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The Unmasking
That's right, Miss Lang, it was him all the time! He just combed his hair and stuck on a pair of glasses! Ha ha ha! What a great gag!
Prankster & Toyman, after exposing Superman as Clark Kent

Superheroes often have a Secret Identity which they conceal from the world, or perhaps just secretly engage in heroics. They do it for lots of reasons- maybe to keep themselves or their loved ones safe, and so they keep them willfully ignorant. But when you do that, you’re likely to run into some complications. Sooner or later, friends, family and dates are going to wonder why you keep running out on them. You’ll find yourself missing school and work, since crime doesn’t exactly let you keep regular hours. Eventually, you might found your civilian identity held captive, with no way for the 'hero' to show up. So it can be tough to keep that secret identity, well... secret.

So for most heroes, they’ll eventually run into The Unmasking. Something will happen. Maybe the hero will be forced to tell, due to a Super Registration Act. Maybe they’ll choose to tell a loved one. Maybe it’ll be something as embarrassing as someone seeing them change into their costume. Either way, the results are the same - their secret is no longer a secret.

Responses can be varied. If it’s a friend or loved one who discovers it, they’ll usually be accepting and become Secret Keepers. However, it's equally likely that they'll be angry or scared, and either tell the hero to stop putting himself in danger or, if his powers are freaky, ask if they’ve tried being normal. If someone antagonistic finds out, expect bad things, ranging from blackmail to making the hero’s life a living hell. If the outing is public, then there will most likely be a lot of controversy, with people badgering the newly-exposed civilian persona for both good and bad reasons.

Writers tend to introduce this element to prevent stories from becoming too old. There are only so many times you can keep people from finding out the secret identity before the audