I was scrolling through my Facebook feed and I saw that one of my friends had posted the following article, saying that he agreed with it:
NO MORE SECRET IDENTITIES: THE TROUBLE WITH ALTER-EGOS by Marshall Lemon
Well, I immediately disagreed, just by reading the title. And then even after reading the article, my opinion didn’t change. In fact, this is something I’ve been internally complaining about ever since the 1990’s, during the so-called Image Revolution and following Speculator Boom. I’d noticed that most of the new popular heroes that were debuting where eschewing secret identities. From groups like Youngblood and Wildcats, they’d either be working for the government or had some rich guy backing them, so they could just be heroes all the time and didn’t have to worry about things like having a job and earning a living.
I remember cynically thinking the reason behind was because, back in those days where the art was driving the industry, the young “hot” artists wanted to draw comics that were just full of big splashy action images. Scenes of regular people were boring, they didn’t want to have to draw realistic-looking men and women in regular clothes, walking down the street or working in an office, they wanted to draw musclebound men and big breasted women in skintight costumes posing dramatically. So, secret identities had to go.
DC and Marvel began following suit with several of their major heroes giving up their secret identities and going public. Even before the 90’s, when DC rebooted Wonder Woman in 1986, the new creators ditched her Diana Prince ID, she’s just Wonder Woman (or “Diana”) all the time. The Flash went public, Green Lantern John Stewart went public (as did Guy Gardner), later so did Iron Man. But I don’t like this trend.
To me, the secret identity is an essential trope of the superhero genre. Mr. Lemon makes a convincing point when he argues that it has outlived its usefulness by pointing to the way superheroes have changed. In the beginning, they were outlaws, who fought the system. Like the folk and pulp heroes who inspired them, from Zorro & The Lone Ranger, to The Shadow, characters like Batman and Superman started off fighting corrupt law enforcement and government officials, so the argument was they had to hide their identities from the Powers That Be. But then following WWII and into the 1950’s, that changed, and superheroes, including Batman and Superman, were now mostly fighting to preserve the status quo, not tear it down. The threats they faced now were from outside the system, like alien invaders and mad scientists. So the argument was do they need to hide who they are now?
But to me the main problem is that the comic-book audience has changed from primarily kids to jaded adults who’ve been reading non-stop for decades and have seen it all before. Thus the creators have comics have taken superheroes away from the childhood wish-fulfillment power fantasies that they were originally meant to be. To me, secret identities represent the belief that many of us had as children, which is that we all had a superhero inside of is. Even if other people laughed at or dismissed me, I could fantasize about ripping my shirt open and flying (or swinging, or jumping, or running) into action as THE HERO.
This was especially true with heroes like Superman and Spider-Man, whose alter-egos fit the stereotypical “nerd” description. But even if you take that notion out, the secret identity grounds the hero. It gives them something to do outside of the superheroic action. Clark Kent’s job at the Daily Planet and interactions with his coworkers and friends, or with Peter Parker and his classmates, or coworkers at the Daily Bugle, where often just as interesting in their stories as where the plots where they fought villains. And, again, the fact that Peter Parker had money problems, girl problems, etc., made him relate-able. And occasionally added drama to his adventures.
He finally gets the courage to ask the cute girl in school out, and to his amazement, she says yes, but then he ends up missing the date because he had to stop the Scorpion from robbing a bank, and now the girl hates him for standing her up. When written well (and that’s the key), that’s the kind of tension that adds weight to superheroes’ stories. Mr. Lemon also argues that the lengths heroes like Superman have had to go through to keep their identities secret are ridiculous. And I’ll admit, sometimes they are. But when written well, seeing the hero dealing with the dilemma of how to explain where he or she was when the hero appeared can also be very entertaining.
Another thing that I would take into account is privacy. Wouldn’t most superheroes want some time to just relax and be themselves? Imagine being Superman 24/7, take the biggest real-life celebrity in the world, and multiply it by infinity, and that’s the kind of hassle he’d have to go through. Autograph-hounds, paparazzi, people just wanting favors, making demands, etc. That would drive even a super person insane eventually. It must be nice to be able to put on his glasses (and yes I know that’s an absurd disguise, but I’ll discuss that some other time) and go down to the local diner for breakfast and get some coffee and chat with the other diners, or sit at the park alone and read once and a while. I’d imagine that most big celebrities, even the mega-fame whore Kardashians, probably wish they could turn it off every once and while and go out unnoticed. So that’s another important thing that a secret identity provides for most heroes. A chance to let their guards down.
Another thing that was illustrated perfectly in the movie Batman Begins, was Bruce’s reasoning that Batman needed to be a “symbol.” Something that could inspire others. A “man” could be defeated, discredited, but a “symbol” could be untouchable. We see that in real life with celebrities, actors, entertainers, athletes. We idolize them, look up to them, and then they get busted for drugs, or adultery or getting drunk in public, and it hurts their image, you look at them differently. So even if, as Mr. Lemon argues, superheroes mostly represent the status quo now, and are beloved figures, they’re still ideals to look up to, which necessitates maintaining a secret identity, to keep their private lives private.
And I hate to end on a negative note, but when I see fans arguing that secret identities are unrealistic or passe now, it reminds me of the reaction to Superman killing Zod in the Man of Steel movie. I’m not talking about the fans who uneasily accepted it as a last resort (even though it wasn’t, but never mind), I’m talking about the fans who LOVED it. The ones who laughed at the idea that Superman would not kill a bad guy. Because that’s so childish and lame, who mocked the idea of a Superman who has a moral code against killing anyone no matter what the circumstances as “old fashioned” and are glad that he’s not a “boy scout” anymore. I think that’s the same mentality at work here. It’s like we no longer want superheroes to be “better” than us, we want to bring them down to our level. So of course they should kill their enemies, because that’s what “we” would do. And of course they wouldn’t waste their time hiding the fact that they have super-powers, pretending to be normal people, because “we” wouldn’t.
Ironically this very notion was brought up in a Superman comic written and drawn by John Byrne back in 1987. After having one of his scientists study Superman and Clark Kent to figure out what connection they have, the computer concluded that Clark Kent is Superman.
See, that’s how a VILLAIN thinks. ’nuff said.
[…] Previously: SECRET IDENTITIES ARE COOL! […]
[…] mythology surrounding them. The supporting cast, the villains, etc. This is what I was saying in my two posts about secret […]
[…] superhero. A running gag in the film would be that he keeps creating secret identities for himself, in order to have some time off from being a hero, which I think is important, but it never last people either end up just recognizing him or he gets […]
[…] love interest, see the troubles that the hero has to go through to maintain his secret identity (which I think is a necessary plot for superheroes), and several other mysteries (what happened to Max’s parents? What’s their connection […]
[…] superhero. A running gag in the film would be that he keeps creating secret identities for himself, in order to have some time off from being a hero, which I think is important, but it never lasts because people either end up just recognizing him […]