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Times Superheroes Were Unmasked And It Stuck

Any MCU fan should remember the classic ending to 2008's Iron Man in which — in spite of being handed a cover story by S.H.I.E.L.D. and agreeing to use it — Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) reveals his secret identity during a press conference with the words "I am Iron Man." The phrase is rendered that much more unforgettable when it sadly becomes the hero's final words in 2019's Avengers: Endgame

Of course, long before the MCU's Tony Stark abandoned his secret identity, public unmaskings were a time-tested plot device in the comics — and they aren't going away anytime soon. December 2019's Superman #18 from DC Comics features the Last Son of Krypton revealing he's also the Daily Planet reporter Clark Kent — and leaves us pondering the same question most Superman fans are probably asking: Will it stick?

For a superhero to be "outed" is far from rare, but usually — particularly in the comics — that revelation is somehow erased. One of the most well-known examples is when Spider-Man unmasked himself on live television in 2006's Civil War #2, only to have the world's populace have their memory of the event collectively erased by the devilish Mephisto in the 2007 event One More Day.  

To try to figure out what a world with a publicly revealed Superman might look like, we decided to look at some of those rare superheroes who went public with their secret identities... and whose identities remain public today. These are the times superheroes were unmasked and it stuck.

Iron Man unmasks in the movies and the comics

Toward the end of 2008's Iron Man, when Tony Stark expresses doubt over the cover story that Iron Man is Stark's bodyguard, this is a not-so-subtle reference to the Iron Man/Stark status quo in Marvel Comics for decades. For almost 40 years, the story that the golden Avenger was CEO Tony Stark's hired protection remained his cover. Like with many other comic book heroes, there were times Stark's secret was compromised, but the reveal was always undone somehow. That didn't change until six years before the movie Iron Man, in 2002's Iron Man #55. Amazingly, the comic book Tony doesn't unmask during a press conference — he does it to save a puppy.

Towards the end of Iron Man #55, Stark is with a group of people on a balcony when he notices a puppy on the street below who's gotten loose from its owner. At the same time, a bank robbery getaway car is speeding toward the pup. Seeing no alternative, Tony leaps from the balcony, opens his briefcase, calls his suit to him, and stands between the getaway car and the scared puppy — smashing the hood of the getaway car and incapacitating the robbers. 

Unlike earlier unmaskings, this one stuck. Tony Stark's dual identity as Iron Man has been public knowledge in the comics ever since. 

The Captain America of the comics had a secret identity for a long time

The Captain America of the MCU never had much of a secret identity, in spite of a mask being a regular part of his uniform both during and after World War II. The same isn't true in the comics. Like many other superheroes, Cap's identity has been revealed only to have the reveal erased in later comics. That didn't change until a very specific kind of adventure in 2002's Captain America #3. 

In the wake of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, Captain America is at first unwilling to dance to Nick Fury's tune. Feeling guilty for not being there to stop the terrorist attacks, Captain America refuses to go with Fury when the spymaster comes calling, insisting his place is at Ground Zero clearing the rubble and searching for survivors. Seven months later, Cap is ready to go back to work when a cadre of terrorists attack the small town of Centerville. 

Cap defeats the terrorists, killing the leader Faysal Al-Tariq in the process. Afterward he turns to a nearby cameraman and explains what he's about to do. Cap tells the audience that hate is blind, "blind enough to hold a nation accountable for the actions of a man." Captain America refuses to let his country be blamed for what he did. He says, "America didn't kill Faysal Al-Tariq." Then he pulls off his mask and says and admits, "I did."

The Great Machine unmasked to run for mayor

There's at least one superhero who –though he wasn't unmasked in the beginning of his own career– had a public identity as soon as readers met him. 

Ex Machina, part of DC Comics' now-defunct Wildstorm imprint, tells the story of Mitchell Hundred, a civil engineer with the power to speak to and command machines. The comic usually goes back and forth between Hundred's career as NYC mayor in the present day and the earlier years of his career as the superhero the Great Machine, before he ran for office. Perhaps the greatest of the Great Machine's feats that we learn about early in the series is that he stopped United Flight 175 — the second plane to collide with the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 — before it could crash into the World Trade Center's South Tower.   

In the very first issue of Ex Machina, Mitchell Hundred unmasks himself on live television as he announces his candidacy for the NYC Mayoral office. Hundred's identity remains known until the final 2010 issue Ex Machina #50, when it's revealed the former superhero has gotten all the way to the White House and is now Vice President to John McCain. 

