Our Secret Identity Crisis

We’re more into alter egos than ever - just not, strangely enough, in our superhero stories.

Illustration by Phil Noto.

Marvel’s Civil War, published in 2006 and 2007, was a massive comic book crossover event that pitted The House Of Ideas’ greatest icons against each other in a story that explored the moral and ethical repercussions of the common thread running through nearly all superhero comics: the secret identity. In Civil War the government passes the Superhuman Registration Act, essentially forcing all super-powered vigilantes to unmask, to out themselves or be branded criminals. It’s fertile thematic ground, and was a highly successful event for the publisher. But when it was announced last year that Civil War would be the subtitle of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s third Captain America film, a lot of folks wondered what that movie’s plot would be, as there’s one really sweeping difference between Marvel Comics and its cinematic counterpart: in the MCU, there are pretty much no secret identities.

Since the 1960s, Marvel’s heroes were portrayed in their “civilian” lives as relatable people with relatable issues, and this approach re-engaged young readers with the cape-and-cowl crowd in a big way. This one had no money. This one looked weird and didn’t fit in. This group was born different, and persecuted for it by the masses. The Marvel roster was chock full of misunderstood, trod-upon sad sacks, and in suiting up these metahuman metaphors found solace, escape - freedom - from their real lives. Awkward teens who felt ostracized by “normal people” - whether it was due to bad skin and weight problems, or more serious bigotry from the outside world - gravitated to these stories for very obvious reasons.

The MCU of 2015 exists in a slightly more tolerant world. Emphasis on slightly: issues of race and gender equality seem to be in a constant, alarming state of waxing and waning in 2015. But in theory, at least, people are encouraged to own their individuality in a way they didn’t or couldn’t 50 years ago. We self-identify as one thing or another, and we proudly externalize it via online avatars and logo-plastered clothing. I’m a gorehound; I’m a Brony; I’m a geek girl; this is who I am. It makes a lot of sense, then, that the 21st century superheroes of the MCU wouldn’t hide behind masks.

This age of superheroes sans secret identities has been brewing for a while, and it’s by no means relegated to the MCU. Bryan Singer’s X-Men were out-and-proud from the jump, hanging onto their superhero “code names” like vestigial appendages, and not a single one in a mask. Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man mined the dual identity stuff pretty well, but man alive Tobey Maguire’s Peter Parker sure couldn’t seem to stop unmasking in front of the citizens of New York. Christopher Nolan lost interest in the duality of Bruce Wayne fairly early (though to be fair, he’s probably given us the best “billionaire playboy act” version of Bruce Wayne we’ve yet seen, if only for two or three scenes). Zack Snyder was so utterly not into Kal-El’s secret identity that Clark Kent’s iconic disguise was reduced to a smirking visual punchline at the end of Man Of Steel. (To be honest, I’m kind of dying to see where that goes in Batman v. Superman: Dawn Of Justice.)

Elsewhere in filmed superhero media, the idea of an alter ego feels played out or wrung dry, and shows like Arrow and The Flash seem unable to hold out too long before folding six or eight or all of the heroes’ friends in on their big secret. More than ever, we now-grown, occasionally still-pimply kids want our superheroes, but we’ve entered an age where we’re encouraged to let our freak flags fly, and “living with a secret” doesn’t resonate the same way with a generation whose lives are open Instagram accounts. The old thematic baggage of the alter ego isn't likely to move you if you’re posting “deal with it” memes to a world that hates and fears you.

All of which has me intrigued about why our obsession with secret identities is maybe bigger than ever, but has for some reason migrated to non-genre dramatic television. As the superhero genre loses interest in the very concept of alter egos, TV dramas about middle-aged white guys seem happy to take that ball and run with it, presenting characters with dual lives they keep hidden from the world. You can almost hear the Stan Lee-penned intro text:

After a fantastic explosion on a war-torn battlefield, timid everyman Dick Whitman finds himself transformed into the brilliant and powerful DON DRAPER!
Elizabeth and Philip Jennings are, on the surface, just an AVERAGE suburban couple! But beware, gentle reader, for looks can be deceiving! Behind closed doors, these seemingly normal Americans are secretly working for MOTHER RUSSIA!
His body’s cells changing and surging with a deadly force, mild-mannered schoolteacher Walter White undergoes a startling metamorphosis. Unbeknownst to his wife and child, White begins a secret life as ruthless criminal mastermind HEISENBERG!

