SPOILER WARNING: This week’s Hero Nation column reveals key plot details from Spider-Man Far Home.
The obvious legacy of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s first decade is one of massive popularity and record-breaking box office success. (Sony’s Spider-Man: Far From Home, for example, just extended the cinematic brand’s string of consecutive No. 1 openings to 23, an unblemished streak that dates back to Iron Man in 2008). A less-obvious legacy of the MCU, however, is the brand’s rewiring of the Hollywood’s superhero genre and the best example of that is the genre’s secret identity trope.
The secret identity is fading fast after four decades as a staple of superhero blockbusters and a big-screen tradition that goes back to the classic Superman cartoons of the 1940s. The subject is topical with last week’s release of Spider-Man: Far From Home, which finds young Peter Parker (Tom Holland, in his sixth MCU film) once again bending over backwards to protect his identity from friends, rivals, enemies, and teachers, as well as airport security workers and the citizenry of several European cities.
That changes in a post-credits scene that features the revival of a classic character (J. Jonah Jameson as played by J.K. Simmons, returning to the role he played in the Sam Raimi era) and finishes with a bombshell plot twist (as Jameson gleefully reveal Spidey’s true name to the world).
Peter is aghast by his public unmasking but, really, his spider-senses should have felt this one coming. Marvel has been dismantling the secret identity tradition since Robert Downey Jr.’s post-credits “I am Iron Man” press conference in the original Iron Man (2008). That scene was a product of Downey’s inspired on-set improvisation and it instantly set his Tony Stark apart as a fresh, new-era take on American billionaire-as-hero. This action hero lives large across every public platform and embraces the ironic intimacy of the social media age (think Elon Musk with battle armor) instead of following the traditions of Bruce Wayne, who hides in a cave waiting for his unlisted landline to ring (think Howard Hughes in Phantom of the Opera mode).
It didn’t stop with Stark. In 2011, the MCU expanded by bringing Thor (portrayed by Chris Hemsworth) to the screen but his mortal secret identity, Dr. Donald Blake, didn’t maek the leap with him. The Marvel Studios braintrust jettisoned four decades of Marvel Comics publishing history when they decided that classic origin story was too creaky and too confusing to convey in a movie that was expected to make sense and make money, too.
The changes don’t feel disrespectful to tradition, either, since Marvel Comics has a long history of public-facing identities for superheroes (the Fantastic Four, for instance, introduced in 1961, have never hidden their names, residence, or powers) although it has led to some quirky branding challenges (a superhero show called Jessica Jones, among them).
None of those challenges can compare to the daunting problems presented by the secret identity tradition. At the top of that list is the Lois Lane Paradox, as I like to call it, which asks: “Why wouldn’t a world-class reporter like Lois Lane recognize colleague Clark Kent when he takes off his glasses?” The secret identity subplots were already wearing pretty thin back in 1978 when Christopher Reeve was ducking into the Daily Planet broom closet and that was before moviegoers watched Michael Keaton take flight twice as Batman, return as Birdman, and come home to roost as the Vulture. After all that, any old-school secret identity motif presented without irony is a risk to fly straight into self-parody.
Spider-Man had been the only MCU hero keeping a “classic” secret identity (and it made sense due to the character’s youth and inexperience) but how will the exposure change the hero? Will he still wear his mask, for instance, which has been a tradition since the first Spider-Man issue in 1962? That question will be moot, of course, if Parker’s secret is somehow erased from the public memory by some Marvel miracle (e.g., a Doctor Strange amnesia spell, a Kree planetary mind-wipe, etc) but in the meantime its mostly DC Comics characters who are still keeping their secret identities in the closet.
SECOND COMING: Speaking of Superman, the original superhero has been a popular target of satire for decades but few (if any) of those spoofs have stirred up the kind of angst that has greeted Second Coming, the Ahoy Comics limited series that premieres this Wednesday after months of sight-unseen criticism from Christian conservatives as well as their anti-publication petition effort, which was covered by Fox News and the World Religion News. The reason for the hubbub? The Second Coming presents the modern-day return of Jesus Christ who becomes roommates with a red-caped superhero who goes by the name Sunstar (but looks an awful lot like the Man of Steel).
Below, an exclusive excerpt from the first issue of Second Coming, which features the work of writer Mark Russell and artists Richard Pace & Leonard Kirk. Second Coming was originally announced as a release from DC’s Vertigo imprint (and was promoted a year ago this month at Comic-Con International in San Diego) but those plans were scrapped amid the conservative kerfuffle. The poject ended up at the less-corporate environs of Ahoy, the subversive-spirited start-up that already publishes Edgar Allan Poe’s Snifter of Terror and Planet of the Nerds.
Hart Seely, publisher of Ahoy, said he hasn’t had any second thoughts about Second Coming. “Why publish the Second Coming comic book? Publishers are supposed to challenge the institutions that would silence outside voices. If people have problems with this, I offer four points to consider. First, this is a comic book. Second, it’s funny. Third, the story has a great heart; God can handle it. And fourth, did I mention that it’s a comic book with a few laughs? Writer Mark Russell and artist Richard Pace have created a thoughtful satire of religion that deserves a wide readership.”
Check out the preview below to see whether you agree.
SAD MAD FAREWELL: One of the great brand names in satire and American pop culture is reportedly giving up the ghost. The news that Mad! Magazine will soon reach end of a publication life that began in 1952 (under editor Harvey Kurtzman and publisher William Gaines) is discouraging for several generations of fans who cherished the magazine’s sublimely idiotic humor. Superman was an early target (the 4th issue, in fact) and a frequent one over the years. Here are a few of the classic Metropolis spoofs from the magazine’s library.