Secret Identity, Superpower, Costume, Name
Superheroes’ secret identities are typically known to their close associates, but several have revealed their identities to the public. In 2006, Spider-Man revealed himself to be Peter Parker at press conference in Civil War, a crossover event in Marvel Comics’ main continuity. Not longer after, in the 2008 Iron Man film, Tony Stark revealed himself to be Iron Man. The revelation also took place at a press conference, as viewers will remember.
Both continued in their costumed identities after the fact. Evidently, a secret identity is not entirely indispensable for a superhero. The consequences of revealing Stark’s secret identity have not yet been shown, besides some inconsequential legal proceedings in Iron Man 2. But Spider-Man’s secret identity has since been restored in Marvel’s serial continuity.
Nor does every superhero have a superpower. Batman, Bruce Wayne, serves as a reliable example of that, and rightly so. Batman has wealth, intelligence, skill, gadgetry, determination, and a frightful, shadowy appearance, but none of those are proper superpowers, although sometimes they are said to be. Other superheroes who have nothing more than a human’s powers are Iron Man and Green Arrow, a technological genius who built his own armor and an archer who fires trick arrows.
Incidentally, Wayne, Stark, and Queen are billionaires. In this respect, they are like several of their precursors, for example, Doc Savage, The Green Hornet, The Shadow, Zorro, and The Scarlet Pimpernel. Wealth affords an individual the advantage of time, technology, and social influence. Not every superhero is wealthy, of course, just as not every hero is wealthy. Spider-Man, for example, struggles to make rent and to support his elderly Aunt May.
Nor does every superhero use a costume or alias. Luke Cage uses neither. Cage, a man with steel-hard skin, has worn street clothes for years and has not gone by his superhero handle, Power Man. He might seem less of a superhero for these reasons, and because he runs Heroes for Hire, but one cannot say that there is nothing of a superhero about him.
In the reverse direction, the Fantastic Four went into action in civilian duds when Stan Lee and Jack Kirby first created them, although they soon appeared in costumes under pressure from the readership. Elsewhere in the Marvel universe, Jean Grey of the X-Men has largely set aside the code name, Marvel Girl, and Dr. Strange is the true name of the former surgeon turned Sorcerer Supreme. It has not been unheard of for the X-Men to wear relatively ordinary garb since the 2000’s, I might add, and Star Man has worn plain clothes as of the 90’s in the DCU.
I concede that superheroes as a rule have a secret identity, superpower, costume, and name. I do not list exceptions to prove that the rule is not a rule. I list them to prove that the rule is not essential. One may notice that the precursors pictured above have some or all of the same traits: secret identity, superpower, costume, name. Perhaps these heroes could be construed as superheroes if they were published in the same books as superheroes–or, as it were, sung in the same songs–but as they are, they are predecessors. What is essential to a superhero, then, must be something else.