When David Carradine’s Bill made his big speech in Kill Bill vol. 2 about Superman and how he pretends to human to blend in, it was Bill’s contention that “The Bride”, much like Superman, had to pretend to be a less perfect version of herself in order to blend in with the regular people around her. As far as Superman is concerned, Bill felt that Kal-El was his true face, while Clark Kent was the imperfect facade that he wore to mingle with humanity. I disagree with this, especially since Clark Kent was actually raised on Earth and instilled with his adoptive parents’ wholesome Kansas values, but the point is well taken. Superman puts on the Clark Kent disguise over top of the clothes woven from his baby blankets, not the other way around. Well, whether I agree with it or not, it seemed to make so much sense to people that before you knew it, David Goyer took a page out of Tarantino’s script and decided to make it so that Bruce Wayne has to pretend to be human now, he has to pretend to enjoy himself in public, he has to pretend to be friends with people. He made it so that Bruce Wayne’s public face, the face he wears in daylight is a mask, a facade that hides his true nature as the Batman, and that the shallow, philandering and usually drunk Bruce Wayne was his own impression of what “normal” people are like. Meaning that while Batman may have a secret identity, he isn’t Bruce Wayne’s alter ego anymore. Bruce Wayne becomes simply a smokescreen that allows Batman to operate without the burden of worrying about his home life.
Even if we accept that this Batman is the true face of millionaire playboy Bruce Wayne, as readers of the comic books or watchers of the cartoons we’ve always known him to take his persona as Bruce Wayne just as seriously. Bruce isn’t just another disguise like Matches Malone that he uses to pursue his own ends as the Dark Knight. But in the Batman Begins and The Dark Knight it seems that he’s reluctantly pursuing his Bruce Wayne identity out of necessity, that the value of his family name is something that Alfred has to remind him of rather than seeing the inherent value in it. (Isn’t the whole point of Batman’s crusade to avenge the death of his parents?)
Because of this indifference in protecting his identity, the plot of The Dark Knight ironically required that it be The Joker who was willing to kill to protect it. When Joker puts out a bounty on the head of the ambitious young Coleman Reese for threatening to ”out” his boss, Bruce Wayne’s got no choice but to intervene to save his life. His race through the city in his daytime duds manages to prevent a fatal car accident, the preservation of his secret identity being more of a side-effect than anything. Had David Goyer chosen to to preserve the balance of alter egos, he could have made enough room in Bruce’s heart, head & life for both sides of his personality, but opted to avoid the potentially farcical nature of sneaking around changing disguises to maintain an alter ego, something that is usually reserved for an episode of Hannah Montana.
Tarantino’s idea of the predator lurking within society – the wolf in sheep’s clothing – just resonated too much to be ignored. Perhaps it stuck with audiences because our TMZ’ed disposable celebrity world has forced spectators to give up on heroes who are “just like them” and they’ve moved on to true übermen. Even a “man of the people” like Tony Stark who enjoys the simpler things in life like Ray’s pizza and working on his car is still a multi-billionaire with more in common with the King of Monaco than with you or I.
And speaking of this happier, go-luckier millionaire playboy: We can see that Iron Man’s barely got an alter ego either. It’s probably too early to tell what consequences Stark’s declaration at the end of the first film will manifest, but I assume it’s supposed to be a major theme of the second film. With that still up in the air for another month or so, we can at least ask why he didn’t develop an alter ego either. I think he let the cat out of the bag because he loves what he does, and he wants people to think of him as a good guy. So while his attitude might seem like he doesn’t care about what people think of him, he actually does care about how he’s perceived. He cares about his father’s legacy, he likes being on stage – that’s fine – he wears his character flaws on his sleeve.
So he gave up his secret identity because it was more gratifying to him to do away with it. As one of the richest industrialists in the world, and a former kidnapping victim, he knows that him and those around him are just as much at risk with his secret identity as without it. At least Tony Stark never pretended to be any less of the man that he was. As far as he was concerned, there never needed to be a distinction between him and Iron Man, because their values, flaws and ambitions were the same. As such, Iron Man was more of a fancy quantum-powered tuxedo rather than a disguise or a uniform. His “mask” was really just a helmet if you consider that both his friends and his enemies knew exactly who he was the whole time.
Comic book culture has long been founded on a structure of characters balancing their lives between their day to day perfunctory tasks and their occasional forays into the fantastic as a Superhero. All kinds of heroes from Spider-Man to Captain America, from Green Lantern to Green Arrow. But Tarantino’s insightful line about Superman having to be true to himself changed everything around in the movieverse, having writers reconsider the need for heroes to lead well-rounded dual lives. Maybe it put into focus how disingenuous (or cheesy) it is to lead a double life that it made more sense to drop the pretense entirely. Whatever the case, the big names in the Superhero world seem to be dropping one of the best sources for dramatic conflict in heroes’ lives. Maybe the only heroes with secure alter egos are the ones who are actually two different people like The Hulk and Shazam.