There have been a number of things in the news lately that have caused me to think a lot on the subject of identity, including the upswing in the coverage of the concerns of trans people. With that in my mind, I started realizing how prevalent the question of identity is in superhero storylines.
In my own story, the questions of identity circulate around the need of the characters to have false identities to slip into in order to escape the eyes of authorities. The reason they need to do this is that their real identities are known and the authorities wish to make use of them and their super powers. So in their cases, identity is used as a shield to prevent ill-usage of their powers and to protect their freedom.
There are many other cases in superhero stories where the hero’s identities are kept secret in order to protect their ordinary identities and their families and friends in their day-to-day lives. This is a very common theme, something I’ve seen a lot of use of in superhero comics. I think it’s also the sort of thing that other crime fighters, like the police or FBI, might worry about if they get involved in targeting or prosecuting organized crime. I could see where it would be much less worrisome to do something like that in a mask, where none of the criminals would know who you were.
I found myself thinking about the identity question even more as I watched Captain America: Civil War. WARNING: Spoilers ahead! During the film, Bucky talks about the fact that he doesn’t always remember what he was told to do when his handlers gave him orders and wiped his personality away, and that apparently he was willing to do just about anything they told him when they did.
That made me think about what a mask might mean to a villain. In Bucky’s case, he’s a reluctant villain, made to do someone else’s bidding by control they have over him, and they’re able to make him do nearly impossible things in order to follow orders. In the case of some villains who have chosen the life, maybe the mask acts in a similar way, allowing them to do things they’d never do in their ordinary lives, the anonymity giving them permission to commit awful crimes and then distance themselves from it when they take their masks off.
As I thought about it, I think the mask might work in a somewhat different way for a superhero, spurring them on to new heights as they try to live up to the identity they’ve chosen to take on. The first thing that sprung to mind when I thought of that was something that happened during the first Avengers movie. WARNING: More spoilers ahead! Tony Stark, as Iron Man, becomes the one who goes the extra mile, who risks himself in order to save New York City from becoming irradiated by a nuclear bomb and instead use it to finish off invaders. In regular life, Tony is a great inventor, but also acts like a spoiled brat, and is the last person you would ever expect to act in such a way, so it makes me wonder if it was not just Captain America’s pointed criticism but also the mask that made him reach for the impossible.
I don’t know that I’ve come to any conclusions after thinking about all of this, but it does seem to me that people who look at superhero stories and sneer at them as being juvenile or one-dimensional are missing a lot. The more I look, the more I realize that the genre has an intimate connection to central questions about identity – who am I really? Does a mask hide who I am, or reveal who I am? Can I protect myself and my precious others merely by taking on a second identity, or will it fail to serve at the worst possible moment? These, and all of the related questions circling around them are really some of the reasons why I come back, time and again, to enjoy and to write superhero stories, because these are questions about who we all are.