No More Secret Identities: The Trouble With Alter Egos

No More Secret Identities: The Trouble With Alter Egos

Why one of comics' oldest core concepts doesn't make the kind of sense it did 3 generations ago.

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I have to disagree with Spider-Man. While the media (or part of it) is always hounding him, Peter keeping his identity a secret is probably one of the craziest things he ever did, and him revealing his identity during Civil War was probably the best thing that ever happened to him, with new storylines being unveiled that we were exsited about because it was different, it was character growth, it... was retconned out in one of the biggest missteps in Marvel history and the single biggest under Questada. I mean sure, having him be a full time Avengers with a safe, much better home for his family to live in with a guaranteed pay that was better then what he was getting all without fear of the government getting in his way was much worst then the semi-slum he lived in on the constant brink of poverty while he had his hands on multi-million (maybe even more) dollar technology that he just had to patent to get rich off of.

Spider-Man became vastly more interesting once his identity was revealed, and it was because of the fallout that was going to have (but never had the time to actually accomplish) that it was the case.

I'd say the biggest problem in the movies is that it's more time covering up their faces. This is why Peter Parker can't seem to keep his mask on in either modern Spider-Man franchise, why we gave so much screen time to Blaze instead of his alter ego (Ghost Rider wasn't even really a secret in the movies), and why we spend so much time with Bruce Banner. The fact is, they hired celebrities, and they're damn well going to use them.

I agree with the overall point that superheroes don't need to secret identities, I just don't think that's the reason behind the changes in the MCU.

Granted, the whole thing with Lois Lane makes me wonder how long a superhero could feasibly hide himself in the modern day, even with superspeed. Given the number of camera phones and the instant celebrity/notoriety and a 24 hour news cycle, the " I am Iron Man" might be the safer route. Well, safer in terms of image. I have no idea if it'd be safer to have people know Superman's home address.

"Superman disguised himself as the mild-mannered Clark Kent"
That made me LOL... Yes, it's such an AMAZING disguise! Wow!

Anyway, you go wrong with Batman right off the bat; he needs to have a secret identity because from the start he tries to appear as far more than a human. Later a "symbol", but at first actually trying to spin it that he's a supernatural (half)beast that can't die. He doesn't want to appear as another man, he want's to appear as a force of nature to scare criminals out of their business.

And I find it extremely logical that you need a *public persona* that is not tied to your super powered self to protect loved ones. Of course *they* should know your super identity, but having EVERYONE know you are a potential obstacle/hated nemesis is just begging super villains to kidnap, torture and kill anyone you might care about.

That's exactly what often happens when a villain learns the alter ego's identity; they threaten the loved ones and then must die or get mind erased....

Kenjitsuka:
"Superman disguised himself as the mild-mannered Clark Kent"
That made me LOL... Yes, it's such an AMAZING disguise! Wow!

Anyway, you go wrong with Batman right off the bat; he needs to have a secret identity because from the start he tries to appear as far more than a human. Later a "symbol", but at first actually trying to spin it that he's a supernatural (half)beast that can't die. He doesn't want to appear as another man, he want's to appear as a force of nature to scare criminals out of their business.

And I find it extremely logical that you need a *public persona* that is not tied to your super powered self to protect loved ones. Of course *they* should know your super identity, but having EVERYONE know you are a potential obstacle/hated nemesis is just begging super villains to kidnap, torture and kill anyone you might care about.

That's exactly what often happens when a villain learns the alter ego's identity; they threaten the loved ones and then must die or get mind erased....

