In 1938, the first issue of Action Comics, a “mild-mannered reporter” and “strange visitor from another planet” was born — an alien messiah with identity issues.
Superman was his colourful public persona, powerful and virtuous. Clark Kent was his human secret identity, bumbling and unassuming.
His separate identities shaped how readers identified with him — and arguably, how those same readers identified with the world.
This separation of a character’s self into a public and secret identity is easily written off as the creative flourish of a children’s comic book story.
But, by reflecting a distinction between public and private identities, superheroes can shine a light on changing social norms and concepts of identity.
Public and private persona
Similar to Superman, we all have more than one persona.
You might act, talk, and dress differently depending on the situation you’re in, as you allow different aspects of your personality to take the stage.
Originally, a “persona” was a megaphone mask worn by actors in ancient Greco-Roman dramas, to indicate the different characters being played.
We can think about identity in the same way — as a collection of masks, or personas, that we can change as required. It is something most of us do automatically.
These personas help us to blend in, to project an ideal “self”, and to relate to others.
But can thinking about our masks, without allowing them to define us, help us to better understand ourselves?
Superhero Big Bang
The creation of Superman heralded an explosion of colourful capes and masks.
These new “super” heroes presented a simple world of easily understood good and evil, where Nazis could be punched squarely in the face, and justice was always done.
This new breed of character was a response to the changing pressures of a modernising world. While previous avengers such as Zorro were superior to man and nature, superheroes were superior to the industrial age.
They were more powerful than locomotives, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound; they were superior to us and yet subservient to man-made concepts of law and order.
Bizarre love triangles
The secret identity performed a number of important functions.
It protected friends and family from their enemies, while providing authors with a way of warding off any long-term romantic pursuits that might interfere with the hero’s endless war on crime.
One example of this is the “two-person love triangle”, as played upon both in comics and films between Lois Lane and the alter egos of Clark Kent and Superman.
Romantic abstinence, in the name of secrecy and to protect others, was subtly upheld as a virtue, as characters sacrificed love in the name of justice. But the ways in which character’s “paid” for their powers did not end there.
By assuming a harmless human identity, superheroes were forced to take on a suite of mediocre character traits.
For example, the disciplined and tireless Batman has a public perception of a decadent playboy. Superman pays for his incredible powers by masquerading as the clumsy and anxious Clark Kent.
Through these simple comic stories, conformity and mediocrity were good moral virtues; being different was something to be kept secret.
Quick! To the Batmobile!
A key trait of the traditional hero is that they are reactive to criminal activity.
Their transformation from secret identity to superhero only occurs in response to wrongdoing.
This aligning of proactivity to unlawfulness is nothing new.
Recently, Extinction Rebellion protesters have become increasingly proactive in response to what they see as the government’s inadequate action on climate change.
In response, increasingly harsh criminal penalties are being debated and imposed for the zealous actions of activists.
The idea of the reactive, peaceful and law-abiding citizen vs the proactive, aggressive and law-challenging troublemaker is alive and well, continually being reshaped and weaponised by both sides.
At the same time, the relationship between media and real life is ever-clear.
The Watchmen television series plays on a mistrust of masks, and the secret identities they imply.
Meanwhile, in Hong Kong, emergency powers have been invoked to ban face masks at rallies.
This simple means of changing persona has re-emerged as a place from which to perform acts of social justice, safe from recognition and retribution, while media, including popular culture, continues to reflect and comment.
‘I am Iron Man’
In superhero stories, the secret identity has become less emphasised, and even disregarded entirely.
In 2008, Robert Downey Jr declared “I am Iron Man” in an ad-libbed moment during the filming of the first Iron Man film.
The line suited the character so much that it set the tone for what was to come.
The studio abandoned Thor’s secret identity, and the fourth cycle of the Marvel Cinematic Universe began with Spider-Man’s secret identity of Peter Parker being revealed to the world.
This may, at least partly, be a reflection of what is happening in society, with being “different” increasingly supported and accepted, no longer something to hide.
Send in the clowns
As a cultural thermometer, the success of the recently released Joker film cannot be overstated.
This character, traditionally a villain in the genre, has become something of a symbol of the common man’s modern-day struggle.
In an age of looming existential threats, mistrust of the elite ruling class, and growing chasms of ideologies in politics and society, the non-conformist, proactive villain has ironically become a hero.
Simple concepts of good and bad, black and white, are no longer good enough.
Diversity and complexity are the order of the day.
The superhero genre has been a reliable measure of society and culture for a long time.
We can continue to look to popular culture, knowing that if we look hard enough, we might just see an accurate reflection of ourselves.