Wednesday, March 20, 2019

In Laman's Terms: The Evolving Depiction of Identity In Superhero Storytelling

In Laman's Terms is a weekly editorial column where Douglas Laman rambles on about certain topics or ideas that have been on his mind lately. Sometimes he's got serious subjects to discuss, other times he's just got some silly stuff to shoot the breeze about. Either way, you know he's gonna talk about something In Laman's Terms!


All the way back in 1938, Superman's debut appearance in Action Comics #1 defined our modern conception of the superhero. Part of that definition was the establishment of a superhero secret identity. Superman was an all-powerful God-like entity with a multitude of superpowers, but his human alter-ego was Clark Kent, a nerdy newspaper reporter who no one could ever imagine running particularly fast, let alone leaping tall buildings in a single bound. Plenty of other superheroes soon followed with their own alter-ego's in hand, most notably Batman, who by day is a charismatic billionaire. In the 1960s, Spider-Man took things to the next level by making the alter-ego of a wall-crawling superhero be a puny teenager who gets bullied at High School.

The point of alter-ego's, particularly in relation to someone like Spider-Man, was to provide wish fulfillment for the majority of the people reading these comics in the form of depicting how normal people could either become or actually always were exceptional superheroes. With the exception of occasional characters like the Fantastic Four who eschewed the entire concept of secret identities, the alter-ego's of superheroes were a way to depict normal people changing into something extraordinary.  Notice the word changing in there though, the alter-egos of superheroes and the superheroes themselves were vastly different people, the whole point of Superman is how much of a difference there is between him and Clark Kent. The lack of resemblance between the two entities is meant to be heightened, which has been used to great artistic effect, particularly in how Christopher Reeve portrayed the different personas of Superman in that original Superman movie.

But outright eliminating the gap between superhero's and their personal identities has also yielded some fascinating stories as of late. The alter-ego concept has always been in a state of artistic evolution in superhero media and that's been particularly true of the last few years, which have seen a number of superhero movies blur the lines between alter-egos and superheroes. Now, 21st-century superhero movies have had a complicated relationship with the superhero alter-ego trope, with the Sam Raimi Spider-Man movies leaning heavily on it to generate drama between Peter Parker and his non-superhero friends while The Dark Knight trilogy also dedicated much of its overarching story to the relationship between Bruce Wayne and the Batman persona he uses to protect Gotham. Others have been frequently throwing out the alter-ego concept altogether, particularly the films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

This expansive franchises more dismissive attitude towards the concept of superheroes carrying secret identities was established from the get-go once Tony Stark ended the first Iron Man movie with the declaration to the public that he, in fact, was Iron Man. The newly born Marvel Cinematic Universe suddenly made it clear that alter-egos would not be a priority for their feature films going forward. The Avengers had far bigger fish to fry than worrying about their identities leaking out to the public. Even their own version of Spider-Man would conclude his initial solo movie by inadvertently revealing his secret identity to his own Aunt May. Truthfully, this isn't a bad approach at all to take since not all stories related superheroes will inherently require a superhero to have an alter-ego.

Plus, the alert-ego routine in superhero media has its fair share of drawbacks when done poorly. Most notably, a superhero balancing two different identities has been repeatedly used to have male superheroes keep supporting characters, especially female ones, at a distance so that they don't learn their superhero secrets. Remember how tedious that Daredevil TV show got after Matt Murdoch incessantly kept pushing Karen Page away just so she didn't discover he was Daredevil? It's easy to see why many would decide to eschew secret identities altogether but that doesn't mean there isn't interesting thematic territory to be explored in the world of superhero secret identities in a modern context.

Most interestingly, a fixture of recent superhero movies sees superheroes examining the relationship between their Earth-bound alter-ego's and their superhero personas in a fascinating manner, with these explorations typically entailing superheroes learning to embrace what makes them special as normal people in order to fully excel as super-powered people. Whereas alter-egos in the past were defined by how drastically different they were to their superhero counterparts, we now can see numerous examples of superhero movies going in the opposite direction with the concept of starring costumed crime-fighters whose superheroic personas are inseparable from their more mundane alter-ego. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the star of one of the best superhero films ever made, Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse.