Not too mention that as soon as Batman is revealed to be Bruce Wayne, he would get put in jail for being a vigilante and the villains would get the run of Gotham. Commisioner Gordon may not want to, but his hands would be tied at that point. It's also about plausible deniability when you think about it. A masked man without an address is easy enough for police to not be able to arrest, but once they have a name and can freeze someone's assets, it's game over. The official position is that it doesn't matter how effective or useful a vigilante is, they are breaking the law. Yeah secret identities still make sense for the most part. Superman is an obvious exception only because we wouldn't have the means to confine him. (there was a comic where Lex Luthor told people that they knew that Superman was Clark Kent but the eight hours a day he spent pretending to be "normal" gave the bad guys time to relax so they didn't say anything)

I was always amused by the X-men.

Everyone knows Jean Grey. She doesn't even use a code name most of the time. Doesn't wear a mask.

Wolverine. Doesn't even know his OWN real identity. Wears a mask.

Kenjitsuka:
"Superman disguised himself as the mild-mannered Clark Kent"
That made me LOL... Yes, it's such an AMAZING disguise! Wow!

You do know that his disguise is actually incredible, right? It's a lot more complicated than putting on a pair of glasses; it's acting of the highest caliber (see spoiler picture). Plus, everyone thinks that Superman is Superman all the time; he's always on the scene if needed, and he doesn't wear a mask. Having Clark Kent in disguise instead of Superman is a genius move.

Nimzabaat:
Superman is an obvious exception only because we wouldn't have the means to confine him. (there was a comic where Lex Luthor told people that they knew that Superman was Clark Kent but the eight hours a day he spent pretending to be "normal" gave the bad guys time to relax so they didn't say anything)

I don't remember that comic, but I have seen this image floating around:

Also superheroes cause a lot of collateral damage when they fight. If no one knows who you are they can't serve you suit papers.

The alt ego is what grounds and connects the character to a wider audience. Not saying its a must for every character but its something to consider in developing a character.

The X-Men are a great example here, since they have fewer reboots and retcons than the general comics population.

The '60s team (Cyclops, Marvel Girl, Iceman etc.) had secret identities, with the old boring plot lines about whether people would find out about their normal boring lives.

The '70s and '80s team (Storm, Wolverine, Rogue, etc.) are like rappers: they have code names for public appearances, but their real names are public knowledge. Most of their friends are also Marvel characters or halfway across the world, so they don't need to worry about putting people in danger. Jean Grey's roommate is dating Iron Fist, Nightcrawler's girlfriend is a witch who helps the X-Men just as often as she gets kidnapped, etc. Note the switch from "Marvel Girl" to "Jean Grey" to "Phoenix".

The '90s and '00s teams basically treat a superhero name as a rite of passage, like a fraternity nickname. With more of a focus on the school, you get the impression that the name you pick at age 14 to make your dumb power sound awesome is the name you'll be stuck with for the rest of your life. The people with dumb super hero names use their real names. As Wolverine becomes less ferocious and more responsible, people start calling him "Logan", while as Kitty Pryde grows up and becomes cooler, people start calling her "Shadowcat". (No one, not even in the comics, could ever call her "Ariel" with a straight face.)

There are many good reasons for a super hero to have a secret identity beyond what was discussed in this article. For example, so they can someday stop being a super hero. In practical terms, someday batman is going to have to stop being batman. When that day comes it is going to be a hell of a lot easier for Bruce Wayne if he can just take off the mask and batman disappears forever. This is exactly what happened at the end of Dark Knight. And this one can apply to virtually any hero. It is possible that someday public opinion turns against superman and he will need to disappear for a while. He can't very well do that if his identity is known.

And the arguments given against secret identities protecting loved ones are very weak. Lets take a look at the case of Superman. Lois Lane has a known connection to Superman and that puts her in danger constantly. But how many times have the kents been kidnapped? Because of his secret identity they are protected.

There were a few good points. Why would Thor have a secret identity? That makes no sense at all. Tony really should (he is targeted personally when he was out of his armor in both Iron Man 2 and 3 because he lacks one) but it does not fit with his character. But by and large I think this article was really off the mark.

