I’ve Got a Secret

First, allow me to apologize in advance because this is going to be my second Sunday superhero post in a row.  I think I can be forgiven, though, since superhero shows and movies are everywhere.  Between Marvel and DC, we’re looking at several movies per year between now and at least 2020.  And on TV, current superhero or hero-related shows like The Flash, Arrow, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Gotham are soon to be joined by Supergirl¸ The Atom (Possibly), and coming soon from Netflix, Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and iron Fist leading to The Defenders.  Beyond these, there’s a whole slew of superhero cartoons on Cartoon Network and Disney XD.

Superheroes are everywhere, but I’ve realized that the many of them are bringing along a particular trope that’s been part of the lore since the beginning.  Actually, since even before the beginning when heroes without superpowers, such as the Scarlet Pimpernel and Zorro, wore masks to conceal their true identity.

Based on the current crop of live-action superheroes, secret identities seem to have gone out of fashion.  Or maybe they seem silly now.  I’m not certain.  At the end of Man of Steel, Clark Kent starts a job at The Daily Planet in the guise of the mild-mannered, glasses-wearing reporter that we’re used to from prior incarnations of the character, but why is he bothering?  Based on the events of the preceding two hours, everyone on the damn planet should know that he’s Superman.  The military, Lois, and most of Smallville, including the manager of the local IHOP know.  General Zod landed a ship at his mom’s house and basically asked if Clark could come out and play.  The jig is up, pal.  They know.   Hiding behind a pair of glasses isn’t going to help.

In the Christopher Nolan Batman/Dark Knight films, the entire League of Shadows knows that Bruce Wayne is Batman.  They very kindly don’t tell anyone, though.  You would think that after the death of their leader, Ra’s al Ghul, the remaining League members might blab in revenge.  Nope.  Instead, two movies later, Bane shows up, knowing that Bruce Wayne is Batman, captures him, snaps his back, and dumps him in a prison far away while again not telling anybody.  Considering Bane’s overall plan for Gotham, you would think that telling the populace that their hero was actually Bruce Wayne and that he wouldn’t be showing up again (Although, he did) due to a minor back breaking would be useful.  But no.

Meanwhile, over on the television side of the DC hero universe, Arrow’s Oliver Queen at first decided to go all vigilante in Starling City wearing little more than a dark green hoodie and some eye makeup to hide his true identity.  He has moved up to a mask, but last I checked, there are at least 10-15 people and possibly more who know that he’s the Arrow.  Granted, many of those are people who work with him, but one is the TV version of Ra’s al Ghul.  Probably not the best guy to know who you really are.

Over on the spin-off series The Flash, Barry Allen is barely bothering to hide his identity.  Sure, he has his mask, but he’s also taken it off and just plain not worn it many times.  His show has only run half a season, and there may already be more people, including several villains, who know his identity than who know that Oliver Queen is the Arrow.  Side question: how do the villains imprisoned in the Star Labs makeshift cells use the bathroom?  Those things are awfully small and I haven’t seen a toilet or sink or bed.  Granted, it doesn’t seem like anyone except turns-into-gas-guy stays in there very long because the Star Labs folks are incredibly incompetent jailers, but when you’ve got to go, you’ve got to go…somewhere.

Over on the Marvel side of the superhero cavalcade, right out of the gate with Iron Man, the studio decided to dispense with the secret identity thing altogether.  It doesn’t get much clearer than Tony Stark stepping up to a podium and announcing to the world, “I am Iron Man.”  His fellow Avengers aren’t any more secretive.  Everyone knows Steve Rogers is Captain America.  He has his very own Smithsonian exhibit.  Thor is just Thor.  And at the very least S.H.I.E.L.D. and the army know that Bruce Banner is the Hulk.  Natasha “Black Widow” Romanov and Clint “Hawkeye” Barton aren’t as known, but they are S.H.I.E.L.D. agents and now exactly hiding who they are.  By the end of Captain America: The Winter Solider, Romanov was very publicly testifying before Congress. 

There haven’t been any superheroes running around with secret identities in the Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. television series either.  The upcoming Daredevil series on Netflix promises to change that, but the overall lack of secret identities does make the Captain America: Civil War film, due in May 2016, interesting.  In the comics, Captain America and Iron Man took opposite sides in a debate over whether or not superheroes should have to register their identities and powers with the government.  Unless something radically changes in the Marvel Cinematic Universe between now and next year, the number of superheroes running around with secret identities will be approximately one: Matt Murdock aka Daredevil.  Of course, Spider-Man is now joining the mix, and, in the comics, his secret identity is a huge part of the story.  Will that hold true in the film version?  Honestly, I don’t see how it can with the way the movie universe is currently established.  We shall see, though.

I would like to see a return of the secret identity, though.  In this age of the Internet, keeping a secret identity would be both more difficult and more important than ever.  One slip and every villain on the planet could have your name, address, and phone number.  We’ve seen doxing attacks against regular people.  Imagine if some of the perpetrators go ahold of a superhero’s real name.  It could lead to some interesting storytelling as the hero tries to do good while still protecting his/her identity and family’s safety.  Tony Stark can deal with the world knowing he’s Iron Man (Mostly.  He seemed a bit unprepared for a missile attack in Iron Man 3, but he’s probably upped his defenses by now.), but someone like Peter Parker or Matt Murdock needs the anonymity.  Hopefully the MCU will oblige.

-Alan Decker

@CmdrAJD on Twitter