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Identity Issues: The Man Within The Hero

“Now, a staple of the superhero mythology is there’s the superhero and there’s the alter ego. Batman is actually Bruce Wayne, Spider-Man is actually Peter Parker. When that character wakes up in the morning, he’s Peter Parker. He has to put on a costume to become Spider-Man.”

– Bill, Kill Bill Vol. 2 (Tarantino, 2004)
Issues of identity are central to the Superhero Film. All Heroes maintain multiple personas and the tension between them always plays a key role in the film. The rise of the Hero typically involves the formation of two new personas: a heroic one and a civilian one. In addition, the Hero will have a true persona, which is an amalgam of the other two.
For ease of discussion, I will be referring to the different aspects of the Hero’s identity as follows. The Hero’s superhero identity will be referred to by their superhero name (i.e. Batman, Spider-Man). The Hero’s civilian identity will be referred to by their last name (i.e. Wayne, Parker). The Hero’s true identity will be referred to by their first name (Bruce, Peter). When referring to the character in a more general sense, I will use the Hero’s full name (Bruce Wayne, Peter Parker). This system will be used throughout the Character Series.

The superhero persona is the most recognizable of a given Hero’s identities and the one that is most closely associated with the character. The Hero will actively create this identity early in their career as a superhero. As a superhero, the Hero wears a costume that complements his abilities and adopts a new personality and mannerisms to create a wholly unique character. Every aspect of the superhero identity is designed to either conceal the Hero’s civilian identity or to support his job as a crime-fighter.

The civilian persona is a bit more complicated. It usually develops naturally instead of being consciously constructed. Since the Hero has always been a civilian, the process of creating this persona is much slower than the creation of the superhero. The purpose of the new civilian identity is to create a second mask designed to throw off any suspicion that the character is a superhero. This role often becomes a caricature of the character’s original persona.

Both of these guises are designed to allow the Hero to do whatever he must to defend the public without fear that he will have to deal with the consequences in his civilian life. The primary reason for remaining anonymous is so that the Hero can keep his enemies from harming his friends and family as a way of attacking him. In addition, because superheroes must act outside the law, keeping a secret identity means they won’t have to face legal repercussions.

Smallville provides one of the best examples of the development of these new identities. Over the course of the show, Clark has moved closer and closer to taking on the Superman identity and the Kent identity. While the steps towards becoming Superman have been rather obvious from the start, and even more so since Clark took on the “Blur” role, his journey to becoming Kent has been much more subtle. A recent episode shows a flash-forward in which Clark has successfully formed both new identities and it is demonstrated quite clearly how effective they are. Clark Kent’s flimsy disguise has been a matter of discussion for decades, but it is important to remember that the glasses are only once piece of the puzzle. Kent’s bumbling clumsiness and insecurity contrast so heavily with the heroic authority of Superman that it is quite easy for him to avoid any suspicion.

The Hero’s true identity is the person he is without either mask on. The true identity is not created like the other two, but is the character’s natural personality. This persona tends to be a more mild amalgam of the other two sides, which incorporate or exaggerate aspects of the true identity. The Hero keeps this persona hidden from everyone in his two lives, with the Confidante as the only exception.

Not every Hero fits this paradigm perfectly. There are some Heroes who do not keep their identities a secret and live in the public eye, such as Iron Man and the Fantastic Four. Other heroes cannot go out in public at all and must hide themselves at all costs, such as Hellboy and the X-Men. In these cases, the civilian identity becomes irrelevant and may never develop at all. This can lead to a much more integrated personality, with the character able to bring his three lives much closer together. However, the Hero will still have to choose whether to put his civilian or superhero life first and will face the same tension between those lives as other Heroes.

At the other extreme is the Hulk, who exists as a pure duality. The Hulk and Bruce Banner are, for the most part, two completely separate characters that happen to share the same body. Bruce Banner has no more control over the Hulk than anyone else. Additionally, Bruce does not actively create any new identity. Instead, he exists as a passive product of his situation, reacting instead of acting.

Every superhero film deals with the tension of the Hero’s two lives. The Hero is constantly forced to choose which life is more important, and the superhero is usually the one that wins out. Often the most interesting character moments come when the Hero chooses his civilian life instead. More than anything else, these choices will center on the one thing that the Hero wants more than anything else: the Damsel.

About the author

David Molofsky

David is the Owner & Editor-in-Chief of AP2HYC.

1 Comment

  • I trust you to handle the Damsel topic with tact. Even so, do not be surprised if I whip up a frustrated feminist response to women in superhero films, particularly Girlfriends in Refrigerators 😛