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).
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.