The Marvel Cinematic Universe Is Better Without Secret Identities
Kevin Feige has wanted to pivot from secret identities long before the MCU. Speaking of that Aunt May reveal in Homecoming - the film's version of "I am Spider-Man" - he said it was something he'd wanted to do since Spider-Man 2 in 2004, believing that upending a heroes life pushed the character and creatives on a sequel. While that didn't necessarily work for Iron Man straight away - Iron Man 2 is regularly viewed as one of the weakest entries in the series - it has grown over time.
The biggest pitfall of having a secret identity is how it restricts conflict. The ramifications of being discovered vary from hero to hero, but the fear tends to manifest in similar ways; the scene in Superman IV: The Quest for Peace where Superman and Clark Kent try to double date could be applied to a variety of heroes with only slight adjustments for super speed. It's not unique. Now, that is more a product of bad writing than something inherently flawed with the concept of alter egos, but that doesn't mean it shouldn't be addressed; getting rid of the pretense of secret identities allows writers to define the characters more purely on their own merits. Indeed, while this trope fits for a lot of the popular heroes, it doesn't for many more.
This makes a singular film more unique, but crucially helps build a cohesive world. The people behind the heroes are more distinct, and because those personalities are clearly defined they can link up and connect in more nuanced ways as the legwork has been done. This is probably why The Avengers was such a success. Instead of having Donald Blake, Steve Rogers and Tony Stark explaining who they are or them bickering in costume, Joss Whedon could dive right in and have the essential internal conflicts begin apace and go personal from the start. In Infinity War, we're sure to see a much stronger conversational shorthand between characters that's essentially the dividends of Tony's first claim.
Above all, though, it's deconstructional. Marvel films are typically taken a pure entertainment, but this is an example of them on a macro scale exploring what the "superhero genre" is; the comics were always about the people behind the masks, but this is a way to advance that in the different medium. The translation of page to screen is the MCU's true brilliance, and the addition of something so reflective and - given the starting point - counterintuitive, elevates the whole.
There is also a more practical reasoning. Actors typically demand a certain amount of face time when playing a hero, leading to them often taking off their mask in the middle of a big action sequence. Financially gratifying as it may be to them, it creates in-universe issues, with the character going against that overriding desire to protect their identity; Andrew Garfield's Spidey, with his perfectly kept hair, was particularly guilty of this. Aside from getting someone as game as Karl Urban was with Dredd (where the helmet is for a completely different purpose), eroding this as a hard-fast aspect is the best solution.
That's not to say secret identities don't have a place. As already discussed, the arcs for both Black Panther - whose reveal mirrors what he does to the country of Wakanda - and Spider-Man - Aunt May finding out is Peter's biggest fear - hinge on these reveals. It's just that Marvel isn't resting on these as a long-term source of drama (like the comics that inspired them). Nor is it that they're bad. Most recent villains have had some secret - be it motive or identity - that covers that area (Killmonger was even more a traditional hero in this regard), but that's again providing new twists. Secret identities were stale, Marvel moved on. And that's where problems for others come.
- Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019) release date: Jul 02, 2019
- Avengers: Infinity War / The Avengers 3 (2018) release date: Apr 27, 2018
- The Avengers 4 / Avengers: Endgame (2019) release date: Apr 26, 2019
- Captain Marvel (2019) release date: Mar 08, 2019
- Ant-Man & The Wasp (2018) release date: Jul 06, 2018