Secret Identity Crisis
By Philip Schweier
February 9, 2021 - 09:58
A reader commented on my recent essay regarding reboots and re-imaginings, citing it as the natural evolution of a genre of entertainment.
The original Green Lantern, c. 1941
Let us cast our thoughts back to the 1940s, when the rules were so much simpler. Comic book characters were born of a gimmick they would use to fight crime. Donning a pair of tights, a cape and a domino mask (the kind that covers the eyes and nose), they could battle bad guys who were evil for the sake of being evil. Their motivation was greed and avarice, sure and simple.
Along the way, they hide their identity from their girlfriend or employer, and possibly pick up some orphan child to become their sidekick. Thankfully, that particular trope has been retired. Former sidekicks have mostly grown up and claimed their own super-secret crime-fighting persona, or maybe retired altogether.
It’s inevitable that story-telling techniques evolve to reflect the sensibilities of an audience. One noteworthy comic book editor suggested comics need an enema every decade or so. This usually happens in some universe-spanning crisis, or the inevitable re-set to #1, Volume whatever.
Super-heroes today either form partnerships (Marvel’s Cloak & Dagger), alliances (DC’s Blue Beetle and Booster Gold) or go it alone entirely, occasionally joined by teammates from an all-star group of fellow crime fighters.
Nowadays, I can think of one more element that has long outlived its usefulness: the secret identity. Masks seldom hide one’s identity effectively, unless they cover the entire face as with Spider-Man or Iron Man. Even so, it was that first Iron Man film in 2008 that Tony Stark revealed his identity as Iron Man. Why? Because it made sense for his ego to wish to claim his role as this bigger-than-life hero who had captured the public’s attention.
Is that Tobey Maguire, or a stunt man? Thanks to the mask, we can't tell.
Marvel has done secret identities right in its cinematic universe. Hawkeye and Black Widow are codenames; Everyone knows Steve Rogers is Captain America, it’s an open secret, the same way we know Lady Gaga is Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta. (Okay, if you didn’t know that before, you do now.)
Yes, there is a scene in Captain America: The Winter Soldier where a boy recognizes Steve Rogers at the Captain America exhibit at the Smithsonian. But the boy is right in the context, it hard for him not to recognize Steve Rogers. Out on the street, the kid probably wouldn’t have looked twice.
Many celebrities have stage names. Not just Archibald Leach = Cary Grant, but the more theatrical names, such as 50 Cent, Ice-T or Sting. Sometimes we know their real names, but unless we see them in the context of their profession (on stage or screen, all glammed up) we may not recognize them buying chips & salsa at the local Kroger, as their tour bus passes through town on their way to their next performance.
Equally so, we’re not like to recognize a Steve Rogers out of uniform, or identify by name the young man with brown hair (Spider-Man 2, 2004) in the red and blue costume.
DC Comics still embraces the secret identity concept; sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. There’s no way to conceal Victor Stone’s identity as Cyborg. Does Hal Jordan need to wear a mask? He spends most of his time with the Green Lantern Corps, all of whom know he's Hal Jordan.
Hal Jordan wears a mask, even while sleeping
But Batman is one the publisher’s oldest characters, and exposing him is fraught with peril. Perhaps Bruce Wayne could become a recluse, while Batman becomes more public; reversing which of the identities is the urban legend.
Just as characters have forsaken tights in favor of body armor, I foresee new heroes developing less from lab accidents and alien origins. It represents a more realistic approach as to how/why these heroes (and villains) adopt more theatrical personas – flight call signs, special ops code names, and yes, even showbiz stage names.
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