I am mild-mannered to a fault, my good fellow!

21Jul11

I haven’t seen Captain America yet, nor will I for the next few days, though I hope to when I have some time off. But after reading some of the reviews, something struck me about all of the Marvel Studio movies so far. Specifically, none of main characters have secret identities.

Now, in the case of Steve Rogers/Captain America, this isn’t anything new. He used to have one in the original comics, where despite his introduction of punching Hitler, he was mostly someone who stayed in America, posing as a bumbling private while fighting criminals and saboteurs in America. But with his retcon in the 60s about being frozen in ice, he lost whatever family life he used to have. At the time, 20 years wasn’t long enough that everyone he’d known would be gone, but it’s still two decades after you’ve been declared dead. So there wasn’t much of a reason to focus on any identity dilemmas.

Thor and Iron Man, on the other hand, both started with secret identities, and have had them change, be eliminated, and come back at various points. Thor used to be bound to a human named Donald Blake, who has been positioned as just a good man that was considered worthy, someone specifically bound to Thor and waiting to rediscover Thor’s hammer, and even a magical construct to house Thor’s power. Thor has been bound to other mortals as well, but he’s also spent a lot of time without such a constraint, such as Walt Simonson’s run on the character. In the movie, on the other hand, Thor himself makes no attempt to pass for a mortal-if anything, he does his level best to stand out.

As for Iron Man…well, sorry to spoil this for you if you haven’t seen it yet, except you really should have seen it already. While he has a secret identity for most of the first movie, he announces that he is Iron Man at the very end, and that drives the whole plot for the sequel. In the original comics, he used to walk around with the actual armor underneath his clothes, since it was what kept him from dying. Even after having his heart repaired (then reinjured, then repaired, then replaced, then reinjured again…), he kept up the fiction that Iron Man was Tony Stark’s body guard, a neat little fiction that both explained why Iron Man would keep defending Stark Enterprises from various villains, and why Tony Stark wouldn’t be seen during those attacks.

The only significant Marvel movie character to deal with secret identity issues has been Spider-man, and none of his movies have actually been made by Marvel. On the other hand, Spider-man is a character whose very concept is tied to his identity, at least if you want to use his initial teenage version. There’s not a lot of drama to Peter Parker’s struggles if everyone knows he’s Spider-man, since it would rob him of having relatable teenage problems while also being a superhero.

The reason I bring this up, though, is that I wonder if this is an interesting coincidence on Marvel’s part, or a calculated step away from that genre convention. For the most part, they’ve owned their superhero cliches rather than run away from them, calculating (correctly, in my opinion) that most people will be entertained by them instead of turned off…and if you can’t rely on comic book nerds to actually power your sales directly, you at least want them on your side as a marketing engine. But for all the legitimate drama you can mine from threatening a superhero’s secret identity, or at least using it as a source of difficulty in other areas, it also has the stigma of being a cheap way to isolate them and create unnecessary melodrama. Years of Internet sneering at Clark Kent’s glasses has helped to create that impression, even for people who don’t read comics at all.

Of course, this could just be too small of a sample size to tell anything. After all, they’ve only done 4 movies so far about 3 characters, and the Avengers movie will feature 3 of those 4 characters all over again. But it still seems strange that they might be quietly backing away from such a well known part of the genre formula.

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