One of the interesting things about the most successful super-hero films to date is the relative extent to which they discard the convention of the secret identity while trying still to play with the fetishistic character of masks and costumes.
Tim Burton’s Batman started it off, with the reveal of Batman’s identity to the Joker as well as Vicki Vale. Since then, this has become a predictable part of most superhero films: both the antagonist and the love interest are let in on the secret, and relatively little effort is made by the hero to protect his identity. In the Spider-Man films, it’s even been clearly implied that Aunt May knows Peter Parker is Spider-Man, let alone the reveal to Mary Jane. No robot doubles, or butlers dressing as the secret identity, or any of the other staple narrative tricks for protecting secret identities that have filled comics for decades. Mostly this works well in the films, I think. It’s ok to have the reveal of the identity to the villains, because another thing that’s become common in super-hero films is killing off the bad guy at the end. That’s a difference between having to tell twelve or twenty-four or fifty stories about a character each and every year without making major changes to his status quo and just telling a single story about him.
There are some exceptions: the wonderful Bruce Timm cartoons based on various DC characters have continued to work a bit with secret identity storylines, but they’re consciously retro in their fidelity to an older comic-book geist anyway.
I’m kind of disenchanted with mainstream DC and Marvel comics these days, for reasons I’ve written about before. If I have to choose between two kinds of juvenalia, I’ll take the trippy, sappy, Boy-Scoutish character of a lot of Silver Age DC comics, or the adolescent angst and soap-operatics of Marvel comics in the 1970s and 1980s–as opposed to the kind of superficial “darkness” and “maturity” that largely appeals to the kind of 18-year old who thinks that stories where a supervillain attacks a member of the Authority by beaming back in time and molesting her as a young girl or where Giant-Man has a violent sexual relationship with the Wasp are really sophisticated, deep and daring.
But one interesting trend over the last decade has paralleled the cinematic de-emphasis on the secret identity. Superman stopped playing games with deceiving Lois Lane and married her. For substantial chunks of time, characters like the Flash and Iron Man have operated with identities known to their entire fictional world, though in both cases there were eventually fairly silly attempts to magically reset the storyline so as to restore the secret identity. A lot of the old staple stories about secret identities have been set aside. In a few cases, there have even been really compelling narratives about the dangerous consequences of a revealed identity: the comic book Daredevil has more or less been centrally focused on that issue for many years now. I would say the only character where the secret identity remains a major narrative theme is Batman, and even here, the circle of characters around him who know who he is (including some antagonists) is now quite large. More in this case, psychological duality (or questions about his lack of duality) is a staple of Batman narratives.
There’s one other character where “secret identity” has always been a defining part of his comic-book adventures: Spider-Man. Now that’s over, too, and in dramatic fashion. In the current Marvel “event” comic Civil War #2, Spider-Man reveals his identity to the entire world.
I’m feeling mixed about Civil War, not so much because of the editorial dictates that have shaped it (e.g., the major events that are being hyped, the reveals and the deaths and so on). The underlying story is a much more coherent one than DC’s recent “blockbuster” series Infinite Crisis: the US government decides that all superheroes need to register with the government in order to legally operate. Yes, it’s very consciously intended to invoke stories ripped right out of today’s headlines. Sometimes with all the subtlety that Stan Lee used to evince when he did stories about Commie supervillains or what have you. Sometimes it’s a bit richer and more nuanced in its potential. Partly though it’s because the characters aren’t terribly consistent with about thirty years of development. I’ve always liked Mr. Fantastic, for example, but he seems unrecognizable to me in this series: a servile wuss. (I’m wondering where my other long-time favorite, Dr. Strange, has gone to, after declaring his opposition to super-hero registration in the first book of the storyline.)
It’s Spider-Man that I really wonder about, though. Almost everyone regards it as inevitable that they’ll undo this story in some fashion given what a deep part of the character’s mythology his secret identity has been. But you know, Spider-Man hasn’t been a neurotic, guilt-ridden young adult for a while now. He’s married to a supermodel, is basically successful, and even Aunt May knows about his career as Spider-Man. I tend to think what a lot of other folks are suspecting: they’re going to kill off Mary Jane and Aunt May as a way to reboot Spider-Man’s guilt and anxiety.
In a larger sense, I wonder if comic-book superheroes really work without secret identities. The costumes become even odder than they already are, unless they’re basically utilitarian the way the Fantastic Four’s costumes always have been. It isn’t just the “protecting loved ones” that makes the genre work, it’s also the tensions that arise from characters pursuing individual action in a world where institutions provide neither safety nor justice.