One of the staples of being a superhero has slowly been fading away. Should these characters even consider having a secret identity any longer?
SOME HAVE THEM, SOME DON’T
Ever since superheroes appeared on the scene, many have found it necessary to have a secret identity—a place where they can hide when they aren’t fighting the bad guys.
Way, way back in the early days, Superman had the “guise” of being Clark Kent, a reporter for a daily metropolitan newspaper. Bruce Wayne was the “guise” for Batman, if we understand the way the character is portrayed these days.
Nearly all of the other heroes, largely to protect their families and friends, kept their “real” identities away from prying eyes. The reasoning is that it made that person vulnerable if a person who mattered to them could be captured and threatened.
Then came Marvel in the 1960s. Their first team of heroes, the Fantastic Four, in no way tried to hide who they were. In fact, they all seemed to relish the popularity being a hero brought them.
Not so with Spider-Man, who learned very early in his career just why he needed to wear a mask. Famously, his Uncle Ben paid the price for being related to Peter Parker—or so he thought.
Depending on the character, that person has at times had a secret identity or not. For example, Wonder Woman was Diana Prince for a long time. Not any longer. Iron Man hid the fact that he was Tony Stark at times. The movies decided against that.
SUPERMAN CHANGES THE GAME FOR DC
I mentioned Clark Kent/Superman previously because, not that long ago, the hero decided to make his identity no longer secret.
This isn’t the first time he made a huge change in the way he did things. Several decades ago, Superman revealed his identity to Lois Lane, then married her. This was quite the turnaround when it came to how these two interacted. I often quote what one creator called their previous connection as Lois “trying to trick Superman into a loving” relationship. Boy, did that get old over the decades.
Since then, I’ve enjoyed their interactions. Once Lois saved Clark from being fired at the Daily Planet when he was busy saving the world. She “ghosted” an article he needed to have finished by a certain deadline. He came home, dejected in the likely outcome that he had not met the conditions of his employment. It was quite a nice change of pace to see Lois come to Superman’s rescue for once! I still cherish that Kurt Busiek story!
Then Superman decided to “take off the mask,” as it were, and reveal who he was to the world. Of course, Batman, who has been all too vulnerable as Bruce Wayne, was quite irate about it. After all, Superman is invulnerable so he can do things like that in ways Batman really can’t consider.
Interestingly, The CW Supergirl show ended its run by Kara revealing that she was indeed the Girl of Steel on national TV. It made sense given the fact that she had been helping nearly every ally of hers be true to himself or herself while she still hid behind a secret identity.
It changed the way I’ll look at Superman and Lois when it comes back to that network, however. They’ll still be playing the standard superhero game when they return. I wonder if they’ll address that development in their show.
HERO VERSUS ADVENTURER
As I previously mentioned, the biggest reason heroes tend to keep their identities out of the public eye is that they have loved ones who might face danger they can’t handle. There are others, of course, such as wanting to understand humanity (like Martian Manhunter) or having skills they want to employ (like the Flash who, as Barry Allen, was a CSI before it became a famous profession).
What seems to make a difference is, like the FF, if you are public in being an adventurer. These days the Hulk’s other self of David Bruce Banner (Do they still include that first name any longer?) is no secret. Then, too, She-Hulk doesn’t transform back into human appearance when she tries cases in court, apparently flaunting her green skin and larger-than-life look. That seems to help her, honestly.
The trend these days, though, is moving away from having a secret identity. I have honestly wondered just how plausible it is to have one. To protect that guise, you have to wear a mask or a helmet, which can be a stifling thing. As we’ve discovered in the last months due to the pandemic, it’s sometimes hard to be understood when you speak or even to breathe properly while behind a mask. And does a pair of glasses or a change of hairstyle really keep your identity secret? In comics, yes, but in reality, that’s a big NO!
One of my favorite parts of the Green Lantern movie was when Carol Ferris revealed that she recognized Hal Jordan’s face even though he was wearing a mask. He was shocked, but I wasn’t.
We all want to enjoy the abilities of a superhero—like flying or being able to tell the future or having super-speed—but having a secret identity is, obviously, a pain in the backside! You can never let your guard down and you can never enjoy the benefits of having these benefits.
Near the end of the first Incredibles movie, I enjoyed seeing young speedster Dash trying to decide just how fast he should run in a track meet. He would speed up, then have to slow down when his family was afraid that he would reveal who he was if he won too easily.
My personal observation is that comics creators are turning away from that long-time hindrance and moving more to making their characters adventurers. After all, decades of playing this game has indeed worn us out, I believe!