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.
The secret identity is one of the defining aspects of the superhero myth, and it’s been around for more than a century.
The Scarlet Pimpernel provided the prototype for the superhero in 1905. Until Baroness Emma Orczy’s novel, heroes of adventure stories and folklore were known to change their identity after a life-changing incident, like the Count of Monte Cristo, or assume the occasional disguise, like Sherlock Holmes — but they didn’t continuously use more than one identity. Orczy’s hero Percy Blakeney leads a full double life, pretending to be a vain dimwit in public while clandestinely operating as the brilliant and elusive Scarlet Pimpernel. Percy trusts his secret to several allies, but not his wife Marguerite, until the mutual distrust in his marriage is dispelled during the story’s climax.
The Pimpernel directly inspired Russell Thorndyke’s Doctor Syn in 1915. This title protagonist actually wore a mask and costume when he operated as “the Scarecrow of Romney Marsh.” In 1919, Johnston McCulley combined ideas from Pimpernel and Syn to create Zorro, a masked champion who trusts no one with his true identity — not even the reader — until the story’s end. Zorro also pursued his love interest in both of his identities, originating the juicy two-person love triangle that would become a frequent staple of superhero sagas.
The popularity of The Scarlet Pimpernel, Doctor Syn, and Zorro led to more masked heroes with secret identities in newspaper cartoons, radio shows, and pulp magazines. 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.
Superman’s double life was imitated by many of the heroes that came after him, but others immediately tweaked the formula. The hero Magno didn’t bother with a double life, while the costumed detective the Angel didn’t hide his identity. In early 1940, Spy Smasher became the first masked hero to share their identity with a loved one. That same year, Batman, the Flash, Hawkman, and Sandman all followed suit, trusting people who then became their crime fighting allies.
Some, like Batman co-creator Bill Finger, saw dialogue with trusted allies as a more engaging way to deliver exposition than thought bubbles and narration. Finger said, “It got a little tiresome always having him thinking [...] Batman needed a Watson to talk to.”
Still, some creators stuck hard to the masked hero as a lone wolf, trusting no one. In the 1930s and ’40s, there wasn’t great concern over the long term consequences or psychological effects of a hero hiding their true selves from loved ones. As a popular form of entertainment during the Great Depression and World War II, comics were designed to be easily digestible, episodic escapism with a timeless atmosphere. Donald Duck never suffered permanent injury, Robin didn’t grow older, and Clark Kent kept his secrets.
But Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the very pair who created Superman, eventually decided their hero’s world should grow a little. It didn’t make sense to them that Clark hoped for romance with Lois Lane yet also continually lied to her. In 1940, Siegel scripted a story where Superman is forced to reveal his secret to Lois. Afterward, she points out the secrecy made his life harder.
SUPERMAN: “You’re right. There were many times I could have used the assistance of a confederate. Why didn’t I think of it before?”
LOIS: “Then it’s settled! We’re to be partners!”
Siegel’s editors rejected the script. It was forgotten until comic book historian and writer Mark Waid discovered it in 1988, leading to its eventual publication online with completed artwork and the title “The K-Metal from Krypton.”
After 1940, Siegel and Shuster didn’t press DC further on Lois learning Superman’s secret, but it was agreed she was smart enough to suspect it. The next few decades featured her making repeated attempts to prove Clark and Superman were the same, only for the hero to foil her plans and make her doubt her conclusions. These stories were presented as fun hijinks displaying the Man of Tomorrow’s ingenuity for kids, who were the primary comic consumers by the 1950s. But if one considers these characters as actual friends behaving like this for years, then the tales become examples of gaslighting, the abusive act of making someone doubt their senses, memory and/or sanity.
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.
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.
As superheroes evolved to be more relevant to their audience, secret identities were reexamined. Why did certain characters put so much effort into lying when some operated fine with public identities? And was this whole thing keeping heroes from maturing with the audience?
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.
And this has been echoed in many superhero stories! Emotional support from Robin and others is often quoted as keeping Batman from losing his morality, and fully descending into the darkness that his enemies embrace.
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.
For live-action superhero adaptations, it seemed pragmatic to loosen the secret identity. The 1989 movie Batman had two hours and six minutes to introduce a darker version of Bruce Wayne than non-comic book readers were used to, deliver origin stories for the hero and villain, and have audiences connect with love interest Vicki Vale.
To fast-track the romantic subplot, Vicki and Bruce are notably surprised how quickly they connect, he decides she can be trusted, and they have a frank discussion about their relationship and future. Giving Batman an earnest romance helped the movie feel more mature. A year later, the CBS live-action series The Flash had hero Barry Allen regularly discuss his double life with Tina McGee because, just as Bill Finger concluded fifty years earlier, it made for easier exposition.
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.”
Iron Man set the tone for the Marvel Cinematic Universe that followed, and 12 years later even Aunt May wound up learning Spider-Man’s secret at the end of his first MCU film. Not having to worry about secret identity contrivances meant more screen time to focus on the main plot, and helped to quickly build connections between heroes, prepping them for packed crossover films where there’d be little time for character development.
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.
Along the same lines, psychologists Irwin Altman and Dalmas Taylor proposed “self-disclosure” in 1973, the gradual and reciprocal sharing of feelings and personal experiences. Their research, backed up by later studies, showed self-disclosure was key to relationship satisfaction, personal acceptance, and confidence. Those are all traits and behaviors that superheros should remind us are worth fighting for.
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.”