Marvel superheroes don’t have secret identities in the same way that we usually associate secret identities with superheroes. The Fantastic Four, Iron Man, Captain America, and the Guardians of the Galaxy all have completely public identities. Everyone knows who they are in real life, so their superhero names are more for personal branding than anything.
Other big Marvel characters, like the X-Men, Thor, and Hulk, have more ambiguous (or even non-existent) second identities. And then there’s Spider-Man. At first glance, he seems to have the most normal secret identity, but he’s a special case, and I’ll go in depth on him in a bit.
In this article, I’ll just be talking about what we see in the movies. The comics have so many decades of competing continuities and storylines that I find it much simpler to just go off of the big-screen versions of these superheroes.
So let’s start exploring Marvel’s unique approach to its superheroes’ secret identities!
DC vs. Marvel
DC is the classic version of superheroes while Marvel is more of a clever spin on what it means to be a superhero. I love both of them, by the way. Superman, Batman, and even Green Lantern have well-defined superhero personas and secret identities.
The X-Men, on the other hand, are much harder to pin down. They typify the vagueness of Marvel’s take on secret identities. Each of them has a superhero name: Storm, Cyclops, Wolverine, Professor X, and Rogue, but their enemies know perfectly well who they really are. And, in the heat of battle, the X-Men don’t normally shout names that would preserve their secret, but their real names.
The ambiguity surrounding their identities mirrors the ambiguity surrounding their place in society. The X-Men would be perfectly happy to be left alone. They don’t want to be superheroes and save the world. They save people and stop villains when it helps them to preserve the peace and make life better for themselves and humanity. They’re not eager to leave their school and mingle with normal people. Their superhero names are more about self-identification among friends and less about attempting to remain anonymous in the outside world.
Superheroes either love or hate the attention they get. Bruce Wayne pretends to be a useless playboy during the day to conceal his identity as the Batman. Tony Stark really is a playboy, and he doesn’t even bother trying to hide his identity as Iron Man because he loves the limelight.
The Fantastic Four are basically heroes for hire in the movies. They work with the military when it suits them and they seek to publicize their personal lives just like many celebrities. Captain America is just an Army soldier who became a poster child for the war effort. He doesn’t benefit personally from his attention in the media, but he does it out of duty.
The Guardians of the Galaxy are the most unlikely superhero team so far because they are all self-obsessed criminals (I’m tempted to exempt Groot from that label, but the only words he’s capable of saying refer solely to himself). Their group name is ironic because it’s more like wish fulfillment than reality. They wish they were famous, and in their minds they already have intimidating reputations.
Superman vs. Spider-Man
As I said earlier, Spider-Man seems to have a normal secret identity, but there’s a twist. Spider-Man has a lot in common with Superman:
- They were both orphaned at a young age
- They were raised by a kind, childless couple
- Their father figure passed away at a pivotal moment in their life
- Someone else came up with their superhero name (though that may not be true of The Amazing Spider-Man)
- They work for a major newspaper
There are also a number of differences, most notably the fact that Kal-El is an alien with innate superhuman abilities while Peter Parker is a human and he gained his powers from a genetically altered spider.
But what I find most interesting is how these two hide their identities. Superman doesn’t wear a mask, so as his alter ego Clark Kent, he goes out of his way to seem boring and unworthy of people’s attention in order to blend in.
Spider-Man wears a mask and so Peter is not in danger of people recognizing him. Even if people do see his face, he’s just a nobody. He’s not famous like Bruce Wayne or constantly getting front-page bylines in the Daily Planet like Clark. He has the benefit of anonymity in a huge city like New York. He may have a lot of fun as Spider-Man, but his true self will always be a bit of a nerd, so he gets to be both a hero and regular guy without pretending to be something he’s not.
Marvel superheroes are cool for many reasons, but probably my favorite thing about them is how much they flaunt the standard requirements for heroes to have secret identities. Sometimes they don’t even bother having one.
Even ones who come close to having completely separate double lives still have little wrinkles that differentiate them from Superman, Batman, and other conventional superhero archetypes.
There’s plenty of room for both Marvel and DC characters to thrive in the movie business. In fact, I love seeing how they play against each other. It’s part of what makes my job so fun. And that’s no secret.
This is the Deja Reviewer bidding you farewell until we meet again.
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I always preferred Marvel to DC.
OFF TOPIC: Did you see “Rookie” with Clint Eastwood and Charlie Sheen? I saw this movie yesterday and there is a kind of “forced” symmetry in this. Clint Eastwood shot this movie unwillingly, because their “authorial” movies don’t hit the box office until “The Unforgiven”.
Hmm. Rookie doesn’t sound familiar. I’ll to add that to the list. Thank you.
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Secret Identities were a huge part of Marvel when it made sense. I don’t think you’re telling the whole story here.
A lot of Marvel Superheroes started offw ith Secret Identities for the same reason DC Super heroes do — to keep their loved ones safe. Iron Man didn’t start out flautning his secret identity. That’s something he only did very late into the comics history game (well into the modern age). For all of the Gold/Silver/bronze Age Iron Man kept his identity secret.
It’s telling that the most popular Marvel Superhero of them all — Spider Man — kept a secret identity (and he did it for the same reason DC super heroes did).
Secret Identities are part of the allure of the genre. They’re one of the things that make the genre tick. In recent years (well into the 00’s) the appeal of the Secret Identity has waned as comic book fans evolved. But it’s even more telling that the American comic book industry as a whole has pretty much died out (or is in a huge decline) as we went into the 00’s. Coincidence? Who knows.
Sometimes it doesn’t make sense… like with the X-Men (because as a whole they are a rogue organization). But it’s important to note that even the X-Men kept their identities secret at Xavier’s School for most of their run. It’s so they don’t become targets for their enemies. Most X-men don’t have secret identities because they aren’t public figures and they keep to the Xavier School and don’t really go out.
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Thor by the way also had a secret identity — look up Donald Blake. The Donald Blake angle was, again, discarded by Marvel well into the Modern Age but Bronze Age and earlier it was a real thing.
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