, for example, accuses Cage of knowing nothing about Harlem, while Misty, a local detective, tells him to “either be a part of the solution or leave.” To them, he’s an outsider, both because he moved to Harlem and because he didn’t seem to want to belong.

    After he’s accused of assaulting two police officers and killing a third, though, Luke isn’t allowed to remain apart from Harlem. And there are two forces acting on him at this point. On the one hand, he’s pushed into the category of “black Harlemite” by local law enforcement. They launch a community-wide manhunt and actually equip themselves with special rounds (“Judas bullets”) capable of piercing his skin. On the surface, the NYPD is just trying to level the playing field because they can’t hope to stop him without these weapons. But the undertones of racism are impossible to miss. As Diamondback argues, “black fear” was “how gun laws got enacted in the first place,” and is exactly why the police will want to arm themselves against Cage.

    As Luke is being pushed into this category, the community responds by pulling him closer. They commiserate, and it’s clear they do so because they’ve experienced the same mistrust from and mistreatment by law enforcement. As Method Man points out, “bulletproof always gonna come second to being black.” Misty agrees, even though she’s a detective herself. When one of her colleagues asks why an innocent man would run, she responds with sarcasm: “He’s a black man being chased by the cops with special bullets. Accused of killing a cop and you’re asking why he’s running? Come on.” Meanwhile, hoodies with bullet-holes, mirroring the ones worn by Cage, gain popularity as a way of showing support and confusing the police. In effect, he becomes a part of Harlem because Harlem becomes him.

    Reclaiming Agency

    And so Luke Cage is left powerless. Diamondback has forced him to confront his religion, Cottonmouth has forced him to embrace his superpowers, and the NYPD has forced him to become a real part of Harlem. He didn’t make these choices freely. He would have preferred to have just been left alone. He wanted to deemphasize his religious, and social, and ethnic identities, but he was stripped of this ability by the people around him.

    In the final episode, though, he fights to regain control. After Diamondback tracks Luke to Pop’s Barber Shop, the two begin to brawl, and eventually they face off on the streets of Harlem. The battle becomes a spectacle, ringed by journalists, members of the militarized police force, and locals groaning every time Cage is hit. Throughout, the latter shout words of encouragement to the hero: “Don’t give up, Luke,” “Finish him off, Luke,” “You can get him, Luke,” and “Kick his ass, Cage.” The NYPD, on the other hand, refuses to target Diamondback, even when Misty asks them — her ostensible colleagues — to intervene. As Mariah Dillard proclaims, “This is nothing less than a battle for the soul of Harlem.”

    At the same time, it’s a battle for agency and freedom. Although we’ve seen that Diamondback serves as the living embodiment of the religion of their father, here he takes on additional roles. In this fight, he also represents the head of the criminal world in Harlem, the very element that killed Pop and pushed Luke into accepting his powers. And he’s equipped himself with a suit designed by Hammer Industries, the creators of the “Judas bullets,” which effectively transforms him into a living weapon designed to kill Cage. Diamondback consequently serves as an extension of the approach taken by the NYPD, one that made Luke fear for his life and pushed him to embrace Harlem. In other words, we see that Diamondback now personifies each of the three obstacles that prevented Luke from making his own choices, and it’s only when he confronts these obstacles head-on that he’s truly able to overcome them.

    For that reason, I think it’s worth ending with a quote from the encounter, one that both embodies and represents a resolution to this process of identity reclamation. I’ve already mentioned that, at various points, Luke cites Genesis 4:9, thereby implying he feels responsible for (or is driven to feel responsible for) the actions of his brother. But, at the end of the battle, Luke looks down on a defeated Diamondback and asks himself once more. “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

    And this time he answers himself: “No, I’m not.”

    Additional Reading

    Papish, Laura. “Promoting Black (Social) Identity.” Social Theory and Practice, Vol. 41, No. 1 (January 2015): 1-25.

    Prince, Sabiyha Robin. “Changing Places: Race, Class, and Belonging in the ‘New’ Harlem.” Urban Anthropology and Studies of Cultural Systems and World Economic Development, Vol. 31, No. 1 (Spring 2002): 5-35.

    Waters, Mary C. Ethnic Options: Choosing Identities in America. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1990.

    Wimmer, Andreas. Ethnic Boundary Making: Institutions, Power, Networks. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2013.