I have beef with superheroes that wouldn’t ever use their own name.
Given the way I’ve been complaining about the Iron Fist series for the past two years, it really should stand to reason that I have a fine example of why a character wouldn’t use their superhero title, because Danny looks like a stupid asshole every time he says it. Now, the answer to why that’s a problem is because, as I’ve said many, many times, is that Danny sucks, but the real problem is that, right now, superheroes are being written and conceived as if they are too cool for hero identities.
Cool in this case not actually being a quality – you know, Luke Cage is super cool, for example. No, cool meaning aloof, possessed of a certain removed quality. That quality means these characters often don’t want to think about themselves as people others see them. Heroes who are tangled up in their own heads, but aren’t interested in being a public figure, aren’t interested in what their hero identity means to people around them.
This is the complex problem, and it’s complex because it often requires you to write a character with an inner life that is at odds with the simplified version of the superhero we see. In Daredevil, Matt Murdock does not call himself Daredevil – other people refer to him as the Daredevil. The identity is an observational one, and it doesn’t connect to the way the hero sees themselves. Sure, the Netflix Marvelverse is a fine place for this – you have basically five superheroes, and they are Luke Cage, Jessica Jones, Daredevil, The Iron Fist (Danny sucks) and the Punisher. Two of them are street names, one doesn’t like the title, one is Danny, who sucks, and whose use of the name is a literal joke, and the Punisher doesn’t go by his name either.
This carries through to the DC movie universe where Superman doesn’t have an S on his chest for superman, it’s the Kryptonian symbol for hope. Batman is Batman, but Batman is a symbol of terror, who brands people (though they seem to have quietly dropped that plot point). Wonder Woman introduces herself as Diana of Themyscira, Cyborg is a cyborg that calls himself Cyborg, while also being actively ashamed of being a cyborg.
Now why does this matter to me?
It matters because the ability to construct an identity, the ability to make a brand of the thing you are, is both empathetic and indicative of an inner life. You can’t create an illusion of what you are, you can’t make an identity if you’re not capable of considering how other people are feeling. You can’t create an identity, then inhabit it, without showing not only what you think, but how others think about it. That requires some empathy. That shows us some of your values. This is often drawn at a long series, that moment when a character finally dons their outfit, finally picks up their weapon, or maybe, just maybe, finally refers to themselves with their name.
He’s a character I regard as a complete tit, but I really like how Iron Man – the movie, not the guy – handle this. Tony is able to look at himself, look at the way people think of the identity of Iron Man, and makes the snap decision to be okay with wearing that identity.
In the end, these identities are created and assumed. These identities are the byproduct of empathy and values.
Many of these heroes don’t have those.
The irony is that of the lineup I’ve listed, the one who has the most values, the one who has shown the most concerted ideology of what he’s doing, and therefore the one constructing an identity is Luke Cage. He wants to be a symbol, he wants to matter to the people around him, and he wants that person to be someone the people around him can respect and look up to.
Anyway, this is just something that makes me mad. If your superhero would never use their name, they don’t belong in a story with that name in it. Just write a story that doesn’t use that word and stop pretending you want to write about superheroes.