- August 26, 2021
When Should a Superhero Reveal Their Secret Identity?
There’s a staple of superhero mythos that’s been around since the dawn of superhero comics. Something that doesn’t have a real-life equivalent, outside of being a spy, maybe. This makes it difficult to discern its morality even in context. This thing is the secret identity. The name heroes go by during their regular daily life when they’re not wearing the mask. It’s commonly a superhero’s most guarded secret, a way for them to keep their private lives safe.
But in those private lives, the superheroes have people they care about. That can be parents, partners, friends, mentors, you name it, they’ve got it.
But when should a superhero tell someone they care about that they’re a superhero? Should they ever? At which point does a loved one deserve to know? At which point is the hero abusively gaslighting them to keep a secret?
I’m not gonna pretend like this topic didn’t come to me after months of discourse about Invincible and Masters of the Universe: Revelations. That being said, I’m not going to focus on those examples. This topic goes far beyond two adaptations, one of which isn’t even from comic books.
What Makes Someone Deserving to Know a Hero’s Secret Identity?
‘Deserve’ can be a very controversial word. The whole concept of deserving something seems to spark arguments no matter what it’s about, but it is important here. What makes someone deserving to know the truth of a superhero’s secret identity?
Do heroes who have worked together for ages deserve to be trusted with each other’s real names? When do loved ones and friends deserve to know?
I’ve personally put a lot of thought into this. At first, I would have said someone deserves to know a hero’s secret identity if they fulfill one or two different criteria. They are in danger and don’t know it because they don’t know a hero’s secret identity, or they have proven that they can keep it a secret and never would reveal it on purpose.
The Danger of Being Friends With a Hero
I hope everyone remembers that scene in the first Raimi Spider-Man movie where Aunt May is just hanging out in her kitchen, minding her own business when BAM! There’s the Green Goblin bursting through her window.
Think about that for a second. For all she knew, she’s a normal woman that this psycho scared so bad she went to the hospital. He wasn’t kidnapping her, he was just giving her a heart attack. he nearly succeeded because she ended up in the hospital just from the fright of it all. She was literally babbling in her hospital room about having met the devil.
Do you know what would have lessened the blow, and may be prepared her for that? Peter telling her, “Hey, I’m Spider-Man, and while nobody knows that… you never know.”
Maybe this reason isn’t so cut and dry. How would most superheroes know when when a supervillain knows their secret identity? So when the hero has no idea that a villain even knows their secret identity, there is one reason why they should consider revealing themselves before a villain even finds out.
They’ve proven themselves capable of keeping a secret.
No Trust Between Friends?
Aunt May remains one of the most egregious examples of a person who deserves to know their loved one is a superhero. I mean come on, she raised Peter like a son. In the Ultimate universe, where Peter was still a kid and Aunt May hated Spider-Man, it made sense for Peter to keep it a secret. He was a kid who didn’t know better.
But every other version of Aunt May does not hate Spider-Man. It’s one of those things the MCU improved over the Raimi trilogy. Aunt May can be trusted, she proved that way before Peter became Spider-Man. If Marvel had Peter reveal his identity again to Aunt May, she should chew Peter out.
Not telling her for so long would be the biggest underserved slap in Aunt May’s face, because she should have known from the start. Aunt May is not going to do anything to put Peter in danger, let alone tell someone he’s Spider-Man.
And there are a ton of examples of characters who prove they are trustworthy. There are characters who have stuck by the hero’s side for ages, who spend a long time not knowing, or still don’t know their loved one is a superhero. Characters like Daredevil’s best friend Foggy, Superman’s pal Jimmy Olsen, Spider-Man’s love interest Mary Jane Watson, the Flash’s love interest Iris West, actually, you know what, just a lot of love interests. This list is mostly made up of love interests.
Spider-Man, as far as I know, is the only hero who has a parental figure he didn’t reveal his identity to almost immediately. You don’t see Superman lying to the Kents. Heck, Batman didn’t even try to hide from Alfred.
If a love interest is able to forgive the absurd amount of times a superhero bails on them or obviously lies to them, they’re not going to suddenly turn on them once they learn their secret. Clearly, they love the superhero at their own emotional peril, so they’ll love them at their own mortal peril too.
But then we have the next problem. When can we tell when a superhero should consider a character trustworthy? Basically, when is it wrong to have not revealed a hero’s secret identity?
When is it Wrong to Not Reveal a Hero’s Secret Identity?
This is going to be controversial, but this question is not difficult to answer. Unless the superhero’s parent/parental figure is a criminal or a supervillain, they can always know. It’s understandable when say, a teenage superhero is afraid to tell their parents. They likely fear being grounded, or the parent trying to stop them from being a hero, but it’s also based on the fallacy many teenagers have. The one that their parents are all-powerful and have power over them.
