Monday, June 18, 2012

The end of the masquerade (WHEDON WEEK – Part One)

Some time after The Avengers had a chance to really sink into my brain, I realized something interesting about it, which just so happens to overlap with something I always found intriguing about Buffy the Vampire Slayer. What a perfect subject with which to kick off Whedon Week!

There are arguments to be made for and against the position that Buffy Summers is a superhero. She has powers and abilities far beyond those of mere mortals, and she altruistically protects civilization in general against the forces of darkness and evil. She’s even died and come back to life the requisite number of times to fit right in with the comicbook set. On the other hand, she doesn’t wear a cape or a mask (or much spandex, except where fashionably appropriate) or have a codename (“Slayer” being more of a job description with seriously ancient tradition behind it). It’s probably no surprise that, although I see both sides of the debate, I’m enough of a superhero fan to come down firmly in the yeah-she-pretty-much-is camp.

The lack of mask and absence of codename constitute the intriguing part for me, though, especially when looking at the long arc of the entire BTVS series. Early on there’s a certain amount of focus on Buffy’s secret identity. Her mother doesn’t know anything about her vampire-slaying activities, nor does anyone at school except her closest confidantes. Even without a costumed get-up, somehow Buffy gets away with her double life by virtue of the following factors:

- it’s usually pretty dark wherever she ends up fighting monsters
- the people she rescues from monsters tend to get knocked out, or faint, before she arrives
- she moves like a blur in the heat of battle
- she’s quick-witted enough to come up with plausible alibis, which people are inclined to accept at face value because the only other explanation would involve the supernatural

But as the seasons roll on and on, a lot of that conceit gets left by the wayside, until eventually Buffy’s mom knows all about Slayers and Watchers and vampires and demons. And just before she leaves Sunnydale High, Buffy gets an award from her fellow seniors honoring her for being the Class Protector, which is a fairly overt acknowledgment of their limited but nevertheless established awareness of who Buffy is and what she does. As BTVS continues beyond high school, the stories get deeper and darker and there’s less time for secret identity shenanigans, so it’s all for the best that the whole plot-complicating device gets left behind altogether.

What I was struck by while ruminating further on The Avengers is that, while it is 110% a comicbook movie all about a team of superheroes, there’s not a secret identity to be found anywhere in there, either. Everybody in the world of the film knows that Captain America is Steve Rogers and that Iron Man is Tony Stark and that the Hulk is Bruce Banner. And there’s a vast number of legit reasons why this should be so: it’s easier, within the narrative, for SHIELD to assemble these future Avengers if they’re tracking down real people and not codenames. It’s smoother, in writing the script, to include scenes of interpersonal conflict if there aren’t any artificial barriers between the characters and their personas. It’s more affecting, when directing the actors, to be able to film their real faces and not just masks, whatever mode the character happens to be in at the moment. And so on (and I should also mention of course that the reason why no one preserves their secret identity in The Avengers is because they had already dispensed with them in the preceding Iron Man, Hulk, Cap and Thor movies anyway) . I’m not arguing with the choice to forgo elaborate secret identity hijinks in the slightest.

Sometimes I throw stuff in here just to crack my wife up.

But it’s noticeable, at least to a lifelong geek like me, especially when you consider just how insanely faithful to the source material comics the movies are. When you watch Captain America, that is pretty much just how the comic book version’s origin went down, give or take. Ditto for Iron Man. They captured the essence of each character totally, by using practically all of the details that had been established beforehand, with the glaring exception of secret identities. Those were apparently the first thing chucked right out the window.

As I’ve already diagrammed indirectly, I’m not entirely sure how much credit for the lack of secret identities in The Avengers should go to Joss Whedon himself. Arguably extremely little, since he didn’t write the screenplays for any of the groundwork-laying films that set it up. But it was Whedon who was tasked with portraying Steve Rogers’s assimilation into the modern world after going into suspended animation in the 40’s, and he could have made hiding-behind-the-mask a part of that. If I thought about it long enough I could probably come up with other layered disguises that might have formed alternate Avengers films. But I’m not surprised that he didn’t bother needlessly complicating things like that. Because, as it turns out, that’s what secret identities are in storytelling terms far more often than not: needless complications.

When we think of superheroes we usually think of Superman, and everything ends up being an extension of (or deliberate inversion of) everything he’s made of. Superman is the exceptional case where the secret identity makes some sense: he’s invulnerable so there’s no way for his enemies to physically get the drop on him, which means they’d inevitably think of going after his loved ones, which means he has to live two separate lives, one where he makes enemies and one where he has loved ones. But Marvel Comics, from whence The Avengers hail, are not so much about invulnerable powerhouses like Superman (well except for Thor, but NB: no secret ID for the god of thunder, and therefore they actually have to take a random moment in the film and address the fact that Thor’s vulnerable human love interest is being very carefully guarded so Thor’s enemy Loki can’t strike at him through her) and therefore one of the major arguments in favor of secret identities isn’t present to begin with.

And you can kind of see this whole evolution of a line of thinking in Whedon’s work. I’m fairly convinced he was thinking in terms of superhero archetypes when he conceived of Buffy, especially her ongoing tv series iteration. And, as was customary, he went down the checklist and gave her an origin, powers, enemies, allies, a secret identity, etc. etc. Because that’s what you do. Then as his story grew, he realized he didn’t need the secret identity bit after all. By the time he got to directing The Avengers, he had already learned that lesson well, and there wasn’t a moment where he wondered how he was going to shoehorn any classic comic book secret identity elements into the film. By then, he knew the whole trope was unnecessary. Comicbooks have by and large figured this out, too, I should add. It just took Whedon a lot less than forty years.


  1. The secret ID provides contrast between the everyday world and the superhero one. Often in serial stories, as the superhero world grows in complexity and importance, the everyday world kinda fades out. Like in "Buffy." There just wasn't time for reality to intrude much after season three, and the loss of the structure of high school made it harder to fit it in. (Though abandoning the "Doublemeat Palace" was a mistake, I think. That totally could have worked as an ongoing element.)

    It's funny how few superheroes really need secret IDs to work. Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, the X-Men, the Fantastic Four, Dr. Strange, Wonder Woman, etc. A few do, though. Superman, because the contrast between Kal-El and Clark Kent is a huge part of his appeal; Batman, because the character's charm lies in his control over events and his air of mystery, both of which are enhanced by a secret ID; and Spider-Man, because the contrast between the superhero life and the petty annoying everyday life of Peter Parker is the core of his appeal. Who else would fit that bill? Most of the big names don't -- the Flash, Green Lantern, Hawkman, none of them really require

  2. Daredevil! There's another one who needs the secret. The double life as the lawyer is important to his character working, and he has the Batman "I'm so mysteeeeerious" vibe that makes the secret ID more valuable. Also, Matt Murdock's personal life is heavily woven into the superhero one: ninja ex-girlfriends, etc.

    1. Good call - when Daredevil works, he really works as a fantastic character. I think it's also worth noting that his very specific powerset necessitates the secret ID: if the bad guys knew that *blind* lawyer Murdock was the *blind* Daredevil, then they might take advantage of the inherent weaknesses of sightlessness and the compensatory super-senses. But DD obscures his blindness pretty well in costume, while not bothering to deny it in civilian guise.

      And who but Daredevil could end up creating the persona of Mike Murdock, Matt's imaginary twin brother who covers for the fact that sometimes civilian Matt forgets to act like he doesn't have super-senses? Good stuff.