Whatever happened to secret identities?

Remember when superheroes had something to hide? 

Look at those guys in the image up there. See anything missing? No masks. Even Iron Man, who you'd think would probably need a helmet thanks to all the flying around at supersonic speed, is now strutting around bare-faced. These aren't superheroes who take their masks off after a hard day fighting crime and go home to their regular lives: these guys go around beating bad guys to a pulp and they're proud of it

Having a secret identity used to be at the core of what being a superhero was all about. Now it’s gone the way of wearing your underpants on the outside. Perhaps the two are connected? Being known as the guy with his speedos on over his trousers is pretty much the kind of thing that would make you want to keep your real identity a secret. Maybe once you’ve got a decent pair of pants on you’ve got a whole lot less to hide.

It’s not that the whole idea of having a secret identity is completely dead. Spider-Man still has his big secret that he has to hide from his family and friends, though in the last film Gwen Stacy knew the real deal, and Aunt May seemed to have figured out what he was getting up to when he was meant to be in his room all alone. But all the other Marvel heroes – Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, The Hulk – plus the X-Men are out and proud. Traces of their old way of life remain – there are hints that Black Widow has a shady past – but there’s no real sense of them leading any kind of double life.

Over on the DC Comics side of the street, where secret identities are a little more ingrained, it’s much the same deal. The last Superman movie was totally disinterested in Supes’ costume act as Clark Kent – first he was a wandering super-dude, then he was Superman, and only in the final minute did he become “Clark Kent”. As for the recent Bat-trilogy, Bruce Wayne spent it surrounded by people who knew how he was spending his nights: his butler, his girlfriend, his tech support guy, and either Commissioner Gordon knew or he was just really really fond of cryptic comments. All of which totally defeats the purpose of having a secret identity – it’s a lone burden the hero takes on, not a secret that bonds you and your buddies closer together.

So what happened? Partly it’s because of the way superheroes  - especially the Marvel ones – work within their stories. To date there’s been a serious shortage of super-powered bad guys in the Marvel universe; you’ve got Loki, and… that’s about it. The superheroes are the strongest characters in the story, the toughest guys on the block (that’s why they always seem to be facing evil conspiracies – if the bad guys stepped out of the shadows to fight fair, we’d be watching a five minute movie). Why would they need a secret identity? They want the bad guys to come at them – it’d make their job easier.

Despite what the box office returns for all these superhero movies might suggest, the movie business isn’t all that keen on masked heroes anyway. It costs a lot of money to have a movie star play the lead in your superhero movie, and with stunt doubles and CGI taking care of all the superhero stuff pretty much all you’re getting for that money is their face. And if you’re just paying for their face, you want to see it on the big screen – not have it hidden by a mask for most of the movie. Remember how Spider-Man was always getting his mask torn to shreds when he was played by Toby Maguire? The more you know.

Thing is, if you’re paying for the front of an actors head and he’s playing a masked superhero, other people in the movie have to know he’s a superhero otherwise there’s not a lot of superhero stuff he can get up to without his mask. Batman, who in many ways was as close to a traditional masked hero as we’ve seen in the movies, was surrounded in the recent trilogy by people who basically knew his big secret so he could do a lot of ‘Batman’ stuff without having to put on the mask (and do the voice. Anything to stop Christian Bale from doing the voice). And the Marvel heroes only put their masks on when they’re fighting; Captain America's part of the military, which might explain why he seems pretty cool about walking around wearing his entire costume except for the mask.

But because there always is, there’s another, more depressing explanation: while these days superheroes basically support the status quo, the original superheroes – the ones who needed secret identities - righted wrongs. Back in the day, Batman fought street criminals; Superman dragged generals to the front lines to fight the wars they started and tossed wealthy mine-owners down their own unsafe mines.

These days superheroes don’t try to change society - they actively fight the forces that are trying to change things (though to be fair, “change” usually means “destroy”). Basically, they’re there to keep things exactly the way they are, and right now the people who are responsible for the way things are don’t really want everyone else to have secrets.

Whether it’s security cameras on every corner or being able to track your every move online, in the 21st century the idea of privacy is one we’re constantly being asked to reject. You know the story: “If you’ve not nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to worry about”. So it only makes sense that today’s status quo-supporting superheroes reject the idea of having a secret identity. Secrets? Aren’t they what the bad guys have?

Of course, that depends on how you define the bad guys. The original superheroes were vigilantes who operated outside the law to take down evil forces who’d happily crush anyone who stood up to them. When you’re messing with the big guys, you need to keep who you are a secret; when you are the big guys… well, not so much.

 

Anthony Morris


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6 comments so far..

  • adrian8020's avatar
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    adrian8020
    Date and time
    Wednesday 25 Jun 2014 - 4:23 PM
    What about Dredd? Marvel, mask on throughout the whole movie
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  • AnthonyMorris's avatar
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    AnthonyMorris
    Date and time
    Wednesday 25 Jun 2014 - 10:59 PM
    Dredd is a tricky one (and not Marvel), as he's not a trad superhero - he's a fascist supercop in a future that (in the comics, not so much the recent movie) is a bit of a black comedy. Plus he doesn't have a secret identity as he *is* Judge Dredd 24/7/365 - the reason why he doesn't take his helmet off is because he doesn't have a private life. As he occasionally still says, "I am the law!"
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  • AnthonyMorris's avatar
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    AnthonyMorris
    Date and time
    Wednesday 25 Jun 2014 - 11:00 PM
    Dredd is a tricky one (and not Marvel), as he's not a trad superhero - he's a fascist supercop in a future that (in the comics, not so much the recent movie) is a bit of a black comedy. Plus he doesn't have a secret identity as he *is* Judge Dredd 24/7/365 - the reason why he doesn't take his helmet off is because he doesn't have a private life. As he occasionally still says, "I am the law!"
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  • Average Joe's avatar
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    Average Joe
    Date and time
    Thursday 26 Jun 2014 - 10:41 AM
    Yeah in the comics Dredd's been shown in the bath, out in the cursed earth, hunted like an animal infected by aliens, and turned into a werewolf and we've still never seen his face.

    Much like the Phantom.
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  • Hecatonchireslm's avatar
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    Hecatonchireslm
    Date and time
    Friday 27 Jun 2014 - 10:27 AM
    Don't forget that in the movieverse you have agents and producers in the costume designers ear saying "We paid 23 million for that face, the public had better well SEE it!"
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  • wonk_arama's avatar
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    wonk_arama
    Date and time
    Wednesday 02 Jul 2014 - 2:07 PM
    Originally the mask served two purposes. The 1st was to allow the wearer to lead a normal life when not running about in the costume. This is something that the Avengers and X-men seemed to have forgone; they are always on. Though wrt the X-men their always on-ness is a statement but it does make you wonder how they go when holidays and I doubt the ego of the movies Tony Stark would ever allow a switch off.

    The other reason was to protect loved ones from any reprisals as a result of the costumed one's antics. What happens to Stark's house in Iron Man 3 once he challenges the big bad is a case in point. Then there's Steve Rodgers living in an apartment block and who hasn't Batman told his secret too?

    This 2nd reason is the one that troubles me most about the cavalier attitude most modern film based heroes have to their IDs. You don't need to find that mineral or spell to incapacitate the hero; just credibly threaten their families and close friends. Game over. This is a major plot hole in most of these new movies.
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