It took five years to discover the Hulk's alter ego

Introduced in 1962's Incredible Hulk #1, Bruce Banner's double life as the Hulk isn't revealed to the public until 1967's Tales to Astonish #87. Before 1967, Banner's young friend Rick Jones is one of the few to know his secret and works hard to keep it from everyone else, and it's something of a cruel irony that Rick winds up being indirectly responsible for the Hulk's unmasking. 

While battling a rubbery android known only as the Humanoid, Rick gets hurt when he makes the mistake of getting between Hulk and the android. The shock of seeing his closest friend — arguably, his only friend — hurt triggers the Hulk's switch back to Bruce Banner in full view of Major Glenn Talbot, General "Thunderbolt" Ross, and Bruce's love interest Betty Ross. Banner's identity reveal is never retconned, and ever since he's often found himself on the run and/or in hiding because of it.

This could have drastically changed the Hulk's future. In the following issue, the villain Boomerang antagonizes the Hulk with explosives, causing him to go on a rampage. Moments later, General Ross receives a communication from President Lyndon Johnson, directing Ross to offer Banner amnesty for the Hulk's crimes, but only if Ross feels Hulk isn't a threat. Ross' thoughts reveal he would've offered Banner amnesty if only he'd received the message before the Boomerang's provocation made the Hulk go wild. 

Oliver Queen unmasked himself in Arrow

The sixth season of CW's Arrow – the first of the CW series to create what is now generally known as the Arrowverse — ends with two blows to the gut. First Quentin Lance (Paul Blackthorne) dies, and then Oliver Queen (Stephen Amell) is arrested by the FBI as part of a deal to keep the rest of Oliver's allies in Team Arrow out of prison. As he's being taken away by the feds, Queen is met by the press, at which point he admits to being Green Arrow and urges his friends to keep fighting for Star City. 

Arrow's seventh season begins with Oliver in prison, and the intro to the show is altered so that the character refers to himself as "Inmate 4587." While he's eventually freed from incarceration and returns to his life as the Green Arrow, he does so without a mask and under the direction of the Star City PD. 

It is possible Oliver Queen's public admission will be undone some time during Arrow's eighth and final season. The season will be a part of the CW's Crisis on Infinite Earths crossover which is likely to change the status quo of most — if not all — of the shows in CW's Arrowverse, and the trailer for Arrow season 8 features shots of Oliver wearing a mask, which has some fans wondering why that's the case if his identity is still public. 

She-Hulk's real name is public knowledge

Jennifer Walters, a.k.a. She-Hulk — cousin of Bruce Banner, the Incredible Hulk — is an interesting anomaly in the world of superheroes because there is no big, clear "unmasking" of the character. For a long stretch of her career she chooses to live only as She-Hulk — not changing back to her more human Jennifer Walters form if she could help it. Slowly but surely, during her time first with the Avengers and then the Fantastic Four, She-Hulk incorporates more of her Jennifer Walters life into her superhero existence, and eventually the fact that She-Hulk is Jennifer Walters becomes common knowledge. 

Shulkie's first ongoing solo series ends with 1982's Savage She-Hulk #25. The conclusion to that issue comes when She-Hulk makes the decision to remain big and green, rather than changing back and forth like her bigger cousin. After that she makes some small guest appearances in Dazzler and the team-up title Marvel Two-In-One before joining Earth's Mightiest Heroes in Avengers #221. After her own series ends, she doesn't shout her given name from the rooftops but isn't shy about giving it up when asked either. 

Eventually, She-Hulk not only returns to practicing law under her given name, but often does so in her She-Hulk form. 

Doctor Strange tried a secret identity and it didn't take

In 1969's Doctor Strange #177, after being banished to another dimension by a sorcerer who has also disguised himself as Doctor Strange, the real Doctor Strange finds himself unable to return home. A barrier keeps him from entering his home dimension because — due to Asmodeus' disguise — the Powers That Be believe Doctor Strange is already in his home dimension. So the real Strange tricks the barrier by wearing a blue mask. You would think mystical dimensional barriers would take more than outerwear to circumvent, but apparently not. 

Strange continues to use the mask after that adventure to hide his identity, even though his superhero name contains his actual last name. Strange fixes this contradiction in Doctor Strange #182 by convincing the cosmic entity Eternity to change his given name to Stephen Sanders. As Strange returns home from his encounter with Eternity, Wong is fascinated by a telegram that arrived in Strange's absence — he points out to his employer that the telegram was addressed to "Dr. Stephen Strange" when it arrived, but now reads "Dr. Stephen Sanders."

The series ended shortly afterward and in a backup story in 1971's Marvel Feature #1, Stephen Sanders' name was done away with — as was the useless blue mask. 

