Nerd Factor: Where Everybody Knows Your Name
Dr. Mike Robinson ~ LC Communication Studies Professor
The proof that we are in a new golden age of superhero television is best demonstrated by the weekly block of programming on the CW.
The network home of attractive young people doing exciting young things with other exciting young and attractive people has fully embraced this genre with four programs: “Arrow,” “The Flash,” “DC’s Legends of Tomorrow” and now “Supergirl,” which was recently brought more directly into the fold after a season on CBS.
While the success of this fan-named “Arrowverse” is beyond the wildest dreams of longtime superhero aficionados, this fan worries that these shows are also undermining one of the greatest devices of the genre itself—the secret identity.
People often describe the superhero as iconic and rightly so, as much of the impact of the genre comes from powerful visuals. Think of Superman, the first true superhero, and images of the brightly colored champion in flight or performing some impossible feat of strength spring to mind.
Nothing says “This is a job for Superman!” like the image of Clark Kent removing his glasses and opening his business shirt to reveal his costume beneath.
Alter egos allow a godlike figure to have a more mortal existence. Within the stories, this helps superheroes learn vital information or just stay sane as a respite from action. In our world, they give the audience an identification factor.
Weirdly, Clark Kent is more normal than we are. Secret identities exist to protect loved ones from danger. Even the mighty Superman fears what could happen to a Lois Lane or a Jimmy Olsen if a Lex Luthor ever sussed out his secret.
Of course, it was Spider-Man who took the secret identity to new heights. In the 1960s, writer Stan Lee wove a web of melodrama around Peter Parker that rivaled the most byzantine of television soap operas. For decades, other creators continued that trend, and at least half the appeal of Spidey’s adventures was tapping into that fully-realized cast of supporting characters. The need to keep his identity secret messed with Parker’s personal, romantic and professional lives.
The Arrowverse shows have supporting characters too, but the series have all but dispensed with the device of the secret identity. Initially on “Arrow,” Oliver Queen kept his past closely guarded as befitted a vengeful vigilante who was literally executing his way down the list of bad guys.
The secrecy damaged his life, making the Arrow a brooding figure who struggled with trust. Over time, as Queen mellowed and stepped away from murder, he brought more people into his life. He now leads his own crime-fighting team. But everyone on that team knows Ollie is Green Arrow. In fact, episodes this season argued that Queen had to reveal the secret for the team to even function.
On his own show, the Flash quickly followed suit, building up a group of Barry Allen’s friends and family into a team that assists him. The addition, this season, of the sour Julian Albert briefly complicated Barry’s career in forensic investigation, but now Julian too is on the team. The pilot episode of “Supergirl” ended with virtually every supporting character knowing that Kara Danvers is the Maid of Might. “Legends of Tomorrow” doesn’t even bother, as everyone is off time traveling.
The fact that four superhero shows exist on a prime-time network is reason to celebrate, but the secret identity is a truly missed and hopefully not endangered part of the genre.