DrOswald:
There were a few good points. Why would Thor have a secret identity? That makes no sense at all. Tony really should (he is targeted personally when he was out of his armor in both Iron Man 2 and 3 because he lacks one) but it does not fit with his character. But by and large I think this article was really off the mark.

I agree. Worm is a superhero story from 2011-2013 where 95% of capes have separate identities and the author not only provides reasons for this other than "because reasons" but also follows heroes who have been unmasked, some willingly and some not. Hell, the fact that capes hide behind masks and why is one of the reasons Worm is the most "realistic" superhero stories I've read.

... this is the second time today I've posted that link in a discussion about superheroes. I'm pretty sure that means I like it.

OP: Sure, I'm glad people are making superhero stories where the capes don't have civilian identities because variety and experimentation is good. At the same time, however, we shouldn't rush to abandon them because it's the 2010s and we need moar realism. Those tropes lasted so long for a reason and we should at least recognize why before we move on entirely.

wasn't the Scarlet Pimpernel the first modern sup to have a secret ID? Anyway, it s necessary if you a vigilante, so the cops don't knock at your door. plus when you are a public hero, stuff like getting a job, a house, life insurance. Who'd give you those knowing one day a criminal will blow the place up with a ray gun?

Just need to point out that Iron Man has been a public figure in the comics for a long time now. I just finished the New Avengers TPBs and so he's been outed since at least 2007, and a lot earlier from the looks of it. His being a public figure was a big part of the Civil War series, for example.....and his opinion that ever other superhuman should be public, too (Skrull influence aside).

This article is interesting, but the complexity of costumed identities vs. secret identities is more elaborate and also, while part of the genre, tied heavily into the idea of "what I can be with these powers" vs. preserving "who I am without them." The movie, however, are necessarily different beasts: they need to distill decades of character development and plots down into two hour long bites. The risk of a secret discovery being revealed is a compelling and easy plotline for idea-starved script writers to snag. It has nada to do with the "realism" of secret identities in comic book universes.

"Batman, for example, was literally inspired by Zorro..."

"Silver Age heroes like The Flash and Green Lantern used aliases despite literally serving as a police officer and Air Force pilot, respectively."

That's not how you use the word "literally."

On topic, it goes without saying that you wouldn't want people to know that you need to be killed in order to make an alien invasion/bank robbery/whatever evil plan you've got possible to pull off.

See this is why I liked the original run of the Jaime Reyes Blue Beetle (fuck the reboot).

Jaime gets his powers and vanishes for a year, but it seems like only a few hours to him. He comes home, his family is shocked and happy he's home. How does he explain what happened?

"Well basically this blue scarab attached itself to my spine and *transforms*...yeah, this happens now".

His family knows who he is, his best friends know who he is. Because of that, Jaime is able to protect them better because they can contact him at any given time, and he doesn't have to maintain a double life.

"I gotta go, Mom. There's some aliens showing up downtown and I wanna make sure it's all ok."

-...Just try to be back by morning.

"Will do."

Kenjitsuka:

And I find it extremely logical that you need a *public persona* that is not tied to your super powered self to protect loved ones. Of course *they* should know your super identity, but having EVERYONE know you are a potential obstacle/hated nemesis is just begging super villains to kidnap, torture and kill anyone you might care about.

And this is pretty much why alter egos exist now. Not really that hard to understand. Also, considering how many villains would likely have no problem torturing a hero's loved ones to learn anything they could about them, it's often in their best interest to keep them in the dark.

Well, there are two major reasons why they do this. For one movies tend to be self contained as opposed to ongoing works, they are going to do two, or maybe three movies if they get lucky (or so they figure) and having a "Secret Identity" discovered is a quick dramatic scene they can pad out a movie with. Furthermore one of the big problems with Super Hero movies is that the directors and actors always want to show the character's face, it makes expression easier, and of course actors want exposure. If they aren't barefacing themselves, they are just some guy in a fancy costume, or basically voicing a CGI cartoon character for the most part. This is a big part of why I do not think Marvel's current "Cinematic Universe" will be the last word on super heroes or the specific characters, even if it will do quite well. There is still a lot of room to do them again later and be more true to the comic books.

