I have to admit, I was on the fence about Morrison’s Batman run, but his sixteen-issue stint on Batman & Robin just blew me out of the water. However, something struck me about the last page of his final issue, as Bruce addresses a crowd of gathered reporters (standing in for us, the audience) and announces some changes as several Bat Signals provide an atmospheric backdrop. “I’ve been financing Batman in secret for years,” Wayne announces to a stunned group of spectators, in a moment just short of complete revelation. If readers got a sense of deja vu, it was understandable. At the conclusion to Jon Favreau’s Iron Man, Robert Downey Jr as Tony Stark stared down a room of media types before goading himself into declaring, “I am Iron Man.” What happened to secret identities?
Of course, Wayne’s confession isn’t entirely honest. He hasn’t admitted to the public that he is Batman and the fact that there are several Batmen running around will obscure the facts, but it’s a statement which inexorably links the billionaire playboy to the urban vigilante. It isn’t that Bruce Wayne is just another citizen of Gotham, or even that he has a relationship to the Dark Knight akin to Peter Parker’s capacity to take photos of Spider-Man – Bruce is a close ally (and possibly friend) of Batman. Hell, it’s hard to imagine that any number of supervillains aren’t rubbing their hands together with glee at the prospect of striking through Bruce at Batman, exactly the kind of event that a superhero’s secret identity is designed to prevent.
Up until recent, the secret identity was a sacred part of the superhero backstory. Everyone knows that Bruce Wayne is Batman or Clark Kent is Superman – except the people living in the fictional universe. Although there are all manner of in-story explanations for why characters might like to have a civilian conterpart (to protect their loved ones is a classic one, with the notion that even super- people enjoy being normal serving as a modern twist), the real reason was that there was something appealing about the fantasy mystique of a hero who could be anyone.
Peter Parker was a nerd, just like you or I, but at night he puts on a silly outfit and does a great deal of good in the world. Clark Kent is polite and mild-mannered – the kind of person you’d never dream to look twice at – but he’s also the Man of Steel. Sure, Bruce Wayne and Tony Stark are billionaires (and thus quite distinct from you and I), but there’s still the sense that their public personas (both are regarded as trust-fund spoilt rich kids) are just masks to hide their magnificent true selves.
That’s the appeal of the secret identity. Me, the guy writing this, could be the secret identity of a space-faring adventurer. You, the person reading this, could take off a pair of glasses and be strong enough to bench-press planets. The appeal of superheroes isn’t just that they do impossible things, it is also the fact that they are ordinary people doing extraordinary things. The secret identity represents the “human” element of the “superhuman”, the part that resembles you and I.
There’s an old story where Lex Luthor builds a super-computer to objectively look at the evidence which links Clark Kent and Superman, to determine what the shared bond is. The computer keeps coming back with the same rational answer – “Clark Kent is Superman” – but Lex refuses to believe it. Whay, he ponders, would Superman lower himself to pretend to be human? Why wouldn’t he just be Superman all the time? After all, that’s exactly what Lex would do, given those powers. He can’t comprehend the appeal of the secret identity.
In fairness, it seems that he isn’t alone. The declaration at the end of the Iron Man film marked it apart from the other films in the genre – it showed film audiences that the secret identity was not sacred. However, this has been a general trend in the comics for a while. Iron Man was “outed” fairly early on, as was Captain America. The X-Men, for example, have no real secret identities, as they are consistently defined by their mutations.
Superman has spent the last few years bouncing between The World of New Krypton and Grounded, both arcs which are remarkable for their lack of Clark Kent. Superman is pretty much Superman non-stop these days as he walks from coast-to-coast – with very little thought ever given to Clark (indeed, the scenes dealing with the humanity of Superman were cut from the opening of the first issue of The World of New Krypton).
The current Trial of Captain America arc works at attempting to reconcile the contrasting identities of Bucky Barnes – that of patriotic hero Captain America and assassin the Winter Soldier. Neither of these offers us an identity for Bucky himself, and it’s essentially a conflict between two public personas, rather than between his true self and the mask.
