"Clark says, 'Hey, Ma. You remember the last person I told the secret to? I forget her name, but I recall she died of a slow, hanging, asphyxiation style death while I screamed to the Heavens. Alexia...Alena...I don't know, doesn't matter. I only married her. Point being, when I tell people my secret, they often DIE.' Ma Kent says, 'Hey, Tom, that's not in the script.' The director then says cut, and they have to do it again. WELLING!"
—Neal bailey on Smallville
This is when, normally in a movie or television adaptation of a superhero story, the villain discovers the hero's secret identity, but is killed in that same story/arc/episode/whatever two minutes after.
This is done to heighten the dramatic tension between the two enemies, as now both are on a level playing field and the villain's threat level is elevated. However, the writers (normally) don't let the villain last that long, since if there's a bad guy out there who knows the biggest secret of the mythos, he'd definitely eclipse all other bad guys and would never cease to be a threat, at least not until he's put down for good. This can also come in the form of a coma, amnesia, or imprisonment for years and years.
A sub-trope of It's Personal
and Killed to Uphold the Masquerade
, but in this situation it's normally the writers' decision to pull the Secret Identity
trigger when they need to raise the stakes on a particular story/arc/series, but don't want to deal with long-term consequences.
As a Death Trope, all Spoilers will be unmarked ahead. Beware.
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Anime & Manga
- This sometimes happens to Sailor Moon villains. Specific examples are Jadeite and Nephrite in the first series, and all of the Animamates. In Jadeite, Sailor Iron Mouse, and Sailor Aluminum Siren's cases, they were both killed by the main Big Bad of the series before they could tell the Big Bad they followed about at least one Senshi's secret identity (Siren and Jadeite both died pleading that they had that knowledge, but Iron Mouse didn't even get a chance to say anything about it to Galaxia, she was so scared and blabbering about unanswerable Japanese riddles).
- Case Closed: Pisco, a member of the Black Organization, figures out Ai's identity, but he's executed by Gin for screwing up on an assassination before he can say anything. (On the other hand, Vermouth also knows, but keeps mum due to her friendship with Shinichi's mother and perhaps also a desire to see whether or not Shinichi succeeds in taking the organization down.)
- Done again with Irish in the 13th film.
- In an issue of Go Nagai's ecchi superhero manga, Maboroshi Panty, when Waki, the Villain of the Week, unmasks the title heroine (in a most unusual way), she immediately pulls out a hunting rifle and offs him.
- Subverted big time in Code Geass. After Villetta walks in on Shirley's discovery that Lelouch is Zero, she goads her into turning him in. Shirley, who has been in love with Lelouch, yet wanting to avenge her father's death that he was responsible for as Zero, freaks out and shoots Villetta... who gets better, courtesy of Ohgi.
- Bubblegum Crisis: Invoked when Brian J. Mason takes on the Knight Sabres in combat, and forces the visor of Sylia's helmet open, exposing her identity. It takes but a second for him to recognize her, and only a second longer for Sylia to silence him.
- Identity Crisis. We learn that during The Silver Age of Comic Books and The Golden Age of Comic Books, villains learned superheroes' secret identities all the time. Heroes toed the line of the Moral Event Horizon by using Zatanna to make them forget.
- In the Batman comics, the Ra's al-Ghul subversion is the same as in Batman: The Animated Series.
- The Riddler learnt during the Hush storyline after using one of Ra's al-Ghul's lazarus pits, and was convinced not to blab it since a riddle ("Who is Batman?") is worthless if everyone knows it, not to mention that doing so would alert Ra's al-Ghul that he used a pit without permission. Later, he got both Easy Amnesia and a Heel-Face Turn as well.
- The Hush storyline in general makes it seem Batman sucks at keeping secrets, as it brings together just about everyone who knows his identity, then throws in a couple more.
- In various continuities, Batman tells Joe Chill that he's the son of Thomas and Martha Wayne. In Batman #47 (1948), Chill blurts out to some other criminals that he "created" Batman, and they kill him. In Modern Age Batman: Year Two, Chill gets killed by the Reaper. Batman: The Brave and the Bold is similar to the Golden Age version, however Batman saves Chill... but sees him get killed by falling masonry.
- Averted by R'as al Ghul. He knows Batman is Bruce Wayne, but has no desire to tell anyone. Not because he wants to protect Bats, he just thinks it's irrelevant. Bane knows as well, but like R'as, doesn't really care.