Marvel's movies had the advantage of bringing everyone more or less into SHIELD pretty quickly, with a hook being present in most of the movies. One of the big reasons for concealing your identity as a super hero is to avoid accountability, basically your running around committing criminal trespassing, breaking and entering, assault and battery, and all kinds of other crimes in order to act as a vigilante. When you fight a super villain there is tons of collateral damage, and in general your typical person isn't going to be happy over having his car smashed up or used as a missile weapon by some super hero, even if the hero is saving lives. "The Incredibles" sort of made this point, and demonstrated a big part of why a lot of heroes are going to act as independent "costumed adventurers". Furthermore a big part of a lot of Super Heroes is that they are hated by the authorities, and perhaps even the public at large. The distinction between hero and villain that exists for a comic reader doesn't necessarily apply to the world comic book characters live in. Indeed one of the things that made "The Avengers" fairly unique after a while is because the issue of government oversight, collateral damage, and similar things became an issue and got in the way of them doing their job, especially when the government assigned them idiots as handlers. "The Fantastic Four" has run into countless problems, legally and otherwise, over the years due to having public identities and the fact that pretty much everyone knows where they can be found (The Baxter Building), in the comics they themselves have expressed remorse over not having had the forethought to adopt secret identities.

One thing to also consider is that in most comic book universes there are a lot of heroes and villains, which is part of why it's not easy to find who your looking for. For example in DC comics, a lot of people think it would be easy to deduce Bruce Wayne is Batman or Oliver Quinn is Green Arrow based on only a few people having those resources. They forget about all the other groups out there that have loads of money and produce super-gadgets and the like (thugs with ray guns aren't all that uncommon), heck both of these dudes fight rich dudes (with criminal money or otherwise) with their own gimmicks as a matter of course. In Marvel, watch Professor X use "Cerebero" at some point and notice how many bloody mutants there are supposed to be, most are just minding their own business. Finding the one dude your looking for isn't easy, and that's part of the reason why things like "Project Wideawake" got green lit and a shotgun approach to taking down all mutants (at least potentially), and even had Iron Man involved (I believe he was one of the geniuses that helped develop The Sentinels). I mean people tend to forget that in comic books it's a legitimate concern that some dude can walk down the street and level a couple of blocks, and then basically disappear, and it's not like you can just pick that one dude out easily because he has powers or some kind of odd feature. A point inherent in "The Civil War" before it went off the rails for RL political commentary as well. The point here being that you put on that mask and your not going to be easy to find, so nobody is going to show up to arrest you, or take you to court for massive property damage, and in Marvel as much as certain people might want to, they can't exactly go around and round up every mutant in say New York City every time two dudes in spandex fight it out in Times Square.

Secret Identities make a lot of sense, but are counter productive to what movies want to achieve, and the promotion of the actors playing them.

As far as close associates not being able to figure out who certain super heroes are, there have been mixed answers to that over the years, a lot of them character specific. For example few people (even those who know him) suspect Matt Murdock because he's blind, causing them to sometimes overlook the obvious because of it. In Superman's case it was at one point explained that he used "super hypnosis" so basically it became impossible for people to make, or maintain, the connection (this was dropped, but for a while I believe it was canon... Superdickery mentions it I believe). More "recently" I seem to remember a comic where members of The Justice League were discussing their secret identities and it was mentioned (by Batman I believe) that when Superman transforms into Clark Kent, he also changes his voice by an octave and slouches to make himself look shorter, and other things. You'd be surprised how effective a tactic something like that can be, although it doesn't really explain it when it comes to close associates who have spent a decent amount of time with both identities.... at the end of the day though, some secret identities are better than others, Superman kind of stands out for it being kind of dumb due to the lack of a mask, and how is has literally been portrayed as him simply changing clothes and putting on a pair of glasses... though to be fair the image of Clark Kent taking off his glasses and jacket, revealing the "S" on his supersuit as he prepares to save the day has become both iconic and strangely awesome at the same time.