Miles Morales is the protagonist of this phenomenal motion picture and he's also just a normal kid from Brooklyn who gets both the superpowers of Spider-Man as well as swept up in a superhero journey that intertwines with his struggle to discover who he is as a person. This struggle, as well as his difficulty in being able to actually become a superhero, is resolved only once he truly embraces what makes him unique as Miles Morales. Whereas past superheroes saw normal people resolving their flaws and quirks in order to become the best versions of their superhero identities, the most distinct parts of Miles' identity are what help him come into his own as a superhero. His talents as a graffiti artist, his untied shoelaces, the words of wisdom from his loved ones, those are the qualities that define Miles Morales and also define who he is as Spider-Man. Miles may have to put on a mask to become Spider-Man, but the character of Miles Morales never vanishes from this version of Spider-Man.

The most recent Marvel Cinematic Universe motion picture, Captain Marvel, also blurs the line between superhero and human alter-ego. In this feature, Captain Marvel A.K.A. Carol Danvers, is an amnesiac woman with super-human cosmic powers who fights for the Kree alien race under the command of Yon-Rogg, a Kree general who constantly tells her to suppress her emotions. Her fellow Kree soldiers also make a point to shoot down her attempts to be humorous or express any other emotions that signify her individual personality. Eventually, she ends up coming to Earth and learning about who she used to be in the Earth life she’s forgotten about. Once the climax arrives, a captured Captain Marvel is only able to fully utilize her potential as a super-powered being once she embraces her all too human vulnerabilities, as well as her ability to always get up when she gets knocked down, instead of denying those human traits as her Kree superiors constantly told her to do. Carol Danvers finally becomes Captain Marvel because of her most human qualities, not in spite of them.

 Whereas in the past there has been a vast gulf between superheroes and their everyday alter-egos, both Miles Morales and Carol Danvers go in a very different direction. In both of these movies, one can see tales of superheroes who eventually realize their true potential as superheroes whenever they embrace who they are as people. These are two normal people who use what defines them as normal individuals to also define them as superheroes. Being a superhero is a chance to fully embrace what defines them as people in their ordinary lives rather than escaping their conventional identities as was the case with Clark Kent or Peter Parker and it should be said again that this essay is not meant as a slam on either Kent or Parker, whose own relationships between their superhero and mundane identities prove to be fascinating in their own right. 

But the manner in which the cinematic versions of Miles Morales and Carol Danvers make it a point to emphasize the minimal difference between the superhero and normal alter-ego's of these two characters also captivates the minds and inspires the soul. It's a quality that makes lines of dialogue in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse directed at the audience like "Anyone can wear the can wear the mask" hit with maximum impact, such lines reflecting how superheroism can come from anyone is reflected in the broader plot proper. Alter-egos used to be solely a way to create wish fulfillment for escapism, a way for readers who felt ostracized to imagine what it could be like to be someone completely different who was immensely powerful. 

With Carol Danvers and Miles Morales, we have two characters who also provide wish fulfillment escapism but through the prism of imagining what it’d be like to be a superhero that ran on the specific personality traits that make you special. The trend kicked off by these two seems like it may even continue with the next live-action superhero movie tentpole, Shazam! Though I haven't seen this story of a fifteen-year-old boy named Billy Batson who becomes an adult male superhero by uttering the word Shazam yet (that changes this Saturday!), the trailers for the feature make it clear that Billy's adult superhero alter-ego is basically just Billy's brain in an adult body. Once again, the personality of the ordinary human being defines the superhero alter-ego and not the other way around. 

It'll be interesting to see how much that element of the Shazam! character informs his first modern-day solo movie as well as seeing in the coming years how many superhero films also fiddle around with the idea of using the time-worn alter-ego concept to reinforce the humanity of their superheroes. For the newest variation on the superhero alter-ego concept, instead of using alter-ego's as an excuse to keep other characters and the audience at distance, both Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and Captain Marvel use these dual identities as a way to get closer to each films lead characters. In the cast of these two motion pictures, they've taken the relationship between a superhero's mild-mannered alter-ego and their superpowered identity and proceeded to place a heavier emphasis on the former element. The individual elements of Miles Morales and Carol Danvers that make them normal people are also what make them such exceptional superheroes. Going down this thematic path makes for an emotionally resonant take on the alter-ego concept. Emphasizing the relatable qualities of down-to-Earth human alter-ego's in your incredibly super-powered characters can make them all the more compelling rather than dragging them down, it allows us to see something distinctly human in stories and characters that span cosmos and dimensions. 

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