Why one of comics’ oldest core concepts doesn’t make the kind of sense it did 3 generations ago.
What makes a comic book superhero? Costumes, powers, or ridiculous villains are important of course, but if there’s one thing that stands out in the popular imagination, it’s that they have secret identities.
You don’t have to read comic books to know that secret identities are just something superheroes pick up with their costumes. From the beginning, the unspoken rule has been that every superhero had two lives, one ordinary and one extraordinary. On the pages of DC Comics, Superman disguised himself as the mild-mannered Clark Kent. Bruce Wayne wore The Dark Knight’s cowl to avenge his parents. Wonder Woman used the alias of Diana Prince to experience humanity, first as a nurse and later as a secret agent. When Supergirl first landed on Earth, she was whisked to a girl’s school and given the name Linda Lee Danvers.
When Marvel got in on the Superhero act, the tradition continued. Iron Man maintained the appearance of being Tony Stark’s bodyguard for years in the original comics, ducking out of public events to put on his armor. The Mighty Thor once shared a body with the physically disabled Dr. Donald Blake. Captain America’s identity as Steve Rogers was classified by the military for fear of losing their only super-soldier. Bruce Banner hid his Hulk transformations from General Ross instead of being exposed on his first rampage. Peter Parker earns a living as a freelance photographer selling pictures of himself, as Spider-Man, to a newspaper that considers Spider-Man a public menace. And the list goes on and on.
Until we get to superhero movies.. While films have almost always portrayed superheroes with secret identities, they also demonstrate difficulties in fully translating the concept to screen. Almost every Batman and Spider-Man movie to date has one character dramatically discover the hero’s alter ego. X-Men emphasizes the fact that every mutant needs a code name, but the movies didn’t bother giving anyone a mask. Even Man of Steel, in a rare moment of brilliance, has Lois Lane uncover Clark Kent’s secret using basic journalistic research. That’s an incredible achievement, something no previous version of the character has done so far without getting her mind wiped by the story’s conclusion.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe in particular has gone out of its way to make sure the real names of its superheroes could be uncovered through a quick Google search. Iron Man ends with Tony Stark being advised by SHIELD Agent Coulson to claim that Iron Man is his bodyguard, only to triumphantly blurt out the truth at a press conference. Bruce Banner is forced to live on the lam because it is well known within the military that he transforms into the Incredible Hulk. Thor never pretends to be human in the films, but briefly borrows the name of Jane Foster’s ex-boyfriend while leaving S.H.I.E.L.D. custody. Even Captain America’s civilian name is widely known, and he largely resorts to the sunglasses-and-baseball cap trick favored by modern celebrities when he wants to avoid a public scene. When Netflix releases its upcoming MCU exclusives, it’s likely that Daredevil will be the first hero to actually bother with alter egos, not counting deep cover agents like Black Widow, who don’t have secret identities so much as they don’t officially exist.
So what’s going on here? Why don’t filmmakers treat secret identities the same way comic book universes do? There are plenty of reasons, but it boils down to this: when you take a closer look at the history of superhero comics, it’s clear that the entire concept of secret identities is a product of an earlier time, one that creators cling to for the sake of tradition.
The Age Of Masks
Secret identities can be traced to the earliest fictional vigilantes, especially Zorro and The Scarlet Pimpernel in the early 20th Century. Though fighting for justice, these characters were outlaws; their enemies included police officers and other authority figures that would destroy their private lives if the truth came out. For that reason, Don Diego Vega (Zorro) and Percy Blakeney (Pimpernel) created dashing, masked personas to battle corruption without threatening their public images. The concept inspired subsequent radio serials like The Shadow and The Lone Ranger, and eventually took hold in the modern superhero with Action Comics #1.
It’s worth remembering that even though superheroes had powers, they were still very similar to vigilantes in their outlooks. Batman, for example, was literally inspired by Zorro, an aristocrat who wears a costume by night to fight crime. Superman fought institutional corruption and ordinary gangsters instead of super-powered villains, even uncovering a conspiracy to bribe a US senator in his debut appearance. Social justice continued to be a driving force for each character, as were clashes with traditional authority structures. Although these characters weren’t outlaws in the way Zorro or Scarlet Pimpernel were, they operated outside of the law to achieve their goals, occasionally opposing it when necessary.
