Secret identities have always been a fascinating aspect of superheroes, and they’re also one of the elements of those character’s stories that I find the most compelling. However it’s also one of the ones that I find far more interesting when brought into play in a superhero themed RPG such as Mutants and Masterminds, DC Adventures, or the Marvel Heroic RPG. Heroes who can pick up a fire truck and toss it through a supervillain’s laboratory, yet still struggle with maintaining a day job and a normal life are fraught with complications. GMs and players alike can work to play off of those complications and make them part of the game or ignore them as they wish, but I really think they’re worth exploring. I decided to provided some examples of heroes from the Marvel and DC universe and how they’ve handled their secret identities during their careers, we’ll start with Marvel heroes just because.
There were a lot of reasons that Peter Parker chose to maintain his secret identity, but one has always stood out as the most prominent one, at least to me. He wanted to make sure that his aunt May would be safe, and ensure that she wouldn’t sit up worrying about him battling with the likes of Doctor Octopus and the Vulture. Spider-Man’s mask has always served as a way to help him protect his family from his enemies, and whenever that identity was revealed it often had major consequences for him. Venom, the Green Goblin, and Doctor Octopus all managed to uncover the wallcrawler’s true identity through various means over the years. They would each use this information to threaten his family, except for Doctor Octopus who assumed that Peter couldn’t possibly be Spider-Man.
When Peter chose to reveal his true identity during the Civil War event it resulted in several major events. His aunt was shot and his wife was nearly killed by an assassin who’d been hired by the Kingpin. J. Jonah Jameson fired Peter from his on again off again position at the Daily Bugle, ruined his reputation as a photographer, and even sued him for fraud for selling him photos of himself for years. He was forced to resign from his position as a teacher, although he eventually decided to stay on at the school using a disguise. Deborah Whitman wrote a book lambasting him and blaming Spider-Man for everything that’d gone wrong in her life during the time that they’d known one another. His enemies used the information to launch a range of deadly attacks against his friends and loved ones. Eventually the decision was undone when he made a Faustian bargain to erase the knowledge from everyone’s mind when Peter determined that he couldn’t live with what’d he’d done any longer.
Spider-Man is a prime example of a character who will go to great lengths to maintain their secret identity, despite the personal, financial, and emotional consequences. In other universes where Peter’s identity was revealed his life was made better in many ways. In the House of M universe he was one of the most popular celebrities on the planet, he had a family, and he’d achieved a level of success as a scientist that allowed him to purchase Oscorp out from under Norman Osborn. The conflict that maintaining his secret creates often leads to interesting complications in his life, which makes him more fun to read about as far as I’m concerned. That would also make for an interesting complication for someone playing a similar character in a superhero RPG.
There was a time when Tony Stark maintained the pretense that he was not in fact Iron Man, but instead that the man piloting the suit was an employee/bodyguard. However he eventually abandoned that ruse and allowed his identity to become public knowledge, in the Marvel Cinematic universe he didn’t even bother to lie in the first place. He became a major force behind the Superhuman Registration Act which served as the major point of contention in the Marvel Civil War. As one of the wealthiest most recognizable people on the planet Tony has always enjoyed a celebrity lifestyle that most superheroes do not. Public scrutiny was nothing new to him, nor were threats on his life. His few friends were also well protected thanks to the degree of security his wealth allowed him to maintain. There’s something really compelling about a character who will step out onto a stage and tell the world “I am Iron Man.”
Matt Murdock maintained his secret identity for most of his career, but when it was eventually revealed he suffered greatly. A federal task force was assembled to try and bring him to justice, and Matt argued that the reason for this was that the prosecutor who convicted him would receive a federal judgeship. The revelation of his identity served to keep him from joining the New Avengers because he didn’t want to drag the other members into the nightmare that his life had become. Matt Murdock’s feud with the Kingpin of crime served as the primary motivator for his secret identity, and when Wilson Fisk uncovered it he used the knowledge to strike at him in every way possible. His activities as Daredevil also resulted in a great deal of tension between him and his longtime friend and partner Foggy Nelson. Daredevil is another great example of a character’s whose secret identity can drive a story.
The Fantastic Four
After being bombarded with cosmic radiation the Fantastic Four began their new lives as some of the most recognizable superheroes on the planet. None of their members ever made any attempts at maintaining secret identities or living double lives. One could argue that Johnny Storm would be the last person on Earth to pass up a chance at being famous, and that having anything like a normal life would have been all but impossible for the inhuman looking Thing. The Fantastic Four are a great example of a team of superhumans who’ve all decided to work in the spotlight without the benefit of secret identities. It adds an interesting element to their stories because it is extremely unique. It’s also interesting because they’re forced to deal with mundane threats even as they face down the likes of Mole Man and Dr. Doom. One of the most common obstacles in recent years has been dealing with various government agencies threatening to take away Reed and Susan’s kids citing that their home is an unsafe environment.
Marvel’s Civil War
I’ve already touched on this a couple of times, but it is still worth mentioning on its own because the Civil War had such a major impact on the Marvel Universe. After a group of superheroes engage in a fight that results in the destruction of a town and hundreds of deaths the United States government enacts the Superhuman Registration Act forcing all masked heroes and villains to reveal their identities and enter into government service or face criminal charges. Captain America refused and led a team of other heroes who also felt that working outside of government control and maintaining their secret identities allowed them to better serve those that they were trying to protect. Iron Man and his pro-registration heroes worked against them and did everything in their power to bring the anti-registration heroes into custody. The war eventually ended with lives lost and Captain America surrendering to Iron Man even as some heroes continued to refuse to accept the loss. Whether or not you enjoyed the Civil War it does make for an interesting idea of how the government might impact a superhero campaign. A single law split the Marvel universe’s heroes against one another and resulted in a pitched battle that went on far longer than anyone could imagine. Iron Man built a prison in the Negative Zone. Due to their divided loyalties the Fantastic Four broke up for a period of time. Captain America was assassinated while in S.H.I.E.L.D. custody. The events of the Civil War had a major impact on seemingly every hero, and their relationships with one another for years to come.