I'm a little out of the loop at times, but hasn't there already been many comic superheroes without secret identities in comics before the movies started doing it? Even to the point that the movies take that from the comics? Iron Man being Tony Stark has been public in comics for a while, which the movies then used. I've thought Wonder Woman/Diana has just been open about who she is for quite a while? Who hasn't known Steve Rogers was Cap? Last I heard mutants by law had to reveal their identities, so everyone knows mutant revolutionist Cyclops is Scott Summers. Namor is Namor.

I'd be interested in the numbers on that actually. How many superheroes have secret identities in comics these days compared to those that do not.

As for why having them at all(secret identities). Well, having a secret identity as mentioned by others makes a hero not have to deal with accountability, and then there can be how a hero deals with that. And protecting their loved ones is a decent idea, yes sometimes coming out to their loved ones could help them, but there's another side to that. Spider-Man, Peter Parker, has generally two people to tell Mary Jane and Aunt May, and there are times when they've known. But what if a hero reveals themselves to a lover only to have that lover leave them, they could tell the press, they could blackmail the hero, other problems, ect. What if a member of your family is a villain? What then? Miles Morales, the Runaways, Young Justice (TV show) Artemis, Stephanie Brown, Cassandra Cain.

But then you have other problems. Tim Drake, the third Robin, his father finds out he's been running around as Robin, and grounds him. What about Shazam? I do not know that character, but I'd imagine if people found out, if villains found out that when he's not a super hero he's a little kid some duct tape may be all it takes.

Damien Wayne was to become Robin, not because he needed to be a super hero, but because his father was Batman.

Then moving into an age/time where secret identities are less common then why have them around? Because sometimes the identity, the name can be something more. For Bruce Wayne Batman can be a symbol. For the runaways a way to claim themselves as their own, to separate themselves from their parents and the names their parents' chose for them, but they're teenagers, and are rash at times, and tread back onto their birth names, because they are who they are. and they don't have to be like their parents.

The X-Men, even with their identities known have still used code names, even going as far as having new members have code names as well - as a way to help give a name and claim their powers. Many mutants are shown scared of their powers when they first manifest, and it's been shown that for some, when they can name it, when they can accept a codename/mutant identity they can grow a lot more comfortable being in their own skin, and help them to learn to control their powers.

Hold on a minute:

On the pages of DC Comics, Superman disguised himself as the mild-mannered Clark Kent.

No he didn't, to do his super-heroics, Clark Kent disguised himself as superman, because if everyone knew who he was, that would mean he would never get any peace and quiet at a regular job where he'd relax because he doesn't want to be Superman all the time.
Actually I remember seeing the cartoon as a kid and they had an episode where everyone thought Clark died, and Superman was getting angsty that he'd have to find a new identity, when asked by his parents why he needed one he explained that being Superman all the time would drive him crazy, like a job without any off hours.

This is why some heroes prefer secret identities, even if they don't need them for security reasons, after all, in the older comics both of Supermans parents were dead, what were the villains going to do if they found out Superman was Clark Kent all along? Threaten his co-workers? Oh wait... they do that already.

I was kind of disappointed in this article. Not that it wasn't a very good article, which it was, just because I thought that this was going to go into a completely different direction then it did. Which is how unrealistic secret identities would be in today's world. 30-40 years ago an alter ego made sense. They had security footage back then, but it was so grainy it would be near impossible to identify someone from that alone. Now days, security cameras are everywhere, everyone has a camera phone, forensic analysis has gotten a million times better. I think that would be a much more interesting perspective on "The Trouble With Alter Egos".

