Problems Posed by the Invincible Protagonist Trope

Freddy Osenberg

Contributing Writer

I don’t like Luke Cage. I haven’t seen the character in anything outside of Jessica Jones, I haven’t read any of his comics, and I don’t plan on changing that anytime soon. It’s not because of the mixed reviews from friends or critics though, it’s because of what Luke Cage is. He is a man who cannot be physically wounded, putting him in the league of many other invincible or near-invincible characters that appear every now and again on TV shows and movies. 

Normally, invincible characters as seen on the movie screen and television serve as villains and antagonists, forcing the protagonists to find some other way to take them down, and that can lead to interest situations where brain must outsmart brawn, but Luke Cage is the protagonist. This leaves a rather limited set of scenarios the show can put him in, while simultaneously causing the audience to wonder about the outcome of the situation. 

The most common position to put an action hero in is one of violence. While the spectacle of combat might be intrinsically entertaining, the real draw is the threat that some harm may come to the hero. Gun fights are tense because every character runs the risk of being shot, car chases risk crashes, heists risk capture, but for Luke Cage none of these are an issue. He’s being shot at? He’s bulletproof. Car crash? He’ll tough it out. Running from the law? The law couldn’t stop him if it wanted to. 

Thankfully, there are other situations to put a protagonist in, specifically those where the threat is not harm to the protagonist but to things the protagonist cares about. Family, friends, the particular mission they are on; all of these are also potential collateral in a dangerous situation. 

The situations that risk things external to the character often carry more weight than those risking internal damage. Dream and emotions like love and happiness are all at stake, rather than physical wounds. However, there is a balance to be struck between the two, and it is in this balance that Luke Cage fails. 

Because of his invincibility, Luke is only susceptible to exterior risk. Bullets can’t touch him, but they can touch those he cares about, so the only way to craft an interesting narrative involving him is to have the antagonist go after those close to him or other things of external importance. This puts him in a position where he has to do one of two things: stop the antagonist by force or outwit them. If the former is chosen, all that comes of it is a series of combat sequences where we see Luke kicking ass. If the latter is chosen, he might as well not have those powers at all because he won’t be using them. Do you see the problem here? 

By making Luke Cage invincible his powers become useless, at least as far as crafting an interesting narrative goes. No show can exist entirely on fight scenes, and Luke Cage isn’t a character that would spend all his time Sherlock Holmes-ing around, even though that would be the more interesting thing for him to do. 

So how can we fix this? The most obvious solution is to give Luke some kind of internal weakness, but this isn’t the holy grail it might initially seem. Imagine that we introduce some kind of kryptonite for Luke. Now every antagonist would need to have that kryptonite, and it would just become a magical plot device with no real depth to it (just like it does to Superman, another invincible protagonist that suffers from similar issues as Luke). It wouldn’t be interesting to see the same device used again and again to make Luke susceptible to internal harm, just like we wouldn’t like watching the exact same fight over and over again. It would just get dull. 

What if instead we fix Luke by removing his invincibility? Well, this runs the issue of changing the character into someone else entirely. Luke is defined by his durability, and to remove it would be akin to removing superman’s iconic outfit or his ability to fly. It’s the core principle his character is based around, so we can’t just remove it. 

But consider this: we give him an antagonist that’s just as capable and powerful as he is, if not more so. Equally indestructible, probably smarter, and intent on harming something Luke cares about. This means that Luke can’t simply overcome the problem entirely by force, which he should be able to do in any other scenario. Not having that option forces him to use a combination of wit, strength, and personal alliances to overcome the antagonist. This would make for a good show because you can still get the fun action scenes as Luke tears through underlings or henchmen, but you also get to see Luke struggle with an opponent greater than himself with no clear solution. He achieves his ultimate goal by relying on his mind in addition to those around him. 

While this doesn’t entirely fix the problem of the invincible protagonist, it is a way to make them interesting beyond their brawn; something I think is critical to a good narrative with such a character. Then again, it is almost four in the morning, so who knows if any of this is valid. Take it all with a grain of salt and use it to flavor your pasta. Goodnight. 

Correction: this article originally appeared in the Mar. 2 edition of the Tripod erroneously attributed to Joey Cifelli ’23. The article was in fact written by Freddy Osenberg. This correction will appear in the Mar. 9 edition of the Tripod.

1 Comment

  1. As a Luke Cage fan, this take annoys me. He may be “near invincible” but he can still be hurt because “superhero comics” and the Luke Cage Netflix series received wide acclaim from critics and audiences and his appearances in Jessica Jones made him more popular with mainstream audiences.

    To quote someone else who didn’t care for your take,

    “Achilles was nearly invincible, and they found a way to make him interesting, and then kill him. Superman was invincible, and they found a way to make him interesting, and then kill him. Heck, back in the day, every Network TV hero was functionally invincible, since we knew Captain Kirk or Jim West or Hoss Cartwright could never be killed, but good writers could still make the characters and situations interesting. There is a wealth of human drama available outside of mortal danger; when Mr Cage has a moral dilemma or a decision to make, that can still form the kernel of an ‘interesting narrative.’ The classic conflicts in literature are Man vs Man, Man vs Nature, Man vs Society, and Man vs Self. Any one of those can still be relevant for an ‘invincible’ character.”

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