With the exception of the “Bam! Pow!” sound effects, the most common troupe associated with superheroes is secret identities. The concept makes sense, heroes need to unwind. They can’t be their alter ego 100% of the time. The other possible reason is to protect the ones they love. There are a few characters where the secret identity is essential. It defines an aspect of that would break the character if it was removed. Looking at it through a modern lens though, a secret identity is a little ridiculous. As many of these characters are brought forward into the modern age, specifically with movies trying to ground them in reality, does it even make sense to keep the secret identity around?
Superman defines the superhero genre. Being a DC character, though most the properties in their line were cobbled together over the years, many of their characters follow his model. I can only think of a few DC characters that have public identities, and even then, it depends on what day of the week it is. I can’t keep up. Where as Marvel only really has one, Spider-Man. But let’s look at DC first.
There has been many discussions about how Superman is always Superman, and Clark Kent is his disguise, or how Clark his how he views the world, or how he was raised Clark and is Clark. Regardless, he’s not wearing his cape all the time. He dons the uniform to be Superman. But his disguise is a pair of glasses? How does that work? Again, I’ve read plenty of things about how it’s all in how he carries himself. Superman is strong and proud, with good posture, while Clark is disheveled, clumsy and slouches. Still, the only thing that separates them is glasses and a spit curl. This was incredibly evident in Man of Steel. “Excuse me Mrs. Kent. Why did the aliens come to your farm?” Maybe that’s just poor writing but how could people not deduce who he was. SNL did a sketch pointing out how ludicrous the idea is.
Some have questioned why more people couldn’t surmise that Bruce Wayne is Batman considering how much of a public figure Wayne is. Few know who Clark Kent is, but people the world over recognize Wayne as if he were Donald Trump. What about other characters that simply wear poor discusses. Green Arrow/Oliver Queen has a hood (or a hat), and an eye mask. In the show Arrow, the mask is replaced with paint, and he just doesn’t look at people who know him. Green Lantern/Hal Jordan wears a similar mask. In the movie Carol Ferris instantly deduced who he was, asking why he was even wearing the mask. I liked this approach because it appeased fanboys by keeping the design but pointed out how ridiculous it was. One of my favorite characters and I think worst offender is Nightwing (first Robin Dick Grayson). He just wears an eye mask. People shoot at him constantly, and he has no powers to protect himself, let alone a helmet.
Spider-Man is a little different. Keeping his identity secret is very much part of his character. During Civil War, Spider-Man outed himself. This broke the character, and they needed to magically put the tooth paste back in the tube. The entire Civil War story line was about secret identities and how they don’t work in the modern age. Many Marvel characters have never had secret identities, being public figures. The Fantastic Four was the first to do this. Captain America was made to be a public figure, while the X-Men merely had codenames. Tony Stark hid the fact he was Iron Man for years, saying the Iron Man was a bodyguard he created. The film flirted with this briefly, with Stark admitting he was Iron Man before the credits rolled. I think this in a way showed how anachronistic the concept is.
There is always something fundamentally awesome about secret identities. Nothing can top how awe inspiring image of Clark Kent pulling open his buttoned down shirt, revealing the iconic S. For other characters, the secret identity is essential; what Batman does is illegal while Spider-Man needs to protect his loved ones from retaliation. I think secret identities will always be around as long as superheroes are. They just need a smarter way to execute them. Zorro and The Lone Ranger could get away with wearing eye masks because back then people were stupid.
What do you think about Secret Identities? Essential or hokey? Comment below!
At least Spider-Man wears a full face mask.