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 enemy discovers the superhero’s 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 because 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, 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.
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 who 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.
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 that 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 some of the best superhero alter-egos.
If you were told that one of New York’s most powerful and skilled defenders was actually a teenager, you probably wouldn’t believe it, which is exactly what makes Peter Parker’s identity as Spider-Man such a great secret.
Spidey’s alter-ego, Peter Parker, is simply a dorky kid who works a job as a photographer for the Daily Bugle, and the differences between him and his suped-up persona are what help keep his identity under wraps. (At least until Mysterio blows his cover at the end of Spider-Man: Far From Home.)
With the ability to climb walls, sling webs, and stop the bad guys⏤all in a skin-tight webbed suit⏤Spidey doesn’t give away any indication of who the human beneath could be, which is why Peter Parker has one of the best secret identities not just today, but of all time.
Mr. Fantastic was already cool enough as a top-level scientist when he was blasted with cosmic rays, but once he gained the elastic powers he’s known for, he became even cooler.
With no real need to mask his identity, Richards can freely go between the world as a renowned scientist by day and ultra-long defender of Earth by night. Fortunately, anonymity isn’t the only criteria to having a badass alter-ego, otherwise Mr. Fantastic would struggle to make this list given his life in the public light.
Being a kid seems to offer a layer of anonymity to supers, and no one take this to the extreme more than Billy Batson, AKA Shazam. With the ability to go from being a child to an incredibly muscular man by saying a single word, Batson has one of the most enviable secret identities out there. Because his superhero form is so different from his everyday appearance, there’s no reason for anyone to suspect that it’s actually a child shooting across the sky, cape in tow.
While being a school kid might not be the coolest alter-ego ever, having the ability to become a superhero while also being able to return to normal life whenever he wants is pretty awesome.
Being the first human to join the Green Lantern Corps is no small feat, and for Hal Jordan it offers the opportunity to live out regular human life while also experiencing a range of space-based warfare. The cocky test pilot’s ego grew even further when he acquired the magic ring that grants him his powers, which only adds to the badass personality Jordan has.
Having the ability to switch in and out of his powers in an instant comes in handy when avoiding suspicion and heading back to normal life, making Jordan one of the more talented heroes when it comes to hiding his super-persona.
What isn’t cool about a motorcycle stuntman who not only engages in death-defying stunts regularly but also deals justice for the devil himself? Even with these tasks and his obvious powers, Johnny Blaze can comfortably live in either persona. While his name may offer a slight nod to his flaming skull and hell-born powers, Blaze’s identity as the Ghost Rider is one of the most secretive of all.
There’s no need for a mask when your whole head is rid of its skin and becomes engulfed in flames, so locating the man behind the powers isn’t going to be easy unless, of course, you get a look at his license plate. (Which you might forget to do, given how distracting a flaming skull-man would inevitably be.)
Dr. Bruce Banner
You wouldn’t like him when he’s angry, because in superhero form he’s a giant, green rage-monster, aptly named The Incredible Hulk. Previously a highly intelligent scientist, Bruce Banner became a highly intelligent scientist with an anger management problem when he found himself caught in a terrible laboratory accident. To say this development caused problems in his relationship with long-time love Betty Ross is something of an understatement, particularly since her dad, General Thunderbolt Ross, is hellbent on reining him in.
Dr. Banner is an excellent superhero alter-ego precisely because he is opposite of The Hulk. As a scientist, he is concerned with reason, logic, rules, laws and boundaries. The Hulk is concerned with none of those things⏤he just wants to smash stuff. In many ways, the Big Guy is the ultimate venting mechanism for an otherwise buttoned-up individual, which makes this character-duo doubly relatable. Anyone who has ever felt rage can identify with The Hulk, just as anyone who has ever felt the need for clarity and boundaries can identify with Banner. Many can identify with both.
What is especially noteworthy about this alter-ego, however, is that he opens up the debate regarding the origin of the monster. The Hulk wasn’t created out of nothing⏤he is a monstrous manifestation of something that had always lurked inside Banner, but had always been repressed.
Highly intelligent billionaire playboy philanthropist⏤what’s not to like? He drives cool cars, dates whoever he likes, and lives in a giant mansion with his very deadpan butler, Alfred. It’s all very impressive. There is, of course, the immense childhood trauma, the inability to maintain a healthy relationship, and a tendency toward psychosis, but hey, nobody’s perfect.