In reality, if a character has superpowers, parents can’t do crap. More importantly, unless this character has crappy parents, they’re not gonna reveal their kid’s secret identity. They want their kid safe and sound, not with a target on their backs. I’m not budging on that.
There are rare exceptions, but by and large, it’s wrong for a superhero to not reveal their identity to their parent.
Build Romance on Trust
When it comes to love interests, it’s also not that difficult to answer. If a superhero feels comfortable having sex with a love interest, drunken mistakes and one-night stands aside, they should trust their love interest enough to tell their identity.
This is a common problem of if you don’t trust them yet, why are you with them? If a superhero trusts them so much that they risk getting an STD or having a kid, the hero can trust them with a secret identity. It’s ridiculous not to at that point.
Sure, again, exceptions I guess. I know there are people who have sex early on in a relationship and don’t need there to be that much trust between them and their partner to do the diddly-wap. Then the next time to reveal a secret identity would be once the characters are telling each other that they love them.
If the superhero is at the point that they love them, they should know that they’re trustworthy enough to keep their secret. The perfect time to reveal this secret would actually be when they first say “I love you.”
It’s perfect because the superhero shows who they really are. It becomes this grand romantic gesture, that the significant other will hold as something precious. They wouldn’t want to ruin the memory by revealing the hero’s identity even after breaking up, it would hurt to much to sour that memory.
So yeah, Amber had every right to be mad, and Iris West too, and Catwoman also. Basically, every love interest deserves to be upset. There quickly comes a point where a superhero not telling their love interest their secret identity, becomes inherently wrong.
Why is Not Telling Someone Inherently Wrong?
Why does it become inherently wrong though? Asides from possibly endangering them, the things superheroes have to do to keep their secret are wrong. They have to lie about where they were or where they’re going. I don’t just mean in their private time, I mean when they make promises they don’t keep, and let people down, and screw them over.
How many times has Daredevil ruined a legal case for Foggy because he’s Daredevil?
How many times has Spider-Man missed MJ’s plays or performances because he’s Spider-Man?
Or, how many times did Superman stand Lois Lane up because he’s Superman?
This made the superhero’s friends and love interests feel worthless, like they weren’t worth their hero’s time. And I can sense the eye-rolls. You’re thinking to yourself, of course, they’re not as important as saving someone’s life, but remember, they don’t know that!
Do you think Lois Lane or Mary Jane would be upset about their partner not being there for them because they were being superheroes? Yes, sometimes sure, but angry? They’re not crazy, they understand that there are things not as important as saving lives.
But they deserve to know that they shouldn’t think less of themselves or the superhero. They deserve to know that they’re not being stood up because they can’t keep a partner’s interest, or because their partner doesn’t care about them. Everyone deserves that.
No one deserves to be gaslighted. I’m sorry, but superheroes who do that, become abusive; they don’t deserve the partners and friends they’re taking advantage of. They become unheroic the moment they take the mask off if that’s how they live.
Don’t be comfortable lying to your friends and family on a regular basis, there’s never a good reason.
Gives the Characters a Chance to Leave
Something that I’ve realized about a superhero who won’t reveal their secret identity to long-time friends and partners, is that they’re selfish. It comes up a lot when the superhero is mulling over revealing their identity, that their partner or friend may not want to be with them anymore. They then use that to justify keeping their secrets.
That’s selfish, that’s deciding for someone else what they’re comfortable with. Inherently, revealing one’s secret identity gives the trusted person an understandable chance and reason to leave the relationship. Not everyone is comfortable being with a superhero for good reason. It can endanger their lives and others around them, so they deserve that decision. Not to mention, while they now know why they’re not the most important thing in their partner’s lives, they’re still not the most important thing.
These are both perfectly good reasons to end a relationship. Any person who would stop dating a superhero the moment they know the truth is not a jerk. They have no obligation to date a superhero or act as their reward.
A superhero refusing to give them that choice is a betrayal, it’s completely unheroic. The superhero has no moral right to keep someone from knowing about a risk to their safety and happiness because it puts the hero’s happiness at risk.
Tell Your Partners and Your Friends Your Secret Identity
The superhero identity is an integral part of many superheroes and superhero fiction overall.
This does not change the fact that it has far too often become a toxic part of the mythos, one that damages the character of our favorite superheroes.
A lot of people take umbrage with this criticism. I should remind those people, the odds of you having a secret that affects your life as much as being a superhero would, is slim to none. Coming out to your parents is really the only secret I can think of that makes sense to keep. That’s about your safety. Otherwise, you can keep to yourself just how long you wet the bed or whatever guilty pleasure show you watch.
At the off chance you do have a secret like that, really think about how your partner or friend would react to you not telling them. If their first response is anger, consistently, across the board, reconsider why you’re keeping them as friends.
What do you think? Tell me in the comments below. Check out this week in comics!