Luke Cage is Right – Secret Identities Don’t Work

Netflix’s Marvel shows put a bullet in the head of daydreams; they underline how becoming a paragon of truth, justice and the American way can’t possibly end well. You’re more likely to end up in a hospital ward than the front page.

Unlike his Hell's Kitchen counterpart Daredevil, Luke Cage doesn't bother with masks - concept art and poster by Marvel
Unlike his Hell’s Kitchen counterpart Daredevil, Luke Cage doesn’t bother with masks – concept art and poster by Marvel

Being beaten to a pulp would be the least of our worries, though. Keeping your secret identity that way is probably nigh-on impossible in the modern age. Perhaps Luke Cage has the right idea. The eponymous hero – currently living in Harlem – doesn’t bother hiding who he is. Biologically altered until practically nothing can hurt him, he’s an everyman who looks out for the average Joe. No masks are required when bullets bounce off your oh-so buff chest.

It’s probably for the best. Even if it can halt a 10mm slug, unbreakable skin can’t stop cameras. That’s a very real possibility nowadays. Appearing on CCTV is more of a certainty than a what-if thanks to recent surges in public surveillance. Although you could argue society’s better for it, the last few decades have seen us dragged into something of an Orwellian nightmare. Today’s world is one of scrutiny, electronic tracking, traceable e-commerce and phone tapping. According to the NY Daily News, cities such as New York boast around 17,000 CCTV cameras. In the meantime, London has ‘roughly half-million’ at its disposal. Good luck trying to avoid those when you need to pull on your cape and tights.

I appreciate that this is the equivalent of stamping on a child’s favourite toy, but the straightforward romance of twentieth century comic books is a thing of the past. From the medium’s golden age to its 1960s resurgance, closed-circuit cameras were a rarity. It wasn’t until 1968 that they started appearing on major US streets, so disappearing into an alleyway to change was still plausible. Now’s a very different story. As the UK reality series Hunted demonstrates, escaping detection is difficult when someone with time and a whole team of staff wants you found.

The programme’s elevator pitch is a stroke of genius; how long can a handful of average people last when they go on the run? Following both fugitives and pursuers, it’s terrifying to see how much info Big Brother has at its disposal. Unless you’re well-trained, obsessively paranoid or exceptionally lucky, you’re almost guaranteed to be tagged by someone’s surveillance system. Moreover, they’d track down most unsubtle disturbers of the peace – e.g. your average superhero – in ten seconds flat. The only characters I can see avoiding this are the likes of Superman, Spider-Man and Batman. One can travel or change at superspeed, another literally dons his costume on the side of skyscrapers and the last has enough cash to make suitably cool tech that’ll cover his tracks.

Unfortunately for them, security cameras aren’t the only way to keep track of someone. Besides email and browser history, the long arm of the law can track your buying habits as well. When you’ve got no powers to rely on and need down-to-earth gear keeping you safe it’s a disaster waiting to happen. Police can trace that kind of purchase if they’ve got a warrant to do so (and know what they’re looking for, of course).

Amazon’s therefore out of the question, leaving under-the-counter cash transactions or an outfit you’ve put together yourself. And if that’s the case, why are you in the superhero business anyway? You could make a killing selling cosplay costumes.

In essence, escaping the fuzz would be difficult should you take the law into your own hands. They’d have a lot of reason for wanting you found, good intentions or not; you’d be a vigilante who leaves assault and property damage in their wake. I dread to think what the legal ramifications of that could be. Just imagine a thug suing you for breaking his arm.

Not having a secret identity might save you a lot of hassle in this regard, but – as anyone who’s ever seen a superhero story knows – this won’t end well. You’ll make enemies, and if they know where to find you they’ll hold every card.

With that in mind, working with the authorities or receiving proper training isn’t the worst idea going. That’s the crux of Iron Man’s argument in Captain America: Civil War, and in a real-world context it doesn’t seem so unreasonable. 

I wonder if Luke Cage’s decision to fly solo without protecting his identity will come back to bite him. Judging by his stablemates Daredevil and Jessica Jones, it’s pretty much a foregone conclusion.

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