The Dark Knight is unquestionably borne of the darkness that resides within Bruce Wayne but, unlike Banner and The Hulk, Wayne does not seek to repress it, nor does he need a scientific catastrophe to unleash it. Rather, Bruce Wayne purposefully creates The Batman to counteract what he perceives to be the extreme levels of crime and violence in the city of Gotham. Wayne carefully and obsessively crafts the vigilante Batman to soothe his own soul, by saving others from the pain that haunts him.
While Clark Kent creates a life for himself as a journalist, which allows him to try to help people without resorting to super-heroics, so has Bruce Wayne done the same. Though he inherited his empire, he is still a leader within the business community and an employer of many citizens of Gotham. As such, he provides for families and individuals and contributes to the local economy in a meaningful way. But his creation of, and continued commitment to, the Batman identity belies a dissatisfaction with the extent to which those legitimate, philanthropic endeavors can have an impact. And so, under cover of darkness, he goes out in costume and cracks skulls, too.
The idealistic, blind lawyer of Hell’s Kitchen spends his days fighting for the underdog within the legal system and, by night, he addresses those problems that the legal system won’t⏤vigilante style. Matt Murdock is like a less-pessimistic, less-wealthy Bruce Wayne, which is ironic because Murdock hears like a bat and Ben Affleck has now played both of them.
The main difference between The Dark Knight and The Man Without Fear, however, is motivation of the alter-ego. While Bruce Wayne is fueled by the pain of his parents’ murder, Murdock is fueled by a deep sense of justice. Wayne metes out vengeance against criminals and Murdock seeks to balance the scales of justice. Despite the fact that Murdock’s father was murdered, he retained his faith in the legal system, working hard to achieve the kind of career that would have made his father proud.
Coming from a poverty-stricken childhood, Murdock has earned his career and lifestyle through ambition and dedication and it is a vast conflict for him when he realizes that fighting crime in the courts may not be protecting as many people as he’d like. When he creates the identity of Daredevil, he approaches the task with the same level of ambition, dedication, and idealism as he approaches his day job, but this juxtaposition between Murdock’s nature and the purpose of a vigilante is what makes for compelling stories.
The thing about being a centuries-old demi-goddess is that your choice of alter-ego must be constantly under review. The identity of Amazonian Warrior may work well on the island of Themyscira, but not so much when it comes to the Europe of 1918, or the North America of 2016, for that matter.
No, such longevity requires a great deal of creativity and flexibility with regard to the way in which you choose to blend, particularly if you then opt to “walk away from mankind” for a century, as Diana herself explains in Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice. So, like Kal-El the Kryptonian becoming Clark Kent the Kansas resident, Diana is the Amazonian Warrior who became many different things over the years. Famously, she took the identity of Diana Prince from a nurse during war-time, and this is the name that stuck forevermore. But she didn’t stay a nurse.
In the comic books, she was even depicted as a secretary for the Justice League at one point, but in her first live-action feature film appearance, Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice, she appears to be a financially independent international woman of mystery, travelling on passenger jets, stealing digital information, and making quick getaways in rather awesome sports cars.
This is the beauty of Wonder Woman’s alter-ego. Diana Prince is always adapting to her environment and her situation, seeking to make informed choices and respond with appropriate, measured action. Her alter-ego is as positive a role model as the Amazonian Warrior she really is.
Genius-level scientist, billionaire, playboy, and arms dealer Tony Stark has charm and charisma to spare, but is actually a fairly unpleasant person thanks to his overflowing arrogance and overplayed privilege. However, it is this alter-ego that creates the superhero Iron Man and ultimately tempers itself in response to the ramifications of his super-heroics.
Stark invents Iron Man to save himself when he is captured and gravely injured by terrorists during an arms sale. He builds a mechanical, armored, self-powering suit that can fly, escapes his captors, and returns to his home, whereupon he continues to develop the technology. He has a power-unit inside his chest that is keeping shrapnel from killing him and also helps the suit to function. It also needs constant upgrades in order to keep him alive.
He soon realizes that using the suit makes him a hero, and heroes are routinely adored⏤so again, he becomes Iron Man for his own purposes. But, the responsibility that comes along with wearing the suit causes all kinds of conflict for the alter-ego, and his arrogance and self-centered motivations are continually challenged. Tony Stark eventually becomes even more evangelical about the role of protecting citizens than many of his Avengers colleagues, thanks to near-death experiences and the effect of being made to feel vulnerable.
Stark still has his moments, though. Noble though his intentions may be, his deep-seated instinctive jealousies can’t help but rear their alter-ego-style head.