Superman’s Secret Identity

Superman's Girlfriend Lois Lane #63Clark Kent’s glasses are both the most iconic and most ridiculed superhero disguise in comic book history. The disguise has been parodied in Saturday Night Live, called out as ridiculous in The Adventures of Lois and Clark, and called “the ludicrous glasses disguise” by David Goyer, one of the writers behind Man of Steel. How far can a pair of glasses and a changed hair style really get a person?

Well, actually, pretty far.

When confronted with this question in the Silver Age, Superman writers came up with a goofy explanation involving super-hypnosis and Kryptonian glasses. They didn’t have to try that hard. There are three legitimate and believable reasons that people don’t immediately recognize Clark Kent as Superman.

1: Why would Superman have a secret identity?

Imagine that you are the most powerful individual on the planet. You are invulnerable to almost everything, can fly through space unaided, and can project different kinds of radiation from your eyes. You have a gigantic fortress filled with all manner of luxury and alien technology. You are almost universally beloved and the power to rule the world if you want to.

Why would anybody in this scenario choose instead to live life as a meek bumbling reporter who gets picked on by office bullies and who is basically invisible to the woman he loves?

This is the first reason people in the DC Universe don’t instantly figure out Superman’s secret identity: there’s no reason to assume he has one. After all, it’s not like he wears a mask. He’s pretty much the ideal man living the ideal life. Who would want to hide from that? Moreover, if he were to hide from that, why would he deliberately choose to be somebody that people treat with the same respect as something they scraped off their shoe?

Why doesn’t Lex Luthor, a genius among geniuses, figure out such a simple ploy? Well, he actually did in the 1980s. He used a machine to figure out important facts about Superman and came up with this piece of data:

Clark Kent is Superman

Supercomputer wizardry, 1980s style.

And despite being faced with the obvious answer, Luthor refused to believe it:

Lex Luthor fires his assistant

I’d really like to see the board meeting where Lex explains this firing to his shareholders.

And, quite honestly, it’s not that unbelievable that somebody would respond to the revelation like that. Most people would just never expect that Superman even has a secret identity.

2: How many people would really recognize Superman?

I used to work the night shift in a convenience store. There are a lot of perks to this job that counteract the lack of seeing sunlight and the increased likelihood of getting robbed at gunpoint. One of these perks is that you get to bond with the regulars. I had a very good relationship with a lot of the customers who came in frequently. Despite the fact that we had nightly talks that lasted for quite a while, almost none of them recognized me when I was away from work. At one point I ran into one of the customers from the supermarket, said hi to her, told her my name, and she still didn’t recognize me until I mentioned where I worked. This wasn’t me in disguise – this was just me with a different shirt and a lack of cigarette logos behind my head.

I was on the other end of this scenario recently when somebody who I communicate with often at work moved offices. She said hi to me, I gave the standard bewildered wave, and it wasn’t until I walked away that I realized who she was. Again, no disguise or dramatic change – I just didn’t expect to see her in a new environment, so my brain never registered her presence as a possibility.

On a celebrity level, you’ve got stories like the time Tom Cruise pretended to by a UPS delivery man and had exactly zero people recognize him, including a guy he had an extended conversation with. Because after all, why would Tom Cruise be delivering packages?

Even if somebody notices the resemblance between Clark Kent and Superman, there’s a good chance their brain just wouldn’t make the connection. Why would a glasses-wearing Superman be interviewing some guy about a labor dispute? Why is he renting a dirt apartment in downtown Metropolis? What kind of moron thinks that Superman eats at McDonald’s?

Heck, in the animated series from the 1990s, Superman even gets bold enough to tell Lois Lane the truth point-blank. But who would believe such a ridiculous story?

In most cases, the closest somebody would get to figuring out Superman’s secret identity would be kicking a meme around Facebook saying “Clark Kent totally looks like Superman.”

3: He’s a very good actor

I hate the Superman movies. Every single damned one of them. (Okay, full disclosure: I haven’t seen Man of Steel yet because it looks like the kind of movie I would hate.) However, even I can’t deny that some pretty great actors have donned the cape over the years. In the modern era, Christopher Reeve pretty much set the standard for both Superman and Clark Kent.

If I have to choose the Superman movie that I think comes closest to being a good one, I guess I would go with Superman II (thanks for ruining it for me, kiss of amnesia). This movie features Superman revealing his secret identity to Lois Lane, and Christopher Reeve shows perfectly that it’s not just glasses that make the disguise. When he goes from Clark to Superman, everything about him changes.

The most powerful thing about that scene is that the change happens while Reeve’s back is to the audience. Before he turns around and faces the audience, we can already see that he has gone from Clark Kent to Superman. His body relaxes, his posture changes, and he basically becomes a whole other person.

The trick is most impressive in a live action movie when we can see the transformation in motion. Comics have trouble showing that sort of transformation, but many artists have put a lot of effort into getting the subtleties right. For example, here’s a concept sketch from All-Star Superman:

All-Star Superman and Clark Kent

It totally looks like Superman should be shoving Clark into a locker.

The difference isn’t accidental, either. The disguise is something that Superman worked at and has cultivated. In Superman: Birthright, which revisits the character’s origin story, we get to see an extended sequence of Ma and Pa Kent work with their son on creating the nerdy, forgettable Clark:

The Creation of Clark Kent

I love young Clark’s reaction to finding out that he has a perfect beach body.

I think it’s a shame when a writer, director, or other individual involved in making a Superman adaptation calls out the disguise, because it has worked for many talented creators over the years. Bearing in mind that the whole story is about an alien Moses who shoots lasers from his eyes, the fact that he can disguise himself with a pair of glasses and some acting skills is by far the least unbelievable thing about the character.

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