Hands Up, Bulletproof

Luke Cage’s superhero style is important commentary on blackness in America


In each of the teaser trailers leading up to Luke Cage‘s September 30 streaming premiere on Netflix, there’s been a shot of the series titular character putting his hands up before he walks into the barrage of oncoming bullets.

Because Luke’s a superhero with unbreakable skin, the bullets bounce off him as chunks of the clothing are stripped away. But the striking image does more than show off the character’s abilities—it puts Luke Cage in direct conversation with the killing of Trayvon Martin and the “hands up, don’t shoot” rallying cry that has become synonymous with Black Lives Matter. Luke Cage imagines a world in which a black man could put his hands up and fight back without fear of whether the people aiming guns at him would shoot or not.

In an interview yesterday with 89.3KPCC, Luke Cage showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker explained that he was adamant about forgoing the character’s traditional superhero costume in favor of a more modern piece of clothing that carried a particular cultural significance in 2016: a hoodie. For a black man to even wear a hoodie, Coker said, is for him to open himself up to the sorts of cultural assumptions and misinterpretations and lead to George Zimmerman killing Trayvon Martin.

“That’s what struck with Trayvon Martin and that’s why it haunted so many African American men and women, particularly African American men that are fathers,” Coker said. “It struck so many of us because then we were like, What do I tell my kids? How do I tell you how to go about going out in this world where wearing the wrong clothes? Just literally the act of wearing something that makes somebody assume a stereotype puts your life in danger.”

Luke’s more casual superhero costume fits into the patterns of Netflix’s other hero shows Daredevil and Jessica Jones, where everyday people with abilities decide to take up vigilante work and start off wearing whatever they have in their closets.

Mike Colter as Luke Cage and Krysten Ritter as Jessica Jones.Netflix

Mike Colter as Luke Cage and Krysten Ritter as Jessica Jones.

While Daredevil eventually decides to upgrade his ensemble to an actual armored suit, Jessica Jones opts instead to stick with a pair of well-worn jeans and a leather jacket, a choice that spoke to the series’ emphasis on subverting the superhero genre by letting Jessica be both vulnerable and heroic. In that same vein, Luke Cage’s take on the character’s look stresses the idea that he’s every bit a hero as he is a regular part of the Harlem community.

This particular costume design comes at a particularly interesting time in the history of Luke Cage. In addition to the Netflix series, Marvel’s currently publishing a critically acclaimed reboot of the Power Man & Iron Fist series, starring Luke Cage and frequent companion Iron Fist.


Marvel’s also about to drop Cage, a ’70s-era, blaxploitation Luke Cage solo series drawn and written by veteran cartoonist Genndy Tartakovsky. The vastly different takes on Luke’s looks and style speak to the very different ways that Marvel has attempted to connect with black readers over the comic’s 44-year publication history.

Power Man & Iron Fist‘s modern-day setting dresses Luke in the suits, slacks, and fitted button-down shirts of a middle-aged businessman who’s raising a young daughter with his wife Jessica Jones. He’s still every bit the intimidating powerhouse of a man that he was as an on-again off-again Avenger but, as Power Man & Iron Fist artist Sanford Greene told Fast Company, this Luke Cage takes the business casual approach to superheroics.


Tartakovsky’s Cage, on the other hand, leans heavily on the character’s early looks when he was first created as a means to help Marvel cash in on the explosion of blaxploitation movies during the ’70s. Originally, Luke Cage wore a high-collared, open-chested shirt, form-fitting pants with high boots, and a single heavy chain around his waist as a belt.

While the iconic look was very much in line with the dramatic, campy looks that many superheroes wore at the time, Tartakovsky’s come under fire for choosing that particular costume and drawing the character in an style that, in some cases, appears to draw from racist caricatures.


For his Netflix debut, Coker’s crafted a look somewhere between Luke’s current comic book ensembles, grounded in real-world fashion choices while also making a pointed social commentary about blackness in America.

“Of course I wanted there to be a subtle, or in this case, not so subtle nod to what one faces as a black man in society wearing a hood,” Coker said. “I wanted to show that heroes could wear hoodies, too.”

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