I like superhero stories. I couldn't really think of another way to start this post. I grew up on Batman The Animated Series. I'm one of those people who couldn't be more thrilled by the bounty of superhero stories we've been getting in popular culture lately, and the (sometimes much too slow) growth of those stories to reflect a greater and greater variety of human experiences back on the popular audience. I like superhero stories as actiony fluff. I like them as big, bold action pieces. I like them as small, human stories. I like them as a kind of modern mythological structure.
I've complained about Daredevil here, and I've complained about murdersuperman and revengebatman and the eminent likelihood of torturewonderwoman (though the latest trailers for BvS cast Bruce Wayne as revengeandtorturebatman, so maybe Wonder Woman will require a different moral failing), and if I had been able to watch more than two episodes of Gotham, I would probably complain about that, too.
But I have, at the minimum, enjoyed every installment in the MCU, unabashedly loved Days of Future Past, watch Arrow and Flash (and, when it premieres, Legends of Tomorrow) religiously. I am one of the weirdos who owns a physical copy of Superman Returns. Supergirl managed to get me to do a thing I had promised myself I wouldn't do: watch CBS. I can sing no higher praises than those I sing for Agent Carter and Jessica Jones. Though I'm not historically a comic book reader, I've been buying and reading volumes of Captain Marvel and Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, and just downed Sandman: Overture in a matter of hours.
And if we expand the purview away from DC and Marvel, the riches get richer. Animation has been flush with astonishingly good superhero stories, and shows like Avatar: The Last Airbender, The Legend of Korra, and Steven Universe make me unaccountably giddy. I thought Sense8 was one of the most narratively compelling stories I've seen in a long time.
So, I love superhero stories. Now, I'm going to complain about them again.
For all that I love Arrow and Flash and Supergirl, they are all - and much of the genre in general - simultaneously poisoned by the secret identity storyline (which for my money has become as destructive to the genre as the origin story). I feel so strongly about this, I hardly even know where to start.
Okay. Peter Parker.
Because, you know what? FUCK Peter Parker.
Let's say that it's safe to assume I'm talking about the cinematic versions of the character, since I'm not super familiar with his comics run. It's bad enough that we've had to sit through FIVE movies the plots of which are "Peter Parker tries to hide his identity, especially from the woman he loves because if he tells her she will literally die," but now he's bringing that taint in the MCU?
One of the most underrated positives of the MCU has been its absolute refusal to pander to the secret identity tedium. I did not realize it at the time, but Tony Stark was speaking for the entire brand when he defied this trope openly at the end of the first Iron Man. Since then, the MCU has given us Thor, Steve Rogers/Captain America, Natasha Romanov/Black Widow, Nick Fury, Hawkeye/Clint Barton, Bruce Banner/Hulk, Sam Wilson/Falcon, James Rhodes/War Machine, and Peter Quill/Star Lord (and co.) -- with nary a secret identity in the group. I have, admittedly, yet to see Ant-Man.
But what this has done is that it has allowed the MCU to stay interesting and to tell character stories, for the most part, over obligatory ones. This has, secondarily, helped to bandage over the one big flaw in the MCU's formula: antagonists. It is, of course, tedious that in Iron Man, Tony Stark fights a guy in a suit, and in Iron Man 2, Tony Stark fights a guy in a suit, and in Captain America, Steve Rogers fights a super soldier, and that in both Avengers movies, the team fights a numberless army of faceless drones, and that in Ant-Man, Scott Lang fights a guy in a suit that shrinks.
But despite this dull formula, what have we been able to see? Over the course of five movies now, Tony Stark has transformed from an unaccountable playboy to a damaged but unashamed celebrity to a man traumatized by his own reckless journey to what is now a hero on the mend with an unerring moralistic faith in accountability. That's a fucking character arc, man. We've watched Steve Rogers go from an unwavering patriot at the height of American jingoism whose faith in the American government and military are absolute, to a man out of time whose role as a hero is the only thing he has left, to a man whose faith in the system is irrevocably broken by the cracks he helps to expose within it, to a man on the run from the government to protect the one human connection that remains from his past life. Now that is a fucking character arc.
Let me tell you what is not a compelling character arc: "Guy tries to hide his identity from a woman, but then can't, and then maybe she dies, and then he feels bad." There's just nothing there.
