There’s been an explosion of superhero storytelling in recent years across all types of media. Nowhere has that been clearer than in the land of television. Weekly these heroes dazzle us with their feats and make us care about their human stories in a superhuman universe. There’s just a tiny problem that plagues all superheroes no matter the show and it’s not sociopathic, but charismatic, bad guys. No, evidently putting on a mask and fighting crime causes a pathological desire to lie to your friends and family at all costs. It needs to stop now.
Spoilers for Arrow, The Flash, Daredevil and iZombie follow!
These are the characters who have lied to their loved ones about their identity for extended periods of time: Matt Murdock on Daredevil, Liv Moore on iZombie, Barry Allen on The Flash and nearly everyone on Arrow. If that sounds like almost every superhero show currently airing, that’s because it is. This disease of duplicitousness crosses comic company, gender and television network lines. If there is a line, it gets crossed. These are stories of deceit are almost never good and do more to hurt the characters and their development than help.
Getting Off the Ground Tripping
The mistake in crafting these types of stories is immediately apparent. Lies estranges main characters unnecessarily. In any other show this would be a suicidal move. A group of characters are introduced and the implication is you’re meant to like them and their dynamic. Yet there’s no time to invest in their inter-personal relationship because this wedge is shoved into the dynamic. It’s the storytelling equivalent of Lucy yanking the football away from Charlie Brown and no one likes Lucy.
In the first season of Arrow how are you supposed to get any idea of how Oliver’s relationship is supposed be if he is constantly lying to them and pushing them away? To Arrow‘s credit it treated Oliver’s relationship with friends and family as strained but it doesn’t ultimately matter. There’s no investment in that relationship when it’s in flux because the audience has no frame reference for when they were happy.
It’s even worse when the show presents the relationships as happy while the lies are occurring. This is the fate that befell both iZombie and Daredevil. In the first half of Daredevil Matt and Foggy were supposed to be the best of friends and partners but they couldn’t be more estranged in reality. The same goes for Liv and Major on iZombie. This was a romantic pairing unlike like the platonic one between Matt and Foggy but the same truth applies.
The shows told us these were incredibly important relationships but hardly ever showed them interacting together. On the few occasions that they did, the cloud of the hero’s deceit and lies hung over everything. It could be viewed as dramatic irony but in actuality it just caused the audience to not invest in the characters’ friendship. It makes the side character less seem much less important. They’re less interesting because they’re not involved in the crime fighting narrative and on a superhero show that’s the central story.
It’s Doesn’t Protect Anyone
The biggest lie is that these deceptions about identity somehow protect people. The hero is constantly having to turn dramatically towards the camera and emphatically say “They can never know! It’s safer that way.” We understand the heroes have dangerous lives and peril is around every corner but that reason is absolutely ridiculous. When people close to you start lying and acting strange to you get suspicious. You get curious and you try to figure out the truth in secret. The more you’re lied to the more desperate you are to find out the truth. This is was every character that was lied to ended up doing eventually.
On Daredevil Karen was clueless that her boss and friend was actually the Daredevil got more and more secretly entrenched in the underworld crime. She put her safety at risk in search of truth when the answers were in the office next to her own. Iris West and Laurel Lance haplessly wandered into several hostage situations. They’re forever disoriented and in the way. If Iris of Laurel knew their lifelong friends were actually the vigilantes saving the city would they have been so clueless? There’s no way people this smart would be that stupid. On iZombie would Major have been stabbed and nearly killed by a deranged zombie if Liv had told him what she knew from the start? No! Lies never protected the people in question it only put them into more danger.
Everyone is Better Together
This is the really crucial point. The show always ended up working better once the secret was out and every main character was involved. No Arrow fan prefers the alcoholic, pill-popping Laurel who loved to throw wine glasses to the leather-clad Laurel who loved to punch criminals in the face. Some audiences might appreciate Major Lilywhite for the hunky man that he is but he was much better once he knew zombies existed. The zombie slaying version of Major was far superior to the just stepped out of the shower model. Once Iris West found out her best friend and possible future husband Barry Allen was The Flash she was integral part of saving the day. If not for Iris, Barry Allen would’ve been Gorilla Grodd’s next meal.
These moments of cohesion aren’t better because of the separation that preceded them. Iris being in the dark about Barry being The Flash was incredibly frustrating. It was more a relief once she finally knew and she confronted her dad and best friend than satisfying. No one was clamoring to see how Team Flash would lie to Iris this week on The Flash. This was no one’s favorite part of the show and if it was yours might actually be the next supervillain set to attack Central City.
If characters are written and acted well it’s always better to see them interacting with each other. This is especially true for people like Matt Murdock and Oliver Queen. These masked vigilantes are both extreme introverts. They’re the reason the word brooding was invented. While they might be complex it’s inherently uninteresting to watch a guy frown for forty to fifty minutes as they beat criminal scum to a bloody pulp.
It’s legitimately depressing to see Oliver and Matt alone with their dark thoughts. So it’s far more entertaining to see them interact with people who are they’re opposites. When Matt is with Foggy and Oliver is with Felicity (or Diggle) there is happy quality that is brought out in the hero. This is why the comedic side characters become so popular. They bring out something likable and bright in the dark hero.
They Don’t Have to Be an Open Book, Just Slightly Ajar
It’s not as if heroes shouldn’t keep any secrets. If nothing else Arrow season three proved that a secret identity being publicly revealed is absolutely terrible for everyone involved. There is a reason that the bad guys shouldn’t know where the hero lives or who they’re in love with, it can only end badly. I’m fairly certain if the people of Team Arrow aren’t keeping something from someone they’ll spontaneously explode. There’s just no reason why all the good guys shouldn’t know the whole truth. There is nothing to gain and everything to lose by keeping secret identities a complete secret.
But what do you think, is there actually some benefits in heroes having so many secrets and lies in their lives? Do you enjoy the hero being separated from their love interest or best friend because of their double life? Or are you just as tired of the trope as I am?
(images courtesy of The CW and Netflix)