The most common trope associated with superheroes is the dilemma of their secret identities, normally protected by the masks and costumes that they wear. Many storylines revolve around their attempt to keep the balance between their normal lives and their superhero activities. However, I believe that this act plays a far deeper role in their actions than we see on the surface. To elaborate on this point, I will be looking to three of the most popular superheroes ever as examples: Spider-Man, Batman and Superman, whose secret identities are Peter Parker, Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent respectively.
‘With great power comes great responsibility!’ These words were repeated over and over again to Peter Parker many times throughout his life by his Uncle Ben. However, it was only after Peter failed to prevent Ben’s murder, that he finally took these words to heart. He vowed to use his recently obtained powers to fulfil his responsibility to the world and become The Friendly Neighbourhood Spider-Man! Naturally to protect his identity and the lives of the people he loves, Peter created a mask and costume for crime fighting purposes. When donning the Spider-Man mask, we see Peter take on a personality that is marginally more outgoing than his regular self. He allows himself full reign to be as snarky and witty as he desires, much to the annoyance of the criminals who have to hear him. In various stories he describes being Spider-Man as a rush, often enjoying the thrills of swinging through New York. However, on many occasions he has described being Spider-Man as a curse, primarily because of the impact it has on his regular life. When he began his career as Spider-Man, Peter had to also balance being a high school student, in addition to his freelance job as a photographer. Needless to say, it put a lot of stress on him, and that’s without even mentioning the fact that the Green Goblin, his arch nemesis and father of his best friend, was also responsible for the death of his first love, Gwen Stacy. For someone like Peter Parker, Spider-Man is a means to an end, a way of making sure he fulfils the motto that his Uncle Ben instilled in him. But at the end of the day, he is still the victim of circumstance, or even destiny if you will. Peter’s life as Spider-Man is one of obligation, not desire.
Despite not putting on the costume until many years in the future, it can be easily argued that Bruce Wayne became Batman the very instant he saw his parents murdered while he was a child. From that point on, he dedicated himself to mastering martial arts, escape tactics, deductive reasoning and pretty much any skill required to fight the overwhelming crime within Gotham City. However, given his unrelenting obsession, one could put forward the notion that Bruce Wayne is the mask, and Batman is his true self. Bruce Wayne’s position as a billionaire playboy allows him to keep a connection to Gotham’s society and his position as Wayne Enterprises’ CEO means that he can utilise the company’s resources to fund Batman’s activities. Similar to Spider-Man, his life as a superhero intrudes on his secret identity, primarily his love life. However, given Bruce’s reclusive nature, this is most likely a calculated risk that he has more than prepared himself for. He has no intention of giving up the cowl of the Caped Crusader and constantly pushes his mind, body and soul to their limits in order to stay on top of the game. In an episode of Batman Beyond, Bruce Wayne remarks that in his head he doesn’t refer to himself as Bruce, but as Batman. His quest for justice is so all consuming that it forms the basis of his identity. First and foremost, fighting crime is Bruce Wayne’s highest priority. It is highly likely that if he could, Bruce Wayne would exclusively live as Batman.
Finally, we come to Superman, possibly the most iconic of all superheroes. Even though he was raised on Earth as a human, Clark Kent is actually a Kryptonian whose true name is Kal-El and so he is bestowed with amazing superpowers when exposed to radiation from a yellow sun. With this fact in mind, Clark bears a similarity to Bruce in that you could argue that his superhero identity is actually his true self. ‘Clark Kent’ is the persona used to fit in with the rest of humanity and allows Superman to understand their perspective. By keeping himself grounded, he is able to better work out just what is required to help those in need. Whereas Batman and Spider-Man wear masks to hide their faces, Superman makes no effort to cover his. However, as Clark Kent, he is always seen to be wearing glasses. Staff at DC Comics have gone as far as to suggest that Clark Kent changes the tone of his voice, slouches and acts clumsy and mild mannered in order to keep people from making the connection between him and Superman. I find this to be quite telling. If Clark Kent is his true self, surely he has no need to modify his behaviour? And yet, it is this persona that covers his face, whereas Superman displays himself for the world to see.
Perhaps what makes these three heroes so popular is the way their secret identities define themselves. Peter is defined by his sense of duty, Bruce by his unrelenting drive and Clark by his desire to be human.