Pre 2008, there was one thing all super heroes had in common, despite their differences in powers or lack of them. It was something they held sacred. A secret no one could ever know. It was the secret identity.
Sure, sometimes it was ridiculous (here’s looking at you, Superman), but no self respecting hero would be caught without it. But that all changed when Tony Stark sauntered in and had to ruin it for everyone in Iron Man, announcing to the world at the end his identity. And since then, secret identities have gotten lax.
Steve Rogers aka Captain America makes no effort to hide his identity, maybe because he was lost in time and his old identity means nothing now. Thor never cared. And in Man of Steel, Superman left a trail that let Lois Lane figure out his identity with ease. He might have donned on some glasses at the end, but from the Batman v Superman trailers, it seems he’s not fooling anyone, especially not Lex Luthor nor Bryce Wayne. And in this era of facial recognition software, putting on some glasses ain’t gonna do it.
But even more evident than the movies, the TV shows care even less about secret identities. Green Arrow’s list of people who know his secret identity has grown to pretty much the entire cast. And I recently picked up The Flash, who is doing the same thing. Last night on an episode, he was asked the question if everyone except the girl he liked knows his identity, and he said, “Pretty much.”
So why did the secret identity even exist in the first place? And why have we effectively gotten rid of it for the major superheroes nowadays?
There are four main reasons for superheroes to keep their identity secret. First of these is that it is to protect their loved ones from harm. The super villains might use them against the hero. This is evident in the original Spiderman movies, with Mary Jane as the damsel in distress whenever the villain figured out Peter Parker’s identity. On the flip side, Tony Stark doesn’t seem to care about anyone, especially in the first installment, so he doesn’t mind telling every potential villain who he is.
The second reason is that the secret identity is to keep the hero humble. We can identify with Peter Parker because he goes through struggles in school, work, and love, all without (usually) using his powers to his advantage. If a hero got famous because he boasted of his powers, he’ll alienate his fans. Of course, Tony Stark is already a billionaire, so telling everyone he’s Iron Man doesn’t change much there.
The third reason is that the secret identity serves as a symbol. Batman Begins went into the most detail with this, since the bat as a symbol of fear and the night was more powerful than billionaire Bruce Wayne running around with cool gadgets. Tony Stark, however, wants people intimidated by his intelligence and ability to make those gadgets.
The fourth reason deals more with us. We get some measure of entertainment and satisfaction knowing something the other characters don’t. This is nothing new. Shakespeare did it with plays like Twelfth Night. We want to be in the know. So when everyone knows, it’s not as satisfying.
So if there are these four, and possibly more, reasons for keeping identities secret, why the shift? Maybe because we’ve started to lose the concept of privacy. With cameras, facial recognition, DNA testing, and other technology surrounding us, we subconsciously realize that keeping a secret identity in today’s world would be practically impossible. It would take more superpowers to defeat security cameras than defeat evil.
The world has become a more complicated place, and superheroes are beginning to reflect that. For better or for worse, things are changing, including the once sacred secret identity.
So if you’re a loved one of a superhero, watch your back.