- The Spider-Man comic book incarnation of the Harry Osborne Green Goblin and, after coming Back from the Dead, Norman Osborne, both knew Peter Parker is Spider-Man, and have frequently acted on this knowledge. So did Venom. This is part of the reason the Goblin and Venom used to be his most dangerous enemies.
- The original Green Goblin actually had known Spider-Man's secret for a long time, but he did suffer from a convenient partial amnesia (when he wasn't Goblin-crazy, he couldn't remember what he had done as the Goblin and therefore also not that Peter Parker was Spider-Man) that later also affected his son Harry.
- The Amazing Spider-Man #200 featured Spider-Man's confrontation with the burglar who killed Uncle Ben. After Peter unmasked in a scene that reads like a Shout-Out to the Batman-Joe Chill showdown, the burglar suffers a fatal heart attack.
- In the first movie, the robber dies in a self-inflicted accident after Spider-Man pulls his mask off to him when he catches up with him in an abandoned house.
- Perhaps a reason why The Joker has Joker Immunity is that he has had opportunities to learn Batman's secret identity, but for the most part, he does not care to know. For him, matching wits against Batman is what interests him most and having that air of mystery removed from his nemesis would make him less entertaining a foe.
- World's Finest #173, "The Jekyll-Hyde Heroes!" Dr. Arron develops a Psycho Serum that turns the drinker into their most feared enemy and doses both Batman and Superman. He's hit with his own serum at the end, and since he fears both heroes equally, he turns into a half and half version of them. He's also learned their secret identities, but overexposure to the serum leaves him a raving lunatic.
- This happens every time someone sees the face of The Phantom - quite in line with the Old Jungle Saying that says that anyone who does so will die a horrible death. This is despite the fact that The Ghost Who Walks really doesn't have a secret identity - and neither is he the supernatural being the Old Jungle Sayings assume he is.
- To be fair, the (current) Phantom's wife, adoptive son, and presumably his real children have all seen his face without a mask too, and none of them have so far died horribly for it. Presumably the Old Jungle Saying has a caveat built in for voluntary de-maskings.
- Averted in an Astro City story in which a small-time hood accidentally discovers Jack-in-the-Box's identity. He considers selling the information to the hero's enemies... until it occurs to him that those enemies are ruthless enough to use cheaper methods to make him talk, after which they would no longer need him alive and indeed would prefer him dead. He leaves town, apparently intending to forget the whole thing.
- Happens to Amanda Marie McCoy in the Superman comics. She is hired by Lex Luthor to find out Superman's identity. She does, he doesn't believe her. She steals his Kryptonite ring and sets out to prove herself right. She confronts Clark Kent in a grave yard, proving her theory correct. In the end, however, she is killed by a couple of common street thugs completely unrelated to her discovery.
- In the Spider-Man film series, Green Goblin is impaled soon after he discovers Peter's secret. In the second film, a big part of the movie marketing was that Harry would learn Peter's secret, but Harry's death wouldn't come until he made the full transition to baddie in the third movie... and even then it got somewhat subverted in the end. Peter also reveals his identity to Doc Ock, probably knowing that this trope would spell death for the doctor. In the final movie, this works against Eddie Brock/Venom, but actually leads to the redemption of the Sandman.
- Also in the first movie the robber who (apparently) killed Uncle Ben dies in a convenient accident seconds after Spider-Man unmasks to him.
- Averted by the people in the runaway train in the second movie, thanks to Peter willingly turning himself over to Doc Ock soon after. Probably helped that they gave him his mask back and decided to keep his secret.
- This may not apply entirely to Doc Ock in the second film, as by this point Ock was no longer until full control of his arms, and Spider-Man revealing his identity is a way to convince Ock to do a Heel-Face Turn. He might no longer be considered a villain by the time he performs his Heroic Sacrifice, leading this to a case of Redemption Equals Death.
- Subverted in the The Amazing Spiderman: of the four people who learn that Peter is Spider-Man, the only one who dies after discovering this is Police Chief George Stacy. Dr. Connors, Gwen, and the construction worker's son are all spared, despite being in dangerous situations either at the time of or soon after their respective revelations, with one of them being the film's Big Bad to boot.
- In the Batman film series, Bruce Wayne inadvertently reveals his identity to Max Schreck during the climax of Batman Returns, and Max is deep-fried soon after. In Batman Forever, Two-Face and the Riddler get taken out soon after they learn the truth: Two-Face suffers a Disney Villain Death and The Riddler goes mad from his Box technology getting destroyed by Batman, and is later seen in Arkham proclaiming that he is Batman and laughing.
