Spider-Man's Big Shift After 'Far From Home'
[This story contains spoilers for Spider-Man: Far From Home.]
The secret is out. Peter Parker is Spider-Man. And now the whole world knows. Given Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige’s previous comments about a very different Marvel Cinematic Universe going forward, that reveal is not something that will be swept under the rug or easily retconned. The mid-credits scene of Spider-Man: Far From Home drastically alters the character’s future within the MCU and sets a storyline unlike any we’ve seen explored in Spider-Man films before, thanks to Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal). The reveal of Spider-Man’s (Tom Holland) secret identity, just when things started to look up for him, no less, is pure Parker Luck, but the reveal also mirrors the end of Iron Man (2008). Whereas Tony Stark revealed his dual identity as Iron Man by choice, Parker has that choice taken away from him, and even worse, right after he’s been branded a villain by J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons). Any notion that the next Spider-Man entry would find the character swinging into a familiar groove has been dispelled, and the story potential of a Spider-Man who can no longer retreat to Peter Parker (or vice-versa) is an exciting one. But it also raises a larger question about our superhero cinema.
Heat Vision breakdown
Spider-Man was one of the only remaining heroes in the MCU that still maintained a secret identity. Even with Iron Man, Captain America and Black Widow out of the picture, the identities of Black Panther, Ant-Man, Doctor Strange, Scarlet Witch and presumably Captain Marvel are all public record. While the challenges of deception that go into maintaining a secret identity have been the basis of so many superhero stories, particularly Spider-Man’s, superhero movies are largely moving away from that trope, which has allowed for more novel storytelling and honest interactions between heroes and their villains, and their romantic interests. Looking at the current state of superhero movies, and how they’ve evolved over the past decade, we have to wonder: Is the age of secret identities over?
Since Superman debuted in Action Comics No. 1 in 1938, secret identities have been an inherent part of the superhero formula. The powers and personalities may differ from hero to hero, but many of the questions have remained the same, even when explored through different scenarios. How can this character manage to save the world and still maintain a private life in which they can hold down a job and relationships that don’t put everyone they know in danger? It’s obviously a formula that has worked. And over the decades, creators have found numerous ways to play with secret identities by way of false reveals, body doubles and mind-wipes.
As big of a comic event as a superhero’s identity being made public has become, it never sticks for long. While certain characters have been selected to be gifted or cursed with the knowledge of a secret identity, a widespread reveal creates lasting changes for the character that puts writers into boxes and tends to alienate certain fans who cling to traditionalism. While the industry could do with a few more boxes through which to unpack new narrative tricks and a level of alienation that tears down gatekeeping, the industry just can’t support it for long. Take Spider-Man as a prime example of this. Beyond the identity struggles of Marvel’s comic book Civil War (2006), Spider-Man has dealt with Aunt May not knowing, to knowing, to not again. Mary Jane knew, and then didn’t, and now does, and the same goes for J. Jonah Jameson. Patterns are developed in regards to secret identities, and in the world of constant retcons that are superhero comics, we accept it because we know that it, too, shall pass. But in film, secret identities have become somewhat antiquated, especially because film modernizes these characters for contemporary audiences much more quickly than comics.
Like his comic book counterpart, Clark Kent (Christopher Reeve) set the precedent for how secret identities were handled in superhero movies in Superman (1978). That depiction, one in which Kent was forever struggling between his role as a hero and his love for Lois Lane (Margot Kidder), became the foundation of the first wave of 21st century superhero movies. From Spider-Man (2002) to Ghost Rider (2007), the struggle to maintain a secret identity, not only from the world but also from loved ones, became so common it started to get boring. While Tim Burton had broken away from Richard Donner’s Superman format with Batman (1989), neither Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger) nor The Joker (Jack Nicholson) returned in the sequels to give us any idea of how the consequences of their knowledge that Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton) was Batman would play out. The same went for Selina Kyle (Michelle Pfeiffer) and Max Shreck (Christopher Walken) in Batman Returns (1992). By the time we got to Superman Returns (2006), in which Lois Lane had a child with Superman but still didn’t know he was Clark Kent, the whole secret identity deal was becoming a joke. If superhero fatigue was going to be caused by anything, it would be the continued dance of “will he tell her?/will she figure it out?”
When Marvel Studios began its saga 11 years ago, it ended their first entry with the notice that these superhero stories wouldn’t be the same ones we were used to seeing. Iron Man didn’t waste time guarding his identity from Rhodey (Terrence Howard), Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) or even his adversary Obidiah Stane (Jeff Bridges). These were all smart characters, and the film let them be smart. The same year we were teased with Batman revealing his identity in The Dark Knight (2008), Iron Man went ahead and did, proving that these stories don’t need to rely on the same tricks. What followed was the steady unmasking of the superhero. Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) told Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) he was Spider-Man midway through The Amazing Spider-Man (2012). The fact that Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) was Batman came just short of being public knowledge in The Dark Knight Rises (2012). And in Man of Steel (2013), Lois Lane (Amy Adams) deduces that Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) is Superman before he even takes on that name.
If we’re supposed to buy superheroes working within the context of our real world, give or take some suspension of disbelief, then the films most also account for a world in which satellites, smartphones and the internet can expose every secret, given time. As easy as it was for Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) to discover Superman’s identity in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), it was equally easy for Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) to find out that Wayne was Batman. A more recent example of real-world technology having implications on the fantasy of secret identities is M. Night Shyamalan’s Glass. David Dunn (Bruce Willis) doesn’t stand a chance in keeping his identity as The Overseer secret, not only because of a shadowy secret organization but because there are cameras everywhere. It has become so easy for heroes to be unmasked within these pics that we’ve started seeing entries skip the secret-identity aspect all together. In Aquaman (2018), the whole world knows that Arthur Curry is the undersea hero, going as far as to take photos with him in a bar. This year's Shazam! may take a more classic approach in terms of secret identities, but even by the end, Billy Batson’s (Asher Angel) foster siblings know he’s Shazam (Zachary Levi) and have powers of their own. Within the contemporary wave of superhero movies, filmmakers have realized it’s a lot more fun to see what happens when supporting characters do know than to have to make up excuses for why they don’t.
Spider-Man’s loss of his secret identity is a major shift in the world of comic book movies because so much of our knowledge of the character is built around stories where he must maintain two separate lives. But this reveal is also just the next logical step in a series of events that superhero films have been building to. Without the crutch of secret identities, superhero pics are allowed to be less formulaic and explore new consequences of how being a public figure affects heroes of different means. Tony Stark was equipped, both in terms of maturity and finances, to come out publicly. His work and his heroism became one in the same. Whereas Peter Parker has always been a character with other interests, someone who could have a job outside of being a hero, and the loss of that for a 16-year old is life-altering. While there will always be a sacred quality to secret identities within the mythology of superhero comics, superhero films in which masks are coming off may have more meaning to contemporary society in a world where truth has been so thoroughly obscured and so desperately needed.
by Cathy Whitlock