What’s in a name? When it comes to superheroes, typically pretty much everything is in the name. “We have this woman, and she’s like, really wonderful…” “OK so it’s a human guy, but he can light up like a torch, y’know?” “He’s in the army, respected like a captain, and he protects America…” etc. You get it.
But what about superheroes’ other names? The ones they go by when they’re not off saving the world, the ones they were given, or the ones they adopted because their real real name is literally too alien. One of the great, classic comic tropes is the secret identity, the lengths our heroes go to to keep their normal lives separate from their super ones. Some heroes don’t bother keeping their identity secret, of course, but those who do often grapple with increasingly elaborate ways of doing so; for others, the answer lies in keeping it simple.
Let’s take a look at the top five most well-known superheroes-slash-secret-identity-havers, and discuss how good a job they actually do at keeping that identity on lock…
Iron Man, the 2008 Marvel movie that changed comic book movies as we know them, memorably ends with billionaire (genius/playboy/philanthropist) Tony Stark outing himself as the titular hero at a very public press conference. Instead of reading the pre-written statement meant to cover up the climactic fight at Stark Industries, Tony has a last minute change of heart and drops a truth bomb on the gathered reporters: “The truth is….I am Iron Man.” SMASH CUT to credits, and a needle-drop of the eponymous Black Sabbath song. Now, your personal mileage may vary, but whether you think of Tony revealing the truth as an act of bravery or braggadocio, the bottom line is: the dude could barely keep his cover for one movie. That sort of lack of effort is just unacceptable here.
Unfortunately for Dr. Banner, his alter ego is a little more intense than just putting on a suit or a cape. The arrival of his Hulk powers happens in full view of some other scientists and members of the U.S. Army, and Banner is forced to go on the run and into hiding. So even though his identity isn’t the best kept secret, it’s not like Banner goes around telling the general population that he’s the big green guy. If he had it his way, no one would know what he is and he would never even have to use his powers. Basically, give this guy one of those gold “You Tried” stars and call it a day.
I know, I know. It’s insane to think that no one would recognize Superman just because he put on a pair of glasses, right? Counterpoint: I live in Los Angeles and have lost count of the number of times I’ve thought I’ve seen a celebrity, but can never be 100 percent sure because they were wearing sunglasses. So I’m cutting the citizens of Metropolis some slack, and giving Clark props for keeping things simple. Not content to merely save the world by being a superhero, dude is also a pretty good journalist, and no one is ever really the wiser. It’s truly a wonder what a trusty pair of glasses can do.
Lifehack: being a rich, white man with limitless resources is a pretty decent cover for all your crime-fighting vigilante inclinations. Sure, the tradeoff for Bruce Wayne is that he had to watch his parents get murdered as a child (spoiler alert!!!!), but by inheriting Wayne Industries, he also inherited a great cover for his caped crusading. He has the money to make cool weapons and gear, and a persona just public enough to be able to credibly shift suspicion away from himself. Not bad, Bruce. Sorry about your parents.
Is it suspicious that Peter Parker is the only person that seems to be able to take a decent picture of Spider-Man? Sure. But does this raise any eyebrows whatsoever? Not really! Depending, of course, on which version of Spidey you’re watching/reading (nerds), Peter only brings a select few into the fold when it comes to his secret identity. And why shouldn’t he? Being a high school student is basically the perfect cover for his crime-fighting activities, because who would suspect the mild-mannered, science-loving Peter Parker to be able to do whatever a spider can, namely, beat up bad guys and fight crime? Apparently no one, from sweet old Aunt May to MJ to J. Jonah Jameson. Way to keep that secret identity secret, Peter.