Comics and Cosplay
No More Secret Identities: The Trouble With Alter Egos

Marshall Lemon | 29 May 2014 15:00
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Superman 3X3

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.

Superman is a Jerk

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.

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