Superhero TV: is the age of the secret identity over?

With more and more superheroes coming out on the small screen, isn't it time to shake off the old rules about secret identities?

Like spandex, dead parents and creatively-named bad guys, secret identities have been a part of superhero lore since the very beginning. With 70-plus years of history behind it, there was a time when the idea that the main character on a superhero television show would reveal his or her real identity to a love interest, best friend or family member was pretty ludicrous, and things were just accepted the way they were.

But that was when there was only one or two superhero shows on the air at any one time, and audiences had no option but to just accept the status quo. Now, things are very different.

Not only do we have multiple superheroes to choose from on the small screen, but we also have shared universes both on TV and in the cinema, not to mention a medium that’s dealt with comic-book adaptations for long enough to start making some rules of its own.

Next season we’ll have Arrow, The Flash, Supergirl, Legends of Tomorrow, Agents of SHIELD, Agent Carter, and Gotham all airing on network television – an unprecedented number of comic-book based series that promises more to come. Then there’s the Marvel Cinematic Universe and DC’s attempt to match it, which have influenced how superheroes are treated on the small screen as well as vice versa.

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But, with the abundance of riches we’re dealing with, there’s been an overwhelming sense that some of the old rules and clichés might need to start evolving right along with the characters.

Chief among these points of frustration is the idea of the hero having a secret identity. Sure, hide yourself from the world at large, but from your girlfriend? Or your sister? As said, it’s a trope that’s been around forever, but with shows like The Flash and Arrow doing so many things so well, updating where they need to and homaging classic stories the rest of the time, the constant loyalty to that particular plot device is glaringly obvious.

The source of the madness on the former show? Iris West.

Iris has become a point of frustration for viewers that rivals even that caused by Laurel on Arrow two seasons before her. As the love interest that we’re supposed to root for, she’s been gradually resigned to the role of nagging girlfriend, fragile daughter and unattainable object of affection. For a character kept in the dark, she’s textbook. Replace her with Smallville‘s Lana Lang and I’m not sure it’d make much difference.

There was at least a legitimate reason for the plot to exist on Arrow in its first season, given The Hood’s penchant for killing people instead of necessarily saving the day. He wouldn’t become a hero in the traditional sense until the second season, and by then the body count was pretty high. The only person who knew in the beginning was Diggle – a former soldier with his own demons – and Felicity was only then brought into the fold through necessity.

But you could always understand Oliver’s reluctance to tell those from his old pre-island life – Laurel, Thea and Tommy especially. We see first hand what happens when Tommy finds out what his best friend’s been hiding, and it ultimately results in his death.

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The same reasoning could be used in Daredevil, with Matt Murdock’s actions and reputation as Daredevil not really lending itself to keeping personal relationships. Foggy’s reaction is very similar to Tommy’s, in fact.

But there comes a point when the reason, or indeed the logic, for keeping everyone in the dark dissipates, and you’re merely left with characters looking needlessly clueless.

Did we really need to watch a whole season of Laurel as an alcoholic, desperately searching for the truth that her own sister and ex-boyfriend were deliberately keeping from her? That extends to Quentin, too, with the rest of the cast being secretive about Sara’s death and Laurel’s new superheroics for much of season three.

Keeping the entire premise of a superhero show from a character is a sure-fire way of making them hard to write for, and characters that are hard to weave into the story from week to week are rarely loved by the audience. Thus we have people like Iris West, who has been so poorly treated by the writers and the show’s characters that it’s hard to imagine she’ll ever recover for season two.

Compare it to Supergirl, which surprised everyone with its first trailer in this regard. Not only do various characters appear to know about Kara’s origin and powers before we even meet them, but she’s also quick to tell others right there in the pilot episode. It may just be a narrative decision removed completely from its peers, but it could equally be read as a rebellion against the trope.

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Something the trailer – and presumably the show – also does is gender swap the issue. Here, the love interest is presumably James Olsen, yet he actually knows more than Kara does. Given that no other show has had this happen between a male hero and female love interest, it looks a little suspect.

Marvel on the big screen has been largely uninterested in separating its characters into civilians and heroes. Tony Stark reveals his identity at the end of Iron Man as an act a defiance, and Steve Rogers the ordinary man is as important to the public perception of Captain America as anything else. Thor, Black Widow and Hulk are all one and the same with their alter egos, too, and the upcoming Civil War storyline will do away with the remaining hidden identities.

People are tired of seeing characters being kept in the dark, mainly because it’s a storyline we’ve already seen countless times. There are purists who need things to follow a certain trajectory in order to connect to them as a superhero show, but a lot of modern viewers are equally keen to see something entirely different.

The choice we now have with the genre means that we don’t just have to settle for one familiar narrative. The superhero genre is so prevalent that it can be treated like any other, with nuance and variety to match. Why does Barry Allen have to keep his identity as The Flash a secret from Iris? Because Clark Kent kept it from Lana and Lois? Because Oliver kept it from Laurel?

These things aren’t set in stone like they used to be, but it appears as if showrunners haven’t noticed. Maybe it’s fan outcry, which dictates so much of what showrunners feel they can and can’t do with well-known, much-loved characters. More likely, though, it’s just a reluctance to deviate from what’s expected, when the abundance of superhero shows meaning that the audience is more fragmented that it used to be.

Something that thankfully has shifted is the need for a lone hero, with each of these characters surrounded by a team of friends and sidekicks, all in on the secret. The SHIELD agents have each other, Oliver has Team Arrow and Barry has STAR Labs. One great thing this does is give the audience a variety of personalities to latch onto, all contributing in some way to the narrative and the ongoing action.

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Shows like Smallville and Lois And Clark were a product of a different time, but audiences now want a least a small cluster of people to know everything right from the start. On Smallville, it took two seasons for Pete to find out, four for Chloe, six for Lana and eight for Lois. Can you imagine if that happened on one of our current crop of shows? People would just stop watching.

It’s time these shows stop thinking of being straight with its regular players from the start as a risk, and for them to realise that keeping characters in the dark actually marginalises them, removes their agency and fosters either audience disinterest or audience resentment.

Supergirl, if what we saw in the trailer is correct, shows that things are finally starting to change and, if the first season of The Flash is anything to go by, that’s a very, very good thing.