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Saturday, May 31, 2014 

The Escapist has a problem with secret identities

The Escapist wrote about the history of secret identities, arguing it doesn't make the same sense it did years before, and tell how moviemakers are handling them. At the beginning, they say:
What makes a comic book superhero? Costumes, powers, or ridiculous villains are important of course, but if there's one thing that stands out in the popular imagination, it's that they have secret identities.
What about personalities, or at least some kind of effective drama, interacting with a supporting cast? And once, the contributing staffs did make an effort, but today, even Marvel no longer cares about that, and the remaining audience is so insular, they're no longer interested the way previous generations used to be. I really wish these magazines would give more attention to the most overlooked strategy for building not just a superhero comic, but any kind of adventure comic.

And how are the secret IDs dealt with in movies?
[...] While films have almost always portrayed superheroes with secret identities, they also demonstrate difficulties in fully translating the concept to screen. Almost every Batman and Spider-Man movie to date has one character dramatically discover the hero's alter ego. X-Men emphasizes the fact that every mutant needs a code name, but the movies didn't bother giving anyone a mask. Even Man of Steel, in a rare moment of brilliance, has Lois Lane uncover Clark Kent's secret using basic journalistic research. That's an incredible achievement, something no previous version of the character has done so far without getting her mind wiped by the story's conclusion.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe in particular has gone out of its way to make sure the real names of its superheroes could be uncovered through a quick Google search. Iron Man ends with Tony Stark being advised by SHIELD Agent Coulson to claim that Iron Man is his bodyguard, only to triumphantly blurt out the truth at a press conference. Bruce Banner is forced to live on the lam because it is well known within the military that he transforms into the Incredible Hulk. Thor never pretends to be human in the films, but briefly borrows the name of Jane Foster's ex-boyfriend while leaving S.H.I.E.L.D. custody. Even Captain America's civilian name is widely known, and he largely resorts to the sunglasses-and-baseball cap trick favored by modern celebrities when he wants to avoid a public scene. When Netflix releases its upcoming MCU exclusives, it's likely that Daredevil will be the first hero to actually bother with alter egos, not counting deep cover agents like Black Widow, who don't have secret identities so much as they don't officially exist.

So what's going on here? Why don't filmmakers treat secret identities the same way comic book universes do? There are plenty of reasons, but it boils down to this: when you take a closer look at the history of superhero comics, it's clear that the entire concept of secret identities is a product of an earlier time, one that creators cling to for the sake of tradition.
I wouldn't go that far. If secret IDs are outdated, as they must think, then the FBI's use of undercover IDs must be useless too? Not at all. Secret IDs still have their uses, from both realistic and surreal viewpoints, with surely the leading reasons being that without a secret ID, how would a superhero be able to lead a life in an ordinary household without having supervillains come around blasting up the neighborhood in their quest to destroy their archenemies? Unless you go the surreal route, they'd have to live in army compounds, and that's no fun.

But they may have a point about how filmmakers approached secret IDs. The problem, I'd say, is hastiness, and they otherwise don't seem to know what to do with the concept, or how. If law enforcement uses secret IDs for undercover missions, then I don't see why it should be so hard for moviemakers to make use of it. For escapist fare, it should work through the sheer suspension of disbelief and use of imagination. How come filmmakers don't ponder that?

On the subject of Golden Age heroes, they say:
[...] For the first time, superheroes were part of the social order, and have arguably been tied with patriotic values ever since.
Unfortunately, that's no longer the case, so someone's been living under a rock for a while. Once, various superheroes did represent patriotic values, even if their adventures didn't have many political ties. But today, even that's been badly marginalized, as anti-Americanism and disdain for America has been flooded into the comics via writers and editors with no respect for past beliefs.
The problem isn't that secret identities themselves are bad - it's just that without the legal repercussions faced by true vigilantes, they lack justifiable context. This explains why, in the 70s and 80s, comic deconstructionists like Alan Moore and Frank Miller shifted the focus back to morally grey vigilantism. More recently, Marvel's Civil War event forced heroes to sacrifice their privacy as registered superheroes, widening the gap between masked vigilantes and public defenders. But in most cases, these changes either took place in an alternate universe or were eventually restored to a Silver Age status quo.
Oh no they weren't. Even if the Superhero Registration Act wasn't approved as law, Marvel's cohesion became a shambles, and anyone who thinks the Silver Age came back literally needs to wake up and smell the coffee. Modern superhero comics are so jarringly violent, amoral and nigh unreadable, that claiming it's the Silver Age again rates as pure comedy. And how come they didn't mention just how awful Civil War truly was? Or how neither Watchmen nor Dark Knight Returns helped comics in the long run?
It's clear that fans love the idea of someone having a powerful, secret second life, and the concept's venerability has made it an essential part of basic superhero mythology. So it is that for every character like Iron Man who finally sheds their secret identity, you have someone like One More Day's Spider-Man who is forced back into the shadows. Secret identities are, it would seem, here to stay.
Neither of the cited examples above were any good. Tony Stark first did this in a disastrous run by Mike Grell in 2002. It may have been ignored for a time, but I think he shed his secret ID again by 2006 when Civil War showed up. And for Spider-Man, with the ghastly intentions that lay behind the initial unmasking, that's why it was doomed from the very beginning.
The good news is that we're slowly starting to figure out where secret identities work, and where they don't.
No, we're not. Marvel didn't, or had no intention thereof, and made an already bad situation hopeless. DC once managed to slowly shed the official use of secret IDs for a couple of their heroes, only to have Geoff Johns force them back on in some of the most intellect-insulting steps possible a decade ago: Wally West thought he was to blame for letting go of his secret ID as Flash because of the violent villains who attacked his wife, and has the Spectre (still Hal Jordan at that point) run effects reversing it back. But it was all handled incredibly nasty just for the sake of it, and in the end, neither Johns nor anyone else knew where to go from there. Depending on how one views secret IDs, it's funny they'd think it was that vital to go back to them, since Marvel may have introduced the first hero without a secret ID - the Sub-Mariner - back in the Golden Age, and since then, there have been heroes at both companies who didn't have secret IDs, and instead just kept low profiles on their superpowers.
The best heroes who can logically maintain dual identities across franchises are those who have an antagonistic relationship with authority. Batman and Spider-Man are perfect examples; Batman became more believable to the public when played against a corrupt Gotham police force, while Spider-Man is under constant scrutiny from J. Jonah Jameson and the press. But why does Iron Man, a publicly-adored CEO representing the military-industry complex, need a secret identity? It's overly complicated, and a two-hour film doesn't need that kind of disbelief.
Maybe IM doesn't need one, but if they tried to abandon it, they haven't done a good job at all. Biggest problem is that the editors simply can't wait, or the writers/artists handle it so slapdash it has no impact. That's why a superhero who unmasks today carries no weight storywise, because people can't find much to be impressed with now.

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I get the loss of supporting casts in superhero comics but I think you're overreacting a little bit in here. And if you think that superhero comics are getting worse, you might as well give up reading those kinds of comic books. Also don't go to sites that irritate you.

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