- Vicki Vale and Catwoman, however, manage to survive after learning Bruce Wayne's secret in Batman and Batman Returns.
- Mystery Men plays with this trope as the main baddie knew for years his archenemy's secret identity, but was in prison. When he gets out, it doesn't take too long before the Big Bad uses his knowledge to kill the hero. Wait... what?
- In Batman Begins, Ducard/Ra's al-Ghul knows that Bruce Wayne is Batman, but is spared by this knowledge due to Bruce thinking of Ducard as an ally. When Ducard reappears in the finale as the Big Bad, he's toast. Rachel Dawes, for her part, is spared...
- ... until halfway through The Dark Knight, thanks to that lying Joker.
- On principle, breaking her promise to wait for Bruce and agreeing to marry Harvey Dent mere moments before her untimely demise probably didn't help her odds, either.
- Technically, it's a subversion, since knowing Batman's identity had nothing to do with her death beyond her close association with him.
- Invoked with Mr. Reese who is targeted by the Joker to prevent him airing Batman's identity, because that would ruin the Joker's fun.
- In the 1949 serial adventures of Batman and Robin, Jimmy Vale (who is working for the Big Bad) discovers that an unconscious Batman is his sister's boyfriend. He puts on the suit and leads the other bad guys away from Bruce. Unfortunately, "away" means up to the top of a building where he then does a Martin Sheen.
- In the 2004 action film The Incredibles , Syndrome learns not only their real identities, but knows where they all live by the end of the movie.
Live Action TV
- One episode of Batman had King Tut break into the Batcave and deduce Batman and Robin's secret identities. As luck would have it, just before he could reveal it, a rock hit him on the head and reverted him back to his mild-mannered professor half of his Split Personality. It also caused him to forget the whole escapade as well.
- Up to Eleven in Smallville. Practically all villains who learn Clark's secret is killed off, thrown into the psycho prison or have their memory wiped. Lex Luthor himself had went through all three.
- Lex Luthor in Lois and Clark: When Clone Lois tells him she's learnt that Clark is Superman, the Karmic Death is just a matter of time.
- Earlier, Jason Trask threatens Clark with revealing his secret identity if he goes to prison. Conveniently, he's soon shot by a policewoman defending Clark, who wasn't present at the scene when Clark used his powers.
- Two criminals in The Adventures of Superman stumble onto Superman's secret identity. Unfortunately for them, in this series he doesn't have other superheroes in disguise, holograms, or such to throw them off the trail. He takes them off to a remote cabin high in a mountain range and tells them he'll keep bringing them supplies. They don't believe him and try to escape, dying in the process.
- An episode of The Flash live-action series has a baddie discovering his Secret Identity and blackmailing him (even with a They Would Cut You Up threat). He ended up killed by other baddies, with a Car Starter Bomb.
- Strangely averted by Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Everyone seems to believe that it's incredibly important for no one to realize that Buffy is, in fact, a slayer, even her mother. Most of the villains already know, however, and when the muggles eventually find out, by and large there are no ramifications whatsoever.
- It's more the fact that any time a vampire comes across a lone, blonde teenage girl who, instead of screaming in terror, makes threats and pulls out a stake, they can be reasonably sure that it's the Slayer; most of the time, they dismiss her until she gets to ready to fight, and then their eyes bug out and they say "It's the Slayer!". Her house hasn't really even been attacked by vampires (though that could also be because they can't come into dwellings without an invitation). Still completely averted with Glory though, a non-vampire Big Bad who knows Buffy's name and address and even visits her house to have a "nice" chat; Glory doesn't die until many episodes after that.
- It happened to any bad guy who learned Zorro's secret identity in Disney's live action Zorro series.
- In Ringer, Gemma learns that it's Bridget pretending to be Siobhan, and gets murdered, or at least disappeared, soon after.
- Arrow: When the Count returns in Season 2, he catches Felicity investigating his operation, and from her working relationship with Oliver and Oliver posing as a Vertigo buyer the previous season, the Count quickly deduces that Oliver is the Arrow. One hostage situation later, and he's been Killed Off for Real via three arrows to the chest and a multi-story drop out of a window.
- Also in "Seeing Red" Moira reveals that she has long known Oliver's secret identity and is impaled by Slade's sword later in the episode. And in the pilot, Oliver kills the guys that kidnapped him because he didn't want them saying anything about how he escaped them.
