“I am Iron Man” and the death of the secret identity

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Now while I do love what comic book studios have been offering us in films – in terms of both quantity and quality – I do have one gripe that I’d like to rant on about today. What ever happened to secret identities? You might not remember but there used to be a time when heroes – after a day of saving the world and kicking ass – would return to their ‘normal’ lives. They would hang up the cape, take off their mask and do the everyday mundane things that the rest of the world has to deal with. Things like attending class, going to work and going on dates.

This may sound boring; I mean who wants to see Iron Man attending board meetings when you could be seeing him blowing up tanks? I appreciate that point because copious amounts of action is one of the factors that have made comic book movies such a mainstay of the current cinematic climate. However, I have to say that by sidelining the secret identities, we’ve lost a great source of conflict and entertainment. We no longer have superheroes but rather professional soldiers in capes who kill without remorse (but let’s not talk about the killing, that’s an issue for another post).

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The death of secret identities all started in 2008 with the very first Iron Man movie – the movie that really turned the superhero genre into a franchise. I love this movie, in particular, its ending where Tony Stark reveals that he is, in fact, Iron Man. This was an amazing moment because for a superhero to reveal his secret identity as casually as Stark did was unprecedented – at least in film (I’ve never read an Iron Man comic). Now, this worked well for a character the likes of Tony Stark because Iron Man is an extension of himself rather than an alter ego. Unfortunately this led to a wave of superhero movies where heroes revealed their identities with unrestrained candor.

Not everyone did so through a press conference but they might as well have. For a secret identity to remain intact – by my definition – it has to be known by the lowest number of people in the hero’s life i.e. two. Why two you say? One has to be the hero’s love interest because you can’t be intimate with someone without them noticing the bruises and constant disappearances at the sound of police sirens. The second is usually either the hero’s best friend/sidekick or the hero’s arch-nemesis. Just for clarification, a hero can only have one arch-nemesis so revealing your identity to every villain you meet is a no-no.


So using my definition, you can clearly see that secret identities have gone out the window. Take The Avengers, everyone in the world knows who they are. Spider-Man? He can’t go a movie without taking off his mask in front of a crowd. X-Men? Do they even have secret identities anymore? Superman? As if the glasses disguise wasn’t stupid enough, his entire hometown knows who he is. Batman? I love him but he has an obsessive-compulsive need to tell people that he’s Bruce Wayne. There’s this great YouTube Channel called How It Should Have Ended. The channel offers alternate endings to popular films and a running joke on the channel is that whenever anyone says the words ‘secret identity’ to Bruce Wayne, he slips into a trance and screams out “I’m Batman!” – click here to  see it in action. Which isn’t too far from what happens in almost all his movies.

I understand that modern superhero movies need to be more streamlined and often there isn’t time for the hero to have a ‘normal’ life but I think seeing the hero try to balance the two aspects of his life made for some of the best entertainment. The contrast between the often shy, soft-spoken secret identity and the fearless hero; the conflict between the hero’s duty and the secret identity’s desires, are things that have sadly become lost in the franchise-building orientated films we now see. This isn’t a major complaint but I think heroes are losing their heart and becoming faceless members of a super-powered mob. I miss that internal conflict that having two identities brings and think a few movies could be improved by its inclusion.


8 thoughts on ““I am Iron Man” and the death of the secret identity

  1. Secret Identities aren’t dead, they are just used more sparingly. Daredevil has one, Spider-man has one and technically Batman also has one even though Lex Luther apparently read all the comic books and therefore knows everything about everyone.


  2. Yeah… nahhhhhh. I don’t think secret identities are dead and buried (in the film universes, that is), I just think they’re less expeditious to plot and arcs than they might have been previously. One of my biggest bugbears about Snyder’s Superman has been the distinct lack of a “Clark Kent” personality where he’s the antithesis of Superman, all geeky and nerdy and stuff. The morphing between Clark and Superman as pretty much the same guy just with glasses is noticeable. Batman’s a different story – I think the Nolan films got it right in that if it was in Bruce’s best interests in fighting crime to reveal his secret identity to the world then that’s what he’d do, but it wasn’t at the forefront of the films. Same with Affleck’s Batman – sure, I think Clark and Lois would have guessed who Batman really was (would Batman have worn a lead-lined cowl the whole time to mask his face? Doubtful…) but it was hardly “common knowledge”.

    That said, it was nice to see Spider-Man’s introduction in Civil War tread the whole “keeping my superhero identity secret from those closest to me” routine and (although the scene stops CW dead in its tracks) actually brings back that sense of flittery jumping through hoops to prevent the knowledge seeping out.

    Good post!


    1. Thanks. I hope Spider-Man stays on the right track and actually works on keeping his personal life separate from his hero life. I definitely agree that in certain films even when no one knows who a hero is, their secret identity gets sidelined. I think that was the major (though it’s hard to just chose one) flaw with Superman Returns.

      Thanks for reading 🙂


  3. I think you’re right, especially in the TV universes. Everyone seems to know who everyone is. I think it needs to be more sacred. Great writeup, have you ever had your writing featured on any other sites?


    1. Thank you.
      I think a few comic book movies could definitely do with being more traditional and respecting identities more too.
      I’ve written a guest post here and there. Was part of a group of bloggers that worked on a blog called Screenhall. Other than that, all my writing can be seen here.

      Liked by 1 person

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