Wednesday, March 15, 2006

On superheroes and secret identities

This is a repost from my Live Journal. It was inspired by a discussion on WebSnark, where Eric (creator and one half of the writing team for Websnark) mentioned the Mask Principle and how it affects the comic The Green Avenger.

The Mask Principle, of course, states that a tiny domino mask is enough to completely alter the appearance of a person, to the point that while someone may notice that John Smith has the exact same height, weight, build, hairstyle and color, eye color and favorite food as Captain Superguy, it is impossible to recognize him as such.(Unless, of course, Captain Superguy removes his mask, so you see John Smith in the Captain Superguy costume. Or conversely, John Smith removes his glasses, and now you see that he is Captain Superguy.)

It's a largely accepted principle, even when it is being made fun of. There was even an episode of Lois and Clark where Tempus does a bit mocking Lois with the "I'm Superman/I'm Clark Kent" thing while pulling glasses on and off his face.

So, why does it work? This is something that I had to wrestle with for Children of the Sleeper. There had to be some reason that people wouldn't equate Sally with Paragon, and Randy with H2O, and citing it as convention alone wouldn't cut it. Not in a novel where superheroes didn't exist in the "real world" until 2005.

On WebSnark, Eric mentioned the incredible job that Christopher Reeve had done in Superman in making the physicality of Clark Kent and Superman so very, very different. By changing his posture, his voice, his mannerisms, despite the fact that Kent is tall and muscular, you accepted that he was a mild-mannered weakling. (Well, ok, you didn't. But then, you already knew that he was Superman. But as a view you understood how everyone else in the film could believe it.) It wasn't just his mask and glasses, it was that they were as dissimilar as two people being played by the same man could be.

Other good superhero films have done this as well. Christian Bale's Bruce Wayne/Batman had completely different auras to them. Tobey Maguire as Spider-Man doesn't make it work quite as well, but Spidey at least has the full-face mask thing going for him. (Of course, this barely helps him, what with the multiple unmaskings in every movie).

But the other part of it, for me, involves the rest of the world, not the superhero in question.I think that there is an element of unwillingness to believe. I don't think that most of us believe that anyone would willingly accept the trials and tribulations of mundane life if they had the power that Superman has. Traffic jam? No problem, I'll fly. Crowded shopping mall? I'll just push people aside. Or blow them aside with my super-breath. IRS forms? Zark it with heat vision.

Of course, I'm not a super-hero.

I think part of the element that makes super-heroes heroic is the fact that they value their normal lives too much for them to give them up. It's part of what connects them to the audience. And it's almost universal. Even those heroes who don't have normal lives have issues related to that. Batman is always being told how important it is that he not lose touch with humanity, the Thing wants to look normal again, Bruce Banner wants nothing more than to be freed of the Hulk, etc.

Note also that while most super-heroes try to keep normal lives, super-villains rarely do. They allow themselves to be defined by their abilities, not by who they are inside. There's a reason that in X2, when Magneto asks John his real name, he's talking about John's identity as Pyro. Pyro is a mutant who controls fire. John is a kid who had an unhappy family life and has problems getting the pretty girls in class to notice him.

And I think that deep down, most of us would be happy to be Pyro instead of John.

But heroes won't accept that cop out. Heroes know that underneath the Spider-Man costume, they're still Peter Parker. His super-strength and agility and danger sense don't do anything to help him pass his physics class. None of Superman's powers make Clark Kent a better reporter (well, ok, he does use superspeed to type his stories. But that's minor. It's his skills that make him a good reporter, regardless of how quickly the stories get typed up.) Heroes know that it's important to not let their powers separate them from humanity. Anyone who doesn't understand this needs to read Kingdom Come.

Go ahead, I'll wait here.

So, bringing it all back, I think that this natural tendancy is what allows the Mask Principle to work. It's not simply that the hero does a million little (or not so little) things to hide their identity. Those matter, of course, and I detailed several of the ways that Sally does so in Children of the Sleeper. But the other part of it is that people look at Superman, or Batman, or Paragon, and they are larger then life. They're HUGE. They have these incredible powers and abilities, and they don't have to worry about TPS reports. The very idea that they would take off the mask and then go back to a normal life willingly?

It's ridiculous!

Isn't it?


Anonymous Abby L said...

I agree! There are lots of different believable reasons that a person who existed in the same world as a superhero would not recognize the person when they are in their secret identity. I really love the idea of people just REFUSING to realize that these people can HAVE secret identities. It's also something you can use with celebrities. I'm sure a lot of people are around celebrities all the time but don't realize it because they look so different, or they don't think this person would shop at Piggly Wiggly.

Another thing that I always thought about was how unlikely it would be that a person in a big city like New York would see your face and recognize you. Say, on the street.

The element of your powers not defining you is definitely part of the whole superhero package, and I'd never heard the point made in quite such a way before. :) Thanks!

In the Green Avenger, Abby hasn't had to cultivate a secret identity for a long time. The last time before this that she had to was High School. I'm looking forward to addressing some of the same identity issues that you're saying you are. :)

9:26 AM  
Blogger Aaron said...

I've thought a lot about what makes a superhero a hero, and have gotten into more than one fight with friends over it. Glad that you enjoyed my point-of-view about heroic identities.

Incidentally, I'm loving the Green Avenger. I don't often post to your comments, but I read it every Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

11:59 AM  
Anonymous AbbyL said...

Thanks a lot! I'll try to keep updating so you have something to read. :)

8:06 AM  

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