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Why the Marvel Cinematic Universe doesn’t care about secret identities

Why the Marvel Cinematic Universe doesn’t care about secret identities


And how Spider-Man’s recent outing as Peter Parker fits the trend

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Photo: Sony Pictures Entertainment

In August, Sony and Marvel announced that Spider-Man would no longer be part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, due to disagreements about the revenue split between Disney and Sony, and the involvement of MCU architect Kevin Feige. It appeared as if Sony would be taking its own tack on secret superhero Peter Parker, without needing to integrate him into the continuity of films that began with 2008’s Iron Man.

The split came at a particularly relevant time, since the latest Sony / Marvel co-op project, Spider-Man: Far From Home, had just taken a radical step with the character. In a mid-credits scene in the film, antagonist Mysterio brings down Spider-Man’s world by revealing Peter’s secret identity. It was a major change for a series that until now has created significant tension through Peter’s attempts to hide who he is, in order to protect the people he cares about. But while the reveal was a surprise, it was in keeping with Marvel Studios’ attitude toward secret identities: for the former to exist, the latter can’t.

Photo: Sony Pictures Entertainment

In mainstream American superhero comics going back to the 1940s, heroes go to incredible, convoluted lengths to keep their secret identities under wraps. In the 2016 movie version of the comics arc Civil War, Peter Parker fights Captain America alongside Iron Man in a massive throwdown at a German airport, then goes back to Queens with his Aunt May none the wiser about his extracurricular activities.

But in the comics version, written by Mark Millar from July 2006 to January 2007, an older Peter Parker reveals his identity to the world to show his support for the Superhuman Registration Act. After Civil War ends, Peter’s choice comes back to haunt him, as the Kingpin puts a hit out on him, and Aunt May gets shot instead. As a last resort to heal May, Peter makes a deal with his enemy Mephisto to erase knowledge of his secret identity from the world — at the cost of also erasing his marriage with Mary Jane Watson.

Similarly, Daredevil had the children of Killgrave (known as the Purple Man in the comics, and Kilgrave in first season of the MCU’s Jessica Jones Netflix series), wipe the memory of his secret identity out of the world’s mind after he was outed as Daredevil. Marvel’s recent generation of heroes, like new Spider-Man Miles Morales and new Ms. Marvel Kamala Khan, have experienced the strain that keeping a secret identity puts on those they hold dear.  

But in Marvel’s films, secret identities haven’t been a concern from the very start.  

“The one [common comics trope] we haven’t done in the MCU is the secret identity thing,” Kevin Feige told Bleeding Cool in 2013. “I thought that had been overplayed for a long time, which is why we had Tony Stark out himself at the end of his first movie. We were sort of announcing to the audience that we’re not going to play that game.” And Robert Downey Jr.’s famously ad-libbed line at the end of the first Iron Man didn’t just set the tone for the rest of the MCU, it allowed it to flourish.

The earlier, non-MCU Spider-Man movies — the Tobey Maguire years from 2002-2007 and the Andrew Garfield run from 2012-2014 — could let Peter maintain his secret identity because he was the only hero who mattered to those stories. Director Sam Raimi didn’t have to draw together the narrative threads of multiple Infinity Stones, any more than director Marc Webb had to worry about Spider-Man’s interactions with the larger superhero world, and whether they were consistent with a 10-year story. The MCU’s narrative simply didn’t allow for the self-contained structure of completely isolated hero stories. 

And the interlinked Infinity Saga, spanning 23 movies, wouldn’t have worked if the heroes were unknown to each other, or to the larger world. The masks had to come off early and often if only to establish complete trust between the heroes. There wouldn’t be enough time to focus on heroes’ pedestrian struggles and their extraordinary ones, while still building up to an intergalactic existential crisis. If every hero had to maintain a secret identity, then every movie by necessity would need some narrative element about keeping that secret safe, which would have quickly become staid and dull.

