Project: Iron Man – Iron Man #10 & Iron Man #11

Secret Identities.

The superhero trope of superhero tropes.

Clark Kent and Superman

Bruce Wayne and Batman

Peter Parker and Spider-Man

We are all very familiar with the idea that superheroes disguise their real identities to either have or protect their personal lives.

There are very few exceptions to this, the most prominent that I can think of being Reed Richards of the Fantastic Four. Sure he has the superhero name, Mr. Fantastic, but he and the whole Fantastic four are publicly known, celebrities even.

In current Marvel continuity and the Marvel movies Tony Stark is known to be Iron Man, but back in the 60’s (hell, well into the new millennium) Tony Stark maintained his secret identity where Iron Man was employed as Stark’s body guard, the reasons for which will be deliberated complained about later. The stories of Iron Man 10 and 11 focus on how Stark deals with the fact that The Mandarin has discovered his secret identity.

The short answer: he tricks Mandy into thinking that Stark and Iron Man really are two different people with the clever use of masks and a Life Model Decoy. In other words, it’s not really dealt with at all, it’s just needless manipulation all the while Stark factories are sitting idle and the whole country is busy thinking Stark is a pinko commie.

Fantastic plan, Stark.

Of course, because this is a comic book, Stark’s plan to save his identity works out perfectly:

  • Mandarin is convinced that he’s not Iron Man.
  • The LMD distracts the press and, during Shellhead’s battle with Mandy, they hear how Mandarin planned the whole thing and faked the pictures that started the whole mess in the first place.
  • Oh and the Mandarin’s betrothed totally turns on him because he doesn’t believe in love… but that’s not really related to secret identities.
  • Oh and we found out why he made a Hulk robot in issue 9 – turns out Hulk destroyed his castle in China and Mandy wanted to tarnish Hulk’s name… which is a bit redundant for Hulk but there you go.
  • Mandarin seemingly blows up at the end, but even Iron Man says he’ll be back, eliminating the drama of that moment.


But all issue specific plot points aside, the risk of people discovering secret identities for comic book heroes is a go-to story to write. There’s always going to be a story like this one where someone who shouldn’t know the secret learns it and  tries to use it to their advantage. There’s the opposite story where the hero reveals their identity to show how much they trust someone. In all the stories where there’s a secret identity time always has to be taken to show how they keep that secret when they change into the requisite super-suit, i.e. the proverbial “phone booth” or janitorial closet. If this were real life how many lives would be at risk while Spider-Man finds a suitable alley way to change his clothes?
That’s why I don’t understand the reason for Tony Stark to even have a secret identity. When I was a kid I never questioned it – superheroes had secret identities and that’s how it worked – but reading these stories now, older and having Stark be secret identity-less for over a decade, it feels contrived.
I get it for Spider-Man, he’s got an old aunt and the public is not always on his side. I get it for Batman, he is a violent vigilante, it’s important that Gotham’s finest don’t show up on Bruce Wayne’s door. I get it for Superman – he’s a freaking alien who’s so powerful if his identity was revealed he’d never have a moment to himself! But Tony stark is a public figure, like Reed Richards, he’s a playboy anyway who enjoys attention and his business, especially in the 60’s, is weapon design. A lot of the things that exist for Stark just because of his civilian life eliminate the need for a secret identity.
Taking a look at typical reasons to have a secret identity, let’s see how Stark’s life already handles the problems:
  • Protecting people he loves – Tony Stark is a public figure, a target for foreign enemy nations, so his loved ones are already targets. Publicly being Iron Man might actually help in this case.
  • Protecting his privacy/private life – Again, public figure so there is no privacy. If anything he’s under a microscope so really shouldn’t the question be how bad are the journalists in the Marvel Universe that they couldn’t figure out his identity? Also, he owns a major business so there are existing security measures in place to protect him and his factories.
  • The legality of actually being a superhero – This one’s tricky, but the fact that Stark helped to create SHIELD and equips them and is, like, totes BFF with Nick Fury gives his a pass on this in my opinion.
  • Being able to hold down a job – Again, he owns it. It’s hard to get fired from your own company (even though that totally happens but not for a while…).
Clearly modern writers and I are on the same page since he hasn’t had a secret identity for a very long time, but it makes me wonder why it was so important for about forty years? There were times when it was defended for story purposes, but for the writers in the 60’s through the 90’s why was that identity so important? There had to be a reason because it was no problem writing it away when they did. Maybe it was cultural, a sign of the times? I don’t have the answer, at least not today, but I want to revisit this concept later, hopefully be able to cite more examples from issues.
Next Time:

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