There are softer examples: Showtime’s Dexter seemed to appropriate the costumed vigilante model whole cloth, and as a result hewed more closely to its comic-book model. On the same channel, The United States Of Tara and Weeds stuck several toes in the alter ego/secret life water. Over on Netflix, a blindfolded Matt Murdock is diluting our thesis a bit, though the grimy look and hard-R violence of Daredevil keep it well segregated from the rest of the MCU (for now, anyway). Characters with secrets and hidden pasts have pretty much been staples of serialized drama, going back to soap operas and episodic westerns. But lately adult dramas have really latched on to the secret identity hook, repurposing it to deliver new fantasies unto an audience who grew up idolizing masked heroes, and is now sitting in front of the TV daydreaming about different kinds of alter egos. As kids we dreamed of flying away, of being strong enough to defeat our enemies, of having the power and means to rise above it all. As middle-aged Americans we fantasize about running away, starting over, leading more exciting lives and possessing power that’s beyond our reach. We’re conflicted about where we’ve found ourselves in life, simultaneously fearing change and craving reinvention. This new era of secret identity fantasies on cable television lets us have it both ways.

One wonders if Tony Soprano - the hardened mob capo who was, in private, a panic attack-prone neurotic struggling with his chosen life - sparked the current obsession with duality in TV dramas. Across six seasons of The Sopranos, Tony returned again and again to Dr Melfi’s office, trying to figure out which Tony was the “real” Tony, or if they were in fact two halves that needed to be integrated. Tony’s angst over his dual identity resonated for viewers who might have been dealing with the same middle aged, “am I a good person or a bad person?” existential concerns (though, one hopes, on a much less bloody scale). Ultimately, Tony had a private epiphany, stopped trying to pretend he was human, and embraced the monster. It was a bit like a What If? Hulk comic in which Bruce Banner is extinguished forever. It’s a dark ending for Tony (and one that comes, by the way, three hours before that famous cut to black).

On Mad Men, heartland hayseed Dick Whitman (Jon Hamm) strides through a gleaming metropolis wearing a superhero costume called Don Draper, and he never takes it off. Draper is assured, successful, fearless - everything the whoreson army deserter Dick Whitman wasn’t. Unfortunately, Don Draper is also kind of a monster, quietly rampaging across the personal lives of everyone he claims to love. Or is Dick Whitman the monster, using the Don Draper costume as an amoral force field to do whatever he wants? Don/Dick’s compartmentalization has blurred as the character has evolved, and we've seen more and more of Dick Whitman in private and emotional moments. But if The Sopranos gave us a man surrendering to his evil half, Mad Men often feels like the other side of that coin, as Dick Whitman tries (with mixed results) to reclaim his humanity out from under the cold persona in which he’s draped himself. There’s been much debate about whether Don Draper is a protagonist for whom we should or shouldn't be rooting. The thing is, we don’t care about Don because he’s handsome or because he’s some kind of lovable scoundrel. We care because our own hopes for grace and redemption - that we will one day, despite all our sins, get our shit together and do right by our loved ones - are reflected in Don’s journey.

Breaking Bad absolutely soars as a super-villain origin story. I mean, come on: Walter White is an ineffectual scientist, passed over by his peers, who becomes a power-mad genius bent on supremacy and domination after being pelted by radiation. Seriously. He even has a special costume he wears as his alter ego! As with Don, adolescent wish-fulfillment is melded with viewer identification. Walter’s transformation into Heisenberg is the secret fantasy of every one of us who’ve felt a weird lump under our skin in the shower, who’ve given ourselves private death sentences in the oncologist’s waiting room. It’s a daydream of the weak and helpless, beaten by life and desperate to regain control when we feel the universe take it away. Walter does it by becoming an erstaz Scarface. If that’s not the escapist dream of a bus-riding wage slave with mundane health problems, I don’t know what is.

The Americans is built around the premise that quiet suburban DC couple Elizabeth and Philip Jennings (Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys) are in reality Russian spies doing dangerous work under deep cover. We've certainly had spy shows before, and even “spy couple” shows before, but here it’s the cover, the secret identity, that’s really the hook. The Jennings deal with all the same boring married couple junk as you. But, you see, married life is not boring at all! Their marriage doesn't represent who they really are! Underneath, they're vital, exciting, sexy! They still matter, even though they fucked off to the suburbs and started breeding! More dark daydreaming for souls buried in the banal.

Of course all these programs are complex and thrilling and amazingly written, and citing them here is not meant for one second to suggest that the vicarious fantasy of a secret life is all they offer. But it’s not a surprise that some of the biggest thrills on these shows has often been in watching their protagonists squirm and sweat under threat of exposure. Seeing Don and Walter and the Jennings scramble and maneuver to keep their lies from being discovered is a massive draw to any viewer who’s fabricated even the most minuscule part of their life. We all “fake it til we make it.” We feel like frauds and deal with “impostor syndrome.” We all know, on some level, what it’s like to pretend to be someone else. Ultimately, that’s why the secret identity still appeals: because as adults, it’s not just a fantasy; it’s a reflection of our reality. Decades of putting on “costumes” and assuming new identities to get through our own serialized adventures, crossover events, and multi-issue arcs have shown us that pretending to be someone else - compartmentalizing our lives and transforming into what the situation demands of us - isn’t a superpower, but a pretty universal survival tactic.