Sony Pictures

And masks and secrets would just be a barrier against the tight relationships that form the MCU’s emotional heart. By removing secret identities from the equation, the MCU has actually improved on some of its source material, making it more personal and resonant. Most notably, Captain America: Civil War transformed a lopsided debate with a clear right side (Captain America) and wrong side (Iron Man) into a more nuanced argument based in the heroes’ histories and personal obsessions. Tony Stark’s back-and-forth with Steve Rogers over the Sokovia Accords, one of the movie’s most powerful scenes, wouldn’t have been possible if they didn’t know each other so well, or if either of them kept their identity hidden.

The practicalities of secret identities are also an issue in these films. The MCU asks audiences to suspend their disbelief about super powers, armored flying nano-suits, and magic gems that can unmake reality, but audiences can only accept so much fantasy before they tune out. Heroes maintaining secret identities in this day and age would be one of the MCU’s more unbelievable elements. There’s too much data floating around, too much official surveillance, and too many civilians recording every public event with smartphones for publicly active heroes to keep their real faces under wraps for long. A Stark employee’s misguided click of a phishing email could grant access to Stark’s entire rolodex of heroes, while an alleyway security camera could just as easily reveal Kamala Khan as Ms. Marvel as any villain pulls off her mask. 

In addition to all that, one reason the MCU succeeds is that it doesn’t shy away from what happens to heroes after their masks come off. They have to reckon with the fact that they’re putting everyone around them in danger, and as with Tony Stark’s arc, they still have to weigh the needs of the many against the needs of the few. 

The comics heroes who keep their identities hidden have to balance living two separate lives, while in the MCU, the heroes have to constantly consider how much the “super” part of their lives bleeds into their “normal” lives. That may sound like a fine line, but it’s an important distinction, one that makes the MCU’s heroes relatable in a different way. Most people don’t have to think about how they keep their jobs hidden from their family or friends, but they do have to consider work / life balance, and deliberate over how much they’ll let their work life influence how they react to events at home. 

And now, with his identity out in the open, Peter Parker will have to reckon with all of that, plus public scandal. In a recent interview with Hollywood Reporter, Jake Gyllenhaal said Mysterio’s role was more than just to take E.D.I.T.H. from Peter and create the Mysterio brand. “The way I look at it is twofold,” he says. “Mysterio exists as someone to teach Peter Parker a lesson. In my opinion, there’s no use for just a straight-up bad guy unless there’s a lesson to be learned. And the lesson, particularly for Peter, is what is growing up for real.” 

“The courage that the filmmakers had in Far From Home to say, ‘We’re gonna bring in a villain that’s going to turn Peter’s world upside down and force him to be who he actually is to the whole world. Nothing’s a secret anymore,’ that was amazing,” Gyllenhaal said. “What Mysterio reveals will end up helping Peter, somewhere.”

How exposure might help Peter remains to be seen, but at least from a storytelling perspective, it will be a break from the previous two Spider-Man films. Peter’s exhaustive efforts to maintain his secret identity are core to both Far From Home and the film before it, Spider-Man: Homecoming. It may help Peter because he’s finally able to live fully as himself — both Peter Parker and Spider-Man at the same time. That may be uncomfortable at first, and it’s certainly likely to come with danger and pitfalls. But as Gyllenhaal says, that’s what growing up is: being yourself, no matter what, all of the time.

That sort of growth would have happened regardless of whether Sony and Disney patched up their relationship, and Spider-Man stayed in the MCU. The difference is whether Spider-Man would have had any other heroes to lean on while he goes through this new phase. Had the Sony / Disney split become permanent, Peter likely would have struggled with that transition on his own. That might have been a positive step for the character, but it would have been a major break with the past.

But now that the companies have reconciled, and Spider-Man is back in the MCU (at least for now), it’s hard to see Marvel letting Peter face this crisis without at least some help from another hero — perhaps the recently aged Steve Rogers, or new Captain America Sam Wilson, who will undoubtedly be going through some of his own identity-related struggles as he takes over the shield. It’s an intriguing bit of speculation that, for a while at least, Sony and Disney rendered irrelevant. With everyone back on the same side, Marvel is back in the driver’s seat, steering Peter’s story alongside the rest of the MCU — which means opening up his secrets to the world.