Luminous_Umbra:
[quote="Kenjitsuka" post="6.851292.21041520"] Also, considering how many villains would likely have no problem torturing a hero's loved ones to learn anything they could about them, it's often in their best interest to keep them in the dark.

That's one of the excuses that doesn't really fly, though:

1. Superheroes pretty much always end up interacting with their family and friends while wearing the mask, either because of stupid dramatic twists or because of more realistic "when all you have is a hammer" reasons where it's easier to put on the cape to pull your wife out of a burning building than stand there and wait fr the fire department (even if it's out-of-character for your mask persona to interfere with fire-fighters' work.) So... not exactly subtle.

2. This sort of thing requires keeping it secret from your family and friends, too, which is just flat-out impossible. Sure, the police can't match up the times you call in sick to work against the times super internet man was punching godzilla in the face, but your boss certainly can. Your clever robot doubles might fool people that have met you once or twice, but not your drinking buddies or lover. And then them figuring it out is MORE likely to spread than if you just told them and asked to keep it hushed up.

In more realistic stories, the alter-egos crap tends to be much more about dodging the law than about dodging the villains. The villains (correctly) identify the heroes as being fellow criminals more than anything else, and you don't rat out fellow organized criminals to the cops, or make it personal by targeting family, because that's a good way to escalate things into a mob war with capes and everybody knows it. So the villains know who the vigilantes 'really' are, and vice-versa, but they won't act on that knowledge due to mutually assured destruction if one side or the other tipped the cops.

I should clarify that I don't think superhero secret identities are bad; I do think however that they're something creators use because "that's what heroes always do" which leads to weak storytelling. Secret identities make it way too easy for writers to raise the stakes by exposing them, only to resolve the story with memory wipes or "Oops! You were just mistaken" plot twists.

To say that secret identities are what makes characters interesting or relatable doesn't ring true to me. More often than not, I suspect it's a crutch that prevents superhero universes from taking risks on different kinds of stories.

Trishbot:
I was always amused by the X-men.

Everyone knows Jean Grey. She doesn't even use a code name most of the time. Doesn't wear a mask.

Wolverine. Doesn't even know his OWN real identity. Wears a mask.

Ha! Well put.

Robyrt:
The X-Men are a great example here, since they have fewer reboots and retcons than the general comics population.

The '60s team (Cyclops, Marvel Girl, Iceman etc.) had secret identities, with the old boring plot lines about whether people would find out about their normal boring lives.

The '70s and '80s team (Storm, Wolverine, Rogue, etc.) are like rappers: they have code names for public appearances, but their real names are public knowledge. Most of their friends are also Marvel characters or halfway across the world, so they don't need to worry about putting people in danger. Jean Grey's roommate is dating Iron Fist, Nightcrawler's girlfriend is a witch who helps the X-Men just as often as she gets kidnapped, etc. Note the switch from "Marvel Girl" to "Jean Grey" to "Phoenix".

The '90s and '00s teams basically treat a superhero name as a rite of passage, like a fraternity nickname. With more of a focus on the school, you get the impression that the name you pick at age 14 to make your dumb power sound awesome is the name you'll be stuck with for the rest of your life. The people with dumb super hero names use their real names. As Wolverine becomes less ferocious and more responsible, people start calling him "Logan", while as Kitty Pryde grows up and becomes cooler, people start calling her "Shadowcat". (No one, not even in the comics, could ever call her "Ariel" with a straight face.)

That's a great point. I'd never considered the X-Men that way (probably because I don't read them as often) but the shift from "secret identity" to "public institution with code names" suits them very well.

The thing is, when it come to the cinematic superheroes universe, the heroes don't have enough villain rousters for them to attack the heroes friend and family. Speaking of which excluding Spider-Man, who are the friend and families of the heroes exactly? Tony got Pepper and Rhodey who are close by, Captain America friend is Sam who is Falcon who he pretty much take care of himself.

 

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