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Friday, May 15, 2020 

It's one thing for superheroes to shed their secret IDs, but if quality of writing is lacking, it fails

A writer at Polygon talks about how superheroes are abandoning secret identities, all without asking objective questions whether the jettison was handled well in terms of story merit:
In the beginning, nearly every superhero had a secret identity. It protected them from villainous revenge, and created a delicious dramatic tension while interacting with loved ones who had no inkling of their other life. But the strict secret identity is fast becoming an anachronism.

Most heroes of the Marvel Cinematic Universe operate in the open, while other caped cinema stars, like Supergirl, are perfectly willing to trust close allies with their name. In comics, the X-Men no longer hide who they are or where they live. Even Superman’s identity has been revealed to the entire world twice in the last decade.

And all of this is for the better, delivering not only greater dramatic possibilities, but also a healthier idea of heroism.
No kidding. There are some superheroes for whom this change of pace worked well enough. One was the Flash, as Wally West shed the secret identity in the late 80s. But that was because the scriptwriting by Mike Baron and William Messner-Loebs for starters was good enough, and so too was Mark Waid's (exactly why it's a shame he's deteriorated so badly in personality today), resulting in an entertaining product as opposed to the disaster Green Lantern became after the 2nd volume was cancelled in 1988. If the writing quality isn't good, and if the shift is done only to suit the kind of agendas Brian Bendis represents, then it's all for naught.