In many ways, the secret identity is seen as a cliché. Wonder Woman, for example, has moved away from the “Diana Prince” aspect of things in recent years. It’s becoming increasingly outdated and outmoded.
My favourite exploration of the notion of a superhero’s secret identity comes from Daredevil, as written by Brian Michael Bendis and later Ed Brubaker. Out poses as a deconstruction of the superhero secret identity concept, as it makes it perfectly clear that it is so ridiculously impossible to contain a secret that big – somebody will talk at some point, and then it’s a matter of time before that goes public. The idea Matt seemed to have, the suggestion that he could continue to do this forever, is dismissed by his friends as a childish fantasy – Spider-Man just considers himself lucky it didn’t happen to him first.
However, the run also offers a fairly romantic defensive of the storytelling device as well – in that it offers an example of how fragile the whole superhero status quo becomes if you remove that key cliché, however appealing that may eventually become. Matt is repeatedly targetted for assassination and is sent to jail, his fiancé is driven insane, his best friend is almost killed – all because the character wasn’t able to keep an impossible secret. However, the most stunning damage is done by Daredevil himself when he decides to reject the Matt Murdock identity. Daredevil decides that Matt is the root of all the melodrama and pain in his life, and decides to give up his life – which leads the character down a very dark path. The moral seems to be that the secret identity may seem improbably, but it’s a necessary conceit – like improbably tough bones in an action movie lead or the use of ambient sound in space scenes.
It’s easy to see why a secret identity might seem outdated. The argument is that people read these comics for the action and adventure, while secret identities seem to inevitably get tied up in all manner of melodrama and soap opera antics. And, to be honest, the idea that nobody has figured out that Clark shares an uncanny resemblence to Superman (especially any of the investigative journalists who work with him) seems ridiculous after seventy years. However, I am not convinced that this is any more or less ridiculous than any other superhero plot device like flying or kryptonite or whatever.
Perhaps this trend reflects modern culture. Modern culture doesn’t believe in privacy anymore. We don’t, for example, believe that our celebrities should ever drop their public persona. They are always “on”. We built reality television around the concept that even “normal” people could become spectacular – we can just consume and consume and consume.
We don’t dream of being the small kid with the dorky glasses who is really able to fly faster than a speeding bullet, at least not these days. That is outdated and outmoded – this is the era of plastic surgery. If you have an average-looking face, don’t worry about inner beauty – get the number of a doctor who can take care of that right away. It doesn’t matter that our inner-selves are heroes, we need everybody else to acknowledge that too.
We don’t want the stories about real or normal people – I dare you to take one look at reality television and tell me that it reflects ordinary people. We are interested in loud and aggressive behaviour, because these are the people that we worship today, and these are who we aspire to be.
Face it, if you were Superman, why would you pretend to be a boring normal person for most of your day? You could be famous, rich, successful and any number of desirable attributes. You could have a live filled to the brim with ridiculous luxury. You could be worshipped. That truly wonderful capacity for amazing feats is no longer bottled inside an average-seeming container – that’s boring! – but instead a vehicle to instant fame and recognition.
I mourn the decline of the secret identity. If superhero comics represent a fundamental mythology, then there was something truly endearing about the suggestion that each and everyone of us is capable of incredible acts, despite our potentially modest appearances. It doesn’t matter that nobody will ever know who it really was, because it could be anyone. It’s a very corny sentiment, but I find it an endearing one.
However, if you take that away, it reduces superheroes to the status of a cultural elite or glorified celebrities (indeed, Iron Man 2 made the parallels with celebrities particularly obvious), rather than reflections on the nobility of man. Indeed, the rather brilliant Colin Smith has observed how Marvel has created an elite class out of its once counter-cultural heroes in the new Heroic Age.
Given how revolutionary the idea of Peter Parker was – a character who is so highly relatable, who faces the same everyday hurdles that we do, but does impossible things – it can’t help but feel a step backwards. Instead of representing the best of us, these characters are inherently superior – they are just better.
Call me nostalgic, but I liked it when anyone could be a hero.