The first real reason is that it's not character driven. Peter Parker's desire to hide his identity from Mary Jane is the exact same as Barry Allen's desire to hide his identity from Iris, or Oliver Queen's desire to hide his identity from the women in his life (and, curious, how they are so frequently women... more on this soon). Tony Stark's path to favoring oversight begins with a growing self-awareness of his failures as a human being when he worked without oversight. Every part of that is internally motivated. Steve Rogers's broken faith and flight to the safety of his past begins with the displacement he suffered in pursuit of his original, unblinking ideals. Every part of that is internally motivated. You can't tell Tony Stark's story with Steve Rogers, and vice versa.
You can tell Peter Parker's story with absolutely anybody. So the first reason that "FUCK Peter Parker" applies is because he's not actually a character. His dead guardian origin is every damned hero's origin story. His secret identity conflict the same. Whatever makes him a compelling character in the comics has been erased in every single film because of a slathering devotion to his secret.
(Narratively, the secret identity is also just plain tedious. Since I mentioned Barry Allen, I would be remiss not to mention how one of the biggest failings of Flash's first season was the incredible amount of screen time Iris spent explaining plot to characters - and audience members - who already knew it (or having it explained to her by the same), who had discovered it organically through the story - all because she was outside the inner circle; the fewer characters who share knowledge in the first place, the more screen time you have to waste, absolutely waste, explaining things to each individual one.)
The other thing that Marvel has been able to do in its cinematic universe by ignoring the secret identity problem is to depict a broad range of interesting relationships, which are enabled by the fact that these people know each other. One of the universally acknowledged highlights of Winter Soldier was the development of the relationship between Steve Rogers and Natasha Romanov, a relationship that could only exist because they knew each other's circumstances so intimately. When characters are hiding things from each other (unnecessarily, at that), they are necessarily at a distance and that damages the ability of their relationships to grow. There's a moment in the Civil War trailer when Tony Stark laments the loss of his friend.
I know people who cried watching that trailer - the TRAILER - because the close relationship that has been developed between those two characters makes it powerful when they lose each other.
Peter Parker walking away from Mary Jane can never, never ever ever, carry that weight, because he's only adding distance to a relationship that he never allowed to be close in the first place.
It's also, and it's hard to emphasize this enough, deeply sexist. I already mentioned that secret identities, at least on film, are disproportionately hidden by men from women, and always, loudly and repeatedly, in order to protect them. There is a whole load of nonsense logic at play here -- for instance, what hypothetical danger would Mary Jane be in if Peter Parker told her and some of the other people closest to him who he was, and nobody else? How does Mary Jane knowing something mean that a villain also knows? And, assuming a villain does find out how Peter Parker is, and assuming (this being an assumption I find far from reliable) the villain then decides NOT to target Peter Parker in favor of Mary Jane (a totally different person from Peter Parker, it turns out!), in exactly what way is Mary Jane safer for not being able to prepare herself in any way? It's insane.
More importantly, it's deeply condescending. It starts with the following premises: 1) the woman can't be trusted to keep her mouth shut, 2) the woman absolutely requires the man's protection, and 3) the woman has absolutely no choice about this. I mean, that's so sexist I can't even.
So, FUCK Peter Parker.
I mean, on that note: FUCK Barry Allen. That guy is kind of a dick, and he's just lucky his show has so much else going for it because he can't seem to stop making this infuriating mistake.
This is all not to say that the secret identity can't be meaningful to a story. one of the things that Batman The Animated Series does so well is to illustrate (ba-dump) the crisis of identity that character suffers. It's almost trite at this point to mention that Bruce Wayne is the secret identity - and in a lot of ways Bruce Wayne is an identity that Batman is ashamed of. What makes that work is that it's an internal narrative. Batman maintaining distance between his two identities has nothing to do with protecting anyone -- in fact, all of the people Batman would have reason to protect are or end up in the know. Rather, he maintains that separation because he is actually broken on the inside in that exact way.
Similarly, I have long since developed an appreciation for Oliver Queen's handling of his secret identity in Arrow, because the show has repeatedly demonstrated Oliver's belief that he needs to keep the secret from his loved ones is a consequence of how completely fucked up his experiences since he disappeared have left him. And the show repeatedly punishes him for doing this, and has shown over and over that the key to his healing, and to his succeeding as a hero, is learning to be honest and to develop meaningful relationships with people who know him.
But these stories are all too rare within the genre, and the vast majority of interesting superhero stories we're seeing today (see: my list above) are interesting because they defiantly avoid the pitfalls of the secret identity.
Also, we just plain deserve to see a better Spider-Man on screen.