Still, if this guy thinks it's better for superheroes to abandon secret IDs, does that mean he disapproves of Geoff Johns changing Wally back to a hero keeping a secret identity over 15 years ago? All that did was add insult to injury after Johns wasted no time stuffing gratuitous violence into the Flash's series, along with the poorly developed nostalgia references. But surely the biggest complaint is that the writing angle veered towards darkness or just outright unpleasantness. If you corrupt what made a specific title work in the first place, then shedding secret IDs won't work at all. The article goes on to discuss the history of secret identities, and says:
...Then, in 1938, Superman debuted, igniting a new genre and providing the template for superheroes after him. Maintaining an identity as journalist Clark Kent allowed him more resources to investigate corruption, and he believed his secrecy prevented friends from endangering themselves by trying to aid him. But his colleague and love interest, reporter Lois Lane, regularly risked her life in her own pursuit of truth and justice anyway, so that’s at least one big hole in his logic.
So because Lois boldly went after crooks as much as he did, that makes Superman an idiot to hide his secret ID from her? Sorry, but there's one big hole in the writer's logic: some heroes concealed their double lives from their spouses because they were afraid that, if anybody figured out the ladyfriend knew, they'd go after her as an easy target to try and force the info out of them, or worse, use them as shields against the heroes by threatening them with death if the heroes didn't surrender and/or do a "service" for them, like rob and deliver plans for technology that could aid the criminals in their twisted goals. In Spider-Man's case, the primary reason Peter Parker kept his ID secret was because he was worried aunt May would be upset and fall ill from the news, and she already bought into J. Jonah Jameson's false allegations against the web-slinger. For superheroes to shed secret identities requires talented writing to accompany them. That's why for Sub-Mariner, one of the earliest members of the MCU who didn't have a secret ID, and the Fantastic Four, who wore costumes but didn't conceal their IDs either, were entertaining in their own way. Abandoning secret IDs is fine in itself. But without talented writing, it won't work, and it certainly didn't when Joe Quesada forced One More Day upon Mary Jane Watson, and the Spider-fans.
Superman wasn’t the only hero engaging in bizarre behavior to keep secrets from people he trusted. But by the late 1960s, comics had begun to change. The industry attracted a new generation of creators who had grown up on these characters, leading them to consider nuances their predecessors hadn’t. More readers were now college-age or older, and hoped for more sophistication and maturity in their heroes.
And is that meant to say comics coming beforehand didn't have sophistication, even if, for a time, due to the Comics Code, they rarely dealt with issues like drug trafficking and overt racism, as the Bronze Age was more likely to? Even before that, they were willing to deal with communism or metaphors for the same, seeing how the Qward empire in Green Lantern was meant as an allusion to such totalitarian entities. If you knew where to look, you'd also find sophisticated words and vocabulary in plenty of early comics.
The rise of comic book stores and back-issue collecting in the 1970s meant it was easier to follow a character’s continuity, leading to a greater desire for long-form storytelling that explored lasting consequences. Slowly, the status quo became less precious. Robin grew old enough to seek his own path, Aquaman started a family, and Spider-Man wondered if secrecy was worth sabotaging his chances for genuine romance.
Ah, here, the writer conveniently forgot to mention how Black Manta put Aquaman's son to death in the late 70s, not too long after he'd started a family, in the pages of the original Adventure Comics anthology. And much like Sub-Mariner, Arthur Curry wasn't exactly one to keep a secret ID per se, as he didn't wear masks or cowls either. On which note, did lack of a secret ID prevent Lady Dorma from being sent to the Great Reward in 1971, after Llytra kidnapped prince Namor's fiancee in order to try and get her out of the way so this other would-be figure of Atlantean royalty could try to covet Namor herself? Nope. It's possible to concoct plenty of talented stories spotlighting heroes with and without secret IDs, and, neither way prevents an assault on beloved friends and relatives, or ensures danger looming around the corner.
Personal privacy has proven benefits, but trusting no one is harmful. In 1999, Laura Smart and Daniel M. Wegner published “Covering Up What Can’t Be Seen.” Their research showed concealing an identity or major personal aspect from people you want connection with leads to great stress due to constantly spending energy on self-monitoring and censorship. Sharing these aspects with trusted people helped a person’s coping mechanisms, stress management, and overall efficiency.
Well if that's the case, then they've confirmed it can lead to building personality for characters! Spidey faced this kind of dilemma, and so did some superheroes in the DCU, besides Superman. In any case, there were heroes who trusted their secret IDs with other people, like Alan Scott trusting Doiby Dickles with his ID as the Golden Age Green Lantern, and Hal Jordan trusting Tom Kalmaku with his as the Silver Age GL. And they have the gall to say the latter hero lacks personality? What were they expecting? That Hal be depicted as a villain? Oh wait, that's just what happened in 1994, and did they truly object? Nope. Far from it.
By the mid-1980s, more heroes were learning to trust. The X-Men still concealed themselves from the public, but were now open about their lives with friends, family, and even some enemies. Spider-Man went through fewer bouts of depression by trusting his love Mary Jane with his anxieties. DC decided Clark’s behavior needed to change, and had him finally confirm Lois’s suspicions about his identity soon after they started pursuing a real relationship. These developments opened new story possibilities.
Hmm, how strange. The X-Men didn't always keep secret IDs, even in the early days, and certainly not all of them wore masks. Prof. Xavier could sometimes wipe everybody's memories of their presence, and so too did Dr. Strange. But yes, there were those they could occasionally count on as reliable allies, most notably Moira MacTaggart, whom Jonathan Hickman's cheapened lately by turning her into a mutant herself. Yet if there's anything they missed, it's that, if the Hulk was a secret ID for Bruce Banner, it was abandoned just a few years later, as the story's primary cast, like Betty Ross-Banner, her father, general Thaddeus "Thunderbolt" Ross, and even army commander Glenn Talbot became the first after Rick Jones to know the nuclear scientist was really the big green guy.
The 2005 movie Iron Man ended with hero Tony Stark revealing his identity to the world. In an interview with Bleeding Cool in 2013, Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige said Stark’s revelation was because “I thought that [the secret identity trope] had been overplayed for a long time.”
I notice they failed to mention that, in the early 2000s, Mike Grell was assigned to write Iron Man, and did a story where Tony unmasked, and what a terrible job Grell did with the writing at that time. Indeed, Shell-head's adventures were just beginning to be reduced to scrap metal at that time, and now we have a situation where Tony's been retconned away from his parents for political correctness' sake. And the first IM movie came out about 3 years after the paragraph says. But, what are the odds the botched early 2000s IM stories were what served as "inspiration" for the movie's direction? They could be pretty high, and until now, even I hadn't really thought of it.