- The main story in Hitman Contracts. The Big Bad Albert Fournier discovers 47 at the start and tries to kill him. Surprisingly it later comes back to bite him as 47 kills him by the end of the game in order to protect his identity.
- In Batman: The Animated Series, this is subverted as Ra's al-Ghul actually knew Bruce Wayne's secret for a long time, but never planned to expose it to the world or even hold it over Bruce's head, and his death came years and years after the first conflict with Batman.
- Hugo Strange also learns it, and lives. However, Batman sets him up and makes the supervillains he's trying to sell the info to think he's planning to betray them. Consequently, none of them believe him when he tells them the truth.
- Dirty Cop Gil Mason removes Batgirl's mask and realizes it is Barbara Gordon, whose father he'd been framing and being said girl he likes. He is so horrified by the discovery he lets her go and hits his head. Mason falls into a coma and is never seen or mentioned as having come out of it.
- Batman Beyond: Before he can expose Bruce and Terry's secret on a tabloid television program, Ian Peek becomes completely intangible and falls to the Earth's core.
- Barely averted in another episode "Unmasked". Terry had to unmask himself to comfort a scared little boy named Miguel that he was trying to rescue from a burning building. When Kobra agents see a news report with Miguel saying that Batman's a normal guy without his mask, they kidnap the boy to pry the image of Batman's face out of his mind and plan to drop him into a snake pit afterwards. Terry rescues him and is relieved when he sees that the image of him that Kobra pulled from Miguel's mind has the face of Miguel's favorite action figure superimposed on it. Terry figures that Miguel didn't get a good look at him in the first place and doesn't remember what he looks like but the end of the episode reveals that Miguel remembers him and is keeping his secret safe.
- Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker. Joker dies not long after telling Bruce he learned his secret identity after torturing Tim Drake. Twice, technically. This is subverted by Harley Quinn, who learned their identities the same way and seemingly fell to her death shortly afterward. The very last scene of the movie reveals she survived and is Dee and Dee's grandmother, apparently having quit her life of crime after Joker's died.
- Batman: The Brave and the Bold double-subverts this. Joe Chill learns who the face behind Batman is and decides to immediately take it to his rogues gallery so they can take him out in his personal life, but he uses the wrong wording and only gets out that "[He's] the reason Batman exists!" Before he can drop his identity, the villains immediately latch onto this and get ready to kill Chill. Batman eventually breaks free and takes them all down, and seems prepared to Save the Villain despite it being the end of his life as Bruce Wayne...then the building collapses in such a way that Batman can't save him even if he wanted to, and is forced to let Chill die in the destruction.
- Superman: The Animated Series: A corrupt police officer tries to kill Clark Kent when he finds incriminating evidence about the officer in a murder case. Clark survives (for obvious reasons), but lies low while he continues investigating. In the end, the officer is convicted and Clark mysteriously reappears. As he is sent to the gas chamber, he can't figure out how Clark could have survived, and then makes the inevitable conclusion ó "He's Superman!" ó just as the switch is pulled.
- In the 60's Superman cartoon, Parasite immediately learns Superman's identity when he drains Clark, which for the genre savvy is a clue that he is going to die at the end of that episode. And he does.
- Parasite has learned it a couple of times in the TAS as well. He didn't die, but the necessary Laser-Guided Amnesia was usually delivered in a very unpleasant manner.
- In The Batman, shortly after threatening to reveal Bruce's and Dick's secret identities, The Joker killed Wrath and Scorn for The Only One Allowed to Defeat You reasons.
- In Iron Man: Armored Adventures, three villains have learned Iron Man's secret identity. One of them got slapped by Laser-Guided Amnesia and the other was put in a coma for the trouble. The third, ever the pragmatist, decided to keep it a secret so he could blackmail Tony with it after Tony had some major financial assets to his name. Since the secret identity was revealed to the public in the end of Season 2, him cashing it in seems unlikely.
- In the Spider-Man: The Animated Series episode "Attack of the Octobot" Spider-Man reveals his identity to a sick girl who is a fan of his and wanted to meet him. At the end we find out the reason he was willing to reveal his secret identity to her was because she was terminally ill.
- The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie gives us a subversion. Plankton finds out the Krabby Patty secret formula, but while he doesn't die he is arrested and Word of God confirms this is canonically the end of the series.