The concept of the superhero alter-ego is one that has sparked debates for the ages. The idea that these super-characters use other identities to keep their heroic exploits under wraps adds layer upon layer to the psychology of the superhero, as well as giving rise to drama, comedy and, above all, plot twists. Which aspect of the character is truly the real character – the superhero or the alter-ego? What does the choice of alter-ego say about the superhero, and about their perception of the world at large? What happens when the enemies of the superhero find out their other identity?
Perhaps the most legendary superhero alter-ego is Clark Kent – the famously mild-mannered journalist that allows Superman to hide in plain sight, simply by slipping on a pair of glasses. Discussion has raged for decades as to whether the real identity of this character is Kent, or Superman, with many believing that the answer lies in a third name – Kal-El. Though the young boy doesn’t discover his true, alien identity until he is a little older – having been adopted by a Kansas farm family as an infant – the fact remains that the character is Kal-El from Krypton.
He is named Clark by his adoptive parents, but he is who he is. He decides to seek employment at The Daily Planet newspaper, because it puts him in a position to stay ahead of breaking news, in case Superman is needed. Whether you subscribe to the plausibility of Clark Kent’s ‘disguise’ glasses, or not, it is a pretty good choice of day job for the Man Of Steel. But, the other reason that Clark Kent is legendary is the fact that he essentially invented the idea that the alter-ego is necessary to protect the world from itself – to allow people to continue living in ignorance.
This ‘Clark’ mask he wears, prior to mankind learning of Superman’s existence, is necessary because his family raised him to hide his powers – his parents believing that the world was not ready to learn that humans are not alone in the universe. Adult Clark Kent, as Superman’s alter-ego, is then borne of the need for personal balance. The existence of Superman is revealed to the world, but Kal-El is still really a guy from a Kansas farm – and needs to live a life.
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This is, perhaps, what makes superhero alter-egos so fascinating, in general. They represent the assumption that, in order to maintain control – of personal lives, and of the global situation – a super character must be able to operate in secret. As the audience, it feeds into our inner-conspiracy-theorist, as well as our innate desire to feel protected by a benevolent, all-powerful being which is unquestionably on our side. These fictional superheroes provide the comfort of having an absolute fail-safe – of the knowledge that we can always ‘pass it up the chain’ – while their alter-egos provide a way to relate to them, on a logistical or emotional level.
It is somewhat difficult to identify with a man, flung from space, who can fly and shoot lasers from his eyes. But, we can easily identify with a man trying to get things right in his work day, and family life, while attempting to balance a variety of moral and emotional quandaries. We can identify with his feelings of being an outsider, and his response to a growing level of responsibility. Most importantly, we can identify with the need to present a certain façade to the world in order to get through the day. While this aspect resonates with some people more than others, we all do it to a certain extent.
So, this is the central conflict created by the existence of the superhero alter-ego, to which we can all relate. The thing is, some superhero alter-egos are better, and more effective than others. In fact, technically, some superheroes don’t even have an alter-ego at all. Thor, for example, is just Thor. Captain America has a real name – Steve Rogers – but his status as a super-soldier, thawed from ice after decades frozen, means his identity is not secret. Hancock, in Hancock, is just Hancock. These characters require us to empathise with them in a different, more straightforward way.
But, the superhero with an equally great alter-ego is a character as rich in origin as it is in future story-telling potential. So much can be explored, in depth, with a great secret identity. So, now that the 2016 wave of superhero movies has begun, let’s take a look at five of the best superhero alter-egos.