Heroes Become, Well, Heroes
Everything changed during World War II when comic book creators placed their protagonists at the front lines. Suddenly, heroes were no longer independent of authority figures, instead actively following their orders at home and abroad in service to the war effort. Captain America was the most obvious example of this new patriotic superhero, rallying his country against external enemies. Cap also maintained a secret identity, but here it was to protect his identity from German spies instead of a corrupt police force. For the first time, superheroes were part of the social order, and have arguably been tied with patriotic values ever since.
By the time superheroes returned to a post-war world, they were far too changed from their vigilante roots. According to Comic Book Nation, DC Comics “adopted a postwar editorial direction that increasingly de-emphasized social commentary in favor of lighthearted juvenile fantasy”, swapping corrupt business officials for mad scientists and alien invaders. Instead of questioning authority to create social change, superheroes had become the authority, and editors wanted them portrayed appropriately. The new generation of heroes were notably reserved compared to their 1930s counterparts. Superman, Batman, Green Lantern, and other social crusaders began to reflect a decidedly pro-establishment point of view, a trend that only strengthened after a national furor caused by psychiatrist Fredric Wertham’s controversial book Seduction of the Innocent prompted the comics industry to adopt self-censorship via the Comics Code Authority.
By this point the logic behind secret identities became strained. Superheroes had changed from outlaw vigilantes to public servants, but for some reason, alter egos survived the transition. Superheroes were beloved by all but wouldn’t share their real names, even to the government officials they supposedly respected. Bruce Wayne never told Commissioner Jim Gordon that he was Batman, even though they had an amicable relationship. Superman kept his human identity of Clark Kent a secret, even though he wasn’t tracking down government corruption like he used to. Silver Age heroes like The Flash and Green Lantern used aliases despite literally serving as a police officer and Air Force pilot, respectively. Never mind that regular police officers and prison guards didn’t get secret identities of their own; by now the tradition was fixed, and wasn’t going anywhere.
Strictly A Legacy Feature
Heroes still tried to justify secret identities, but the arguments were flimsy and created narrative problems. The most common explanation was that secret identities protected a hero’s loved ones from dangerous villains, but usually these loved ones were as much in the dark as archenemies. In fact, most supporting casts were unwittingly familiar with both identities, putting them at risk no matter what happened. Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen were frequently targeted by supervillains for their connection to Superman; knowing that he’s also Clark Kent really wasn’t going to change much by that point. Far worse are the ridiculous lengths heroes went to while preserving their secrets; Superman used Clark Kent body doubles and robots to appear in two places at once, and even resorted to mind-erasing drugs when his friends got suspicious. Not only did this raise concerns about Superman’s moral leanings, it weakened characters like Lois Lane, supposedly an award-winning journalist who somehow wasn’t able to piece together the truth in front of her.
The problem isn’t that secret identities themselves are bad – it’s just that without the legal repercussions faced by true vigilantes, they lack justifiable context. This explains why, in the 70s and 80s, comic deconstructionists like Alan Moore and Frank Miller shifted the focus back to morally grey vigilantism. More recently, Marvel’s Civil War event forced heroes to sacrifice their privacy as registered superheroes, widening the gap between masked vigilantes and public defenders. But in most cases, these changes either took place in an alternate universe or were eventually restored to a Silver Age status quo.
The Future of Secret Identities
It’s clear that fans love the idea of someone having a powerful, secret second life, and the concept’s venerability has made it an essential part of basic superhero mythology. So it is that for every character like Iron Man who finally sheds their secret identity, you have someone like One More Day‘s Spider-Man who is forced back into the shadows. Secret identities are, it would seem, here to stay.
The good news is that we’re slowly starting to figure out where secret identities work, and where they don’t.
The best heroes who can logically maintain dual identities across franchises are those who have an antagonistic relationship with authority. Batman and Spider-Man are perfect examples; Batman became more believable to the public when played against a corrupt Gotham police force, while Spider-Man is under constant scrutiny from J. Jonah Jameson and the press. But why does Iron Man, a publicly-adored CEO representing the military-industry complex, need a secret identity? It’s overly complicated, and a two-hour film doesn’t need that kind of disbelief.
If secret identities won’t disappear, then at least comics could follow the example of film by ensuring it’s not the default option. After all, the problem with secret identities isn’t that they exist, it’s that creators overused them until they had no meaning. The only question is what kind of superhero might replace the masked vigilante after almost a century… something we’ll be exploring further in a future article.
To best be in a position to use his amazing powers for truth and justice, Marshall Lemon has assumed the disguise of a mild-mannered freelance writer for a great metropolitan pop culture website. Follow him on Twitter.