For some Green Lanterns, secret identities are a waste

From a certain point of view, one of the stranger aspects of DC Comics' Green Lantern mythos isn't that there are members of the Green Lantern Corps like John Stewart and Guy Gardner who don't hide their identities, but that others like Hal Jordan and Kyle Rayner do. Green Lanterns are different from most superheroes who take it upon themselves to fight crime — the Green Lantern Corps is an official intergalactic police force and, legally at least, they have nothing to hide. 

In 1985's Green Lantern #188, John Stewart is unmasked on TV by the investigative reporter Tawny Young. In the aftermath of the reveal, Stewart doesn't seem particularly concerned. He's still wearing a mask at the time, but he explains to his fellow Green Lantern Katma Tui that he has no interest in hiding his identity — he simply thought the mask was a mandatory part of the Green Lantern uniform. John Stewart's identity as Green Lantern remains a non-mystery to this day, and he no longer wears a mask. When the less friendly and more bull-headed Guy Gardner becomes a Green Lantern, he follows Stewart's example and never bothers to cover his face. 

Wolverine thought he had a secret identity, but he was wrong

You wouldn't think of Marvel's Wolverine as being the kind of guy to have a superhero identity. After all, until the 2005 miniseries House of M, Wolverine didn't know his own given name, so what would he have to hide?

Well, apparently Logan was a little jealous of everyone else in the Marvel Universe getting secret identities, because when his first ongoing solo series launched in 1988, he set himself up in the fictional Southeast Asian city of Madripoor, got himself a black eyepatch, and called himself "Patch," somehow thinking the eyepatch would detract from the signature hairstyle, his height, his powers, and everything else. Still, Clark Kent's glasses work, right? 

When Peter David jumped on board the title for the "Gehenna Stone Affair," the writer decided to have a little fun with Patch and reveal that, in fact, pretty much everyone in Madripoor knew Patch and Wolverine were the same person, they were just too afraid of him to admit it. When Jessica Drew, a.k.a. Spider-Woman, tells Wolverine she always knew he was Patch, at first he doesn't believe her. Drew responds, "When someone with claws and a temper wants to believe he's fooling people... no one wants to be the one to say, 'Hey, Wolvie, what's with the stupid eyepatch?'" And so Wolverine's one and only useless alias disappeared.

Wonder Woman hasn't had a secret identity for a long time

Wonder Woman is one of the most interesting examples of an abandoned secret identity in that DC Comics seems to change its mind every few years or so about whether or not they want Themyscira's favorite daughter to have an alter ego. 

For much of Wonder Woman's modern comic book history she's had no secret identity. Like Aquaman, Wonder Woman is royalty and has no need for a mask. But that hasn't always been the case. When she first appears in 1941's All Star Comics #8 she has no secret identity, but by 1942's Sensation Comics #1 she's taken on the dual life of the hero Wonder Woman and the nurse Diana Prince. Between 1968 and 1972, Wonder Woman actually loses her powers and the Diana Prince persona takes up more of her life. 

DC Comics is known for, among other things, its line-wide events that reboot chunks of its history, and in the two most impactful examples of the last 40 years, one of the items on the menu is the eradication of Diana Prince. In the wake of the 1985-1986 event Crisis on Infinite Earths, Wonder Woman is left without her Diana Prince alter ego, though this changes eventually when Batman helps her re-establish the identity of "Agent Diana Prince of Metahuman Affairs." This version of Diana Prince is scrubbed in the 2011 New 52 reboot, and we haven't seen her back since. 

Justice unmasked to face Justice

The Marvel hero Justice is usually thought of as a product of '90s comics because of his appearances in the first volume of New Warriors, which premiered in 1990. But the truth is he's been around since the '70s. Justice, a.k.a. Vance Astrovik first appears in 1975's Giant-Size Defenders #5 when he meets an older version of himself from the future. When he joins the New Warriors, the young mutant does it under the name Marvel Boy, but sadly tragedy and Vance's sense of responsibility lead to his unmasking.

Vance snaps under the abuse of his father Arnold. Arnold can't stand knowing that his son is not only a "mutie freak," but has been working as a hero with the New Warriors. In 1992's New Warriors #20, Arnold beats his son bloody even though Vance is already suffering serious injuries from battles with supervillains. Yelling that his father will never hurt him again, Vance lashes out with his telekinesis, unintentionally killing his father. 

Vance turns himself in to the authorities. At his trial, Vance is defended by Matt Murdock's (a.k.a. Dardevil) legal partner Foggy Nelson. While he's ultimately found innocent of murder, he is convicted of negligent homicide. After serving his time and returning to the New Warriors, Vance drops the name Marvel Boy and calls himself Justice — the same name he uses a few years later when he joins the Avengers.