Secret identities are a big deal in superhero comics, and they have been since the inception of the medium, since its primordial days in the form of pulp magazines. While secret IDs have not played a major role in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, some of the best moments in DC movies (the classic, pre-DCEU ones anyway) have involved our heroes’ identities either being revealed or their efforts to maintain their secret. Superman II has a whole storyline predicated on Clark Kent’s double life being erased from Lois Lane’s memory, and one of my favorite scenes in Tim Burton’s Batman is when Bruce shows up at Vicki Vale’s place to tell her his truth.
Those secret IDs make sense for some of the characters – Spider-Man has a vulnerable Aunt May and later Mary Jane to protect from vengeful enemies, and Superman needs the downtime of being Clark Kent to keep his head straight – but it’s harder to unpack why Batman needs a secret ID. First of all, it seems like half of Gotham and his villains know who he is, and depending on which iteration of the comics you’re reading, many of his fellow superheroes and Justice League buddies know that Bruce Wayne is the Batman. It’s often a poorly kept secret.
Bruce Wayne doesn’t have any people close to him to protect; even Alfred is an ass-kicker, and at any rate he’s in Wayne Manor all the time, which is highly defensible. Everybody else Bruce knows is a superhero, more or less, or a supervillain, so revenge isn’t a huge consideration. With Aunt Harriet not making it as a major player in the current continuity that aspect of his secrecy is gone.
You could argue that at one point in the character’s history he led a dual life because being a vigilante was illegal, and the cops didn’t like him. We’re well past that now; everybody knows the Batsignal is atop GCPD HQ, and Batman is a world-recognized hero. Imagine being the DA who tries to prosecute him? If you’re telling a Year One-adjacent story this holds water, but otherwise it doesn’t work anymore.
Maybe Batman just doesn’t want the assholes he fights showing up at his doorstep. That’s a reasonable explanation, but it gets harder to accept when you see that the Justice League has a Hall of Justice (in the current continuity) that even does guided tours. If the Penguin wants to get at Batman, he can find him. It ain’t that hard.
Of course the secret identity is baked into the Batman concept; Bruce Wayne wants to create a character who will strike fear into the hearts of criminals. But between you and me, I don’t buy this anymore. It’s a problem that Batman has had again and again in the comics, and every couple of years there’s a soft (or hard… this is DC, after all) reboot to get Batman back to basics. See, if you’re telling a ‘modern’ Batman story you’re telling a story about a guy who has been on TV a bunch, who hangs out with the most famous and beloved superheroes of all and who has long ago stepped out of the shadows and into the limelight. Batman as a dark avenger of the night is a great idea that is consistently hampered by the reality of the stories in which he appears. Again, writers have tried to walk this back over and over, but eventually someone puts Batman in a well-lit public space to fight an alien invasion or something.
The longer Batman is around the harder his status as urban legend is to rationalize. And honestly, if the idea is that he’s trying to instill fear in the hearts of criminals, the idea of a mad billionaire who is spending ALL HIS MONEY just to stop you from robbing a liquor store may be the scariest idea of all.
I’ve heard it said that Bruce maintains a secret ID to protect WayneCorp/Industries. Should the fact that the CEO dresses up as a Bat and fights crime get out, stocks would plummet. As one of the leading charities holding Gotham together, and as a major employer in the city, this could be disastrous. I have two objections.
One is the idea that WayneCorp is Too Big To Fail. I think this is a shitty idea in reality, and it’s a shittier idea in comics. We definitely live in a world where people believe that certain companies/industries are too big to fail, but I think if Gotham is only alive because of Bruce Wayne… maybe Gotham needs to die. I’m not being a villain here, I’m simply saying that a city this dependent on one man is not a functioning city, and perhaps it needs to collapse and be reborn to become functioning.
But more than that I wonder how badly stocks would tank if Bruce were outed. After all, everybody thinks Bruce Wayne is a drunken dipshit and that there are smarter people pulling the strings at the company. If the stock market found out that Bruce was not a partyboy wastrel but in fact the super-focused, incredibly competent and highly motivated Batman… might investors not breathe a sigh of relief? It’s like finding out Eric Trump can read.
So why the hell does Batman have a secret identity? I wish I could lay claim to this idea, but I stole it from my brother, Derek, and all credit must go to him. The reason Batman has a secret identity is…
Imagine the lawsuits if people knew who Batman was. Imagine the armies of lawyers who would make their livings simply representing guys who Batman hit upside the head with Batarangs. Even if he were a deputized agent of the law (which he has been in some continuities), Batman is the walking embodiment of excessive force. I mean, we’ve already long since established that he represents the ruling class using brutality to subjugate the underclass (and especially the mentally ill), and if we look at him through that lens his secret identity makes perfect sense… as a way to escape accountability.
Superhero stories are always quasi-fascist power fantasies, but of them all Batman is the most… disquieting. Now, with the idea that Bruce Wayne wears a mask only to protect himself from his victims seeking restitution… well, maybe I’ll start rooting for Ra’s al Ghul. At least that guy is using his own name.*
*Maybe. It’s possible that he had a name 600 years ago and that Ra’s al Ghul is just his title. But it’s what he goes by on a day-to-day basis, and his daughter has his last name, so it’s close enough for me.