In any event, I don't agree with Feige any more than I agree with Johns on the subject of superheroes being with or without secret IDs. Considering there's undercover FBI agents who could keep their careers hidden even from their families, and definitely anti-terrorist police combatants who wear balaclavas in Europe, or even just masks, to protect themselves from possible revenge targeting by jihadists, to say nothing of people in witness protection programs are de facto maintaining a secret ID that's why secret identity tropes are far from worn out. Feige sounds like somebody who just doesn't want to admit both secret and open identities can deliver good stories so long as the writing is talented.
In 2016, the MCU retooled an entire Marvel Comics crossover that had been entirely about the question of secret identity: Civil War. In the original story, decades-long friends Iron Man and Captain America came to blows over whether or not the US should require people with powers to reveal their identities and become government agents.

When Captain America: Civil War hit theaters in 2016, Iron Man and Cap had only been seen together in two previous movies. But because their MCU incarnations knew each other’s public history before even meeting, and thanks to scenes implying shared experiences off-screen, the relationship didn’t seem shallow. They were also free to focus the debate on the weightier topics of oversight and personal independence versus public accountability.

This all has helped make the heroes seem more grounded and capable of supporting mature narratives — professionals living extraordinary lives, rather than big kids shunning those who don’t know the password. A year after Iron Man was released, Manuela Barreto, Naomi Ellemers, and Serena Banal published “Working Under Cover.” Their research showed stress, guilt, and shame increased when people tried to “pass” rather than reveal major aspects of their identity to loved ones. This could lower confidence and effectiveness, leading to toxic behavior and erratic emotions.
Yeah, tell us all about it. I'm sure there's some who could feel that way, but there's others who may not. Psychology can be very elaborate, and thought patterns range in many directions, so don't tell us everyone literally thinks the same way about everything. Plus, as mentioned before, heroes facing dilemmas over concealing their double lives to loved ones can make for decent, if not perfect, character drama, even as the columnist makes it sound almost like they don't. And how interesting they acknowledge the Captain America sequel - such as it was - is based on a company wide crossover debuting during the Dubya administration and meant as an attack on the Patriot Act. Or won't admit the whole premise of heroes bashing each other over the course of so long a story and facing divisions they usually avoided with grace years before was atrocious, nor will they remotely question whether these kind of stories have to occur in universe-spanning crossovers costing so much money and pages in different books. And they won't even admit one of the worst things about Civil War was its serving as the means to get rid of the Spider-marriage. Indeed, I do wonder why that's never mentioned by phonies like these? Maybe they really do abhor Stan Lee's developments for his very own creations, despite it leading to what they supposedly wanted - trust between hero and co-star.
A hero repeatedly shutting out loved ones to be a lone wolf is a flaw that can be interesting — but can also become stagnant. Superheroes shouldn’t be perfect, but they strive for admirable qualities, even if they stumble or lose their way. Modern comics, TV shows, and films have increasingly shown success by allowing characters to accept that they are stronger when they trust others.

Not only does such storytelling feel more real, it shows us superhero traits we can actually achieve in our own lives. We don’t know what it’s like to have Superman’s flight, Captain Marvel’s invulnerability, or Flash’s speed. But we can know the strength of telling someone “this is me” and the power of hearing at least some of them say “let me help.”
Yep, tell us all about what makes for stagnant storytelling. Like, how about what Brian Bendis and Geoff Johns write? It doesn't feel very real, or offer much of anything to think about, except the crude elements accompanying the so-called stories they've written along the way. Trusting others is nothing new to superhero comics, has been around since the Golden Age, yet they act as though this must entirely become the norm, or, if they revert a character with an open identity back to a secret one, the reasoning couldn't be more forced and contrived, as seen in Johns' Flash writing, which was easily the worst part of his writing resume.

But the biggest flaw in these kind of articles is that they never examine the merit of writing, and are only written to push a meaningless agenda advocating their narrow idea of what superhero fare should be like. That's precisely why superheroes abandoning their secret IDs has become such a failure.

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From the article: "Not only does such storytelling feel more real, it shows us superhero traits we can actually achieve in our own lives. We don’t know what it’s like to have Superman’s flight, Captain Marvel’s invulnerability, or Flash’s speed. But we can know the strength of telling someone'this is me' and the power of hearing at least some of them say 'let me help.'"

I often have to hide my political views for survival at work, so I relate more to heroes who deal with the stress of maintaining a secret identity.

You are right that the writing is more important than whether ID's are secret or not.

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