(Some spoilers for the Marvel Netflix series “Luke Cage” seasons 1 and 2 are below. So tread lightly.)
“Luke Cage” is, of course, a work of fiction. It’s also a fantasy, considering it’s about a guy with super strength and bulletproof skin.
With that being the case, the story is naturally going to need a weapon or tool that could actually be a threat to Luke (Mike Colter). The first season of “Luke Cage” gave a better sense of what the deal is with his super-skin — it was the result of mixing his Luke’s unique DNA with that of Abalone mollusks, which have extremely strong shells.
The first season of the show continued to give a sense of what can and can’t hurt Luke Cage. We know he can survive, without injury, getting nailed by a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG), so there’s that. He took a shotgun blast to the chin in “Jessica Jones,” but while that put him in a coma it didn’t break his skin — and, obviously, he recovered from that.
Later in the first season of “Luke Cage,” we start to get a vague picture of what’s responsible for Luke’s augmentations. What it would take to break through, essentially, is something capable of changing the structure of his cells in order to force its way past — something that conventional firearms are definitely not built to do.
Enter the Judas bullet, which is a pretty outlandish bit of tech that was seemingly dreamed up by the “Luke Cage” writers as a means to solve this exact problem. The concept of the Judas bullet is introduced to the villainous by Shades Alvarez (Theo Rossi) early in the season, though the price for just one bullet is ostensibly so high that Cottonmouth (Mahershala Ali) won’t even consider buying one.
Shades shows Cottonmouth a video demonstrating what the bullet does. It’s shot from a rifle at a man wearing a thick protective vest and, at first, the vest appears to stop it. But after a few seconds (which are accompanied by a strange mechanical winding noise), the bullet has managed to get through the vest and into the guy wearing it, at which point it explodes.
As far as we can tell, there’s nothing like that in existence (though we won’t pretend to be in the know when it comes to experimental black market bullet tech). The closest real world parallel we can see would be armor-piercing incendiary rounds (or “high explosive incendiary”), which are designed to penetrate armor and then explode inside whatever the armor is protecting.
But the Judas bullet doesn’t work the way an HEI round would. HEI ammo explodes as part of a chain reaction that begins with the impact with the armored shell. It’s triggered, basically, by a shockwave. But the Judas bullet, judging by the sounds it makes between hitting the target and blowing up, has some mechanical parts that drill through the armor. Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson) made a similar observation in the series, noting that when one of these bullets hit Luke it sounded like it was drilling into him.
And, in all likelihood, there’s also an electronic component that tells it when to explode, similar to the XM25 grenade launcher — which allows the user to program its shells to explode after they’ve traveled a certain distance.
The Judas bullet is a fascinating invention, and one that isn’t explained in detail. But Diamondback (Erik LaRay Harvey), who produces the bullets, tells Mariah (Alfre Woodard) it’s derived from an “alien metal.” Given that “Luke Cage” openly discusses “The Incident” — the Netflix shows’ term for Loki’s attack on New York with the Chitauri aliens, as seen in “The Avengers” — it’s likely the Judas bullet is derived from salvage of Chitauri technology. The same idea comes into play in “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” with Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton) making an illegal arms business of selling re-worked alien tech. But “Luke Cage” isn’t exactly clear on the subject.
There’s another alien metal we’ve seen in the Marvel Cinematic Universe: Vibranium, the stuff central to the super-powerful technology in the nation of Wakanda in “Black Panther.” Captain America’s shield and Black Panther’s suit are both made from Wakandan Vibranium, which absorbs vibrations. In the comics, there’s also Antarctic Vibranium, which causes vibrations rather than absorbing them, but we haven’t seen that particular metal show up in the MCU just yet. Both metals are extratrestrial, having been brought to Earth on meteorites.
Claire also notes that Luke Cage’s epithelial cells (the ones that line your internal organs and blood vessels) are both “super elastic and energy absorbent.” Given that Antarctic Vibranium is a counter to the similarly absorbent Wakandan Vibranium, it would make sense for a bullet with, say, an Antarctic Vibranium tip to be able to break through Luke Cage’s skin. That’s just a guess, since the Judas bullet is never explained in any detail beyond that “alien metal” comment. But this being the MCU, you can bet that line means something.
In “Luke Cage” Season 2, the Judas bullet situation changes significantly. After Diamondback (Erik LaRay Harvey) shoots Luke with Judas bullets in the first season, Claire takes Luke to the doctor who first gave him superpowers, Dr. Burstein, for help in saving Luke’s life. Burstein uses the same experimental technique that gave Luke his power to weaken his skin so that he and Claire can remove the bullets from Luke’s body. Doing so, however, apparently increased the strength of Luke’s skin again — in Season 2, Luke takes a shot from a Judas bullet and it has zero effect.
Not even alien technology can stop Luke at this point, at least in its current form. With so much crazy tech floating around out there in the MCU though, including weapons from the Incident and Vibranium, there are likely other weapons that could threaten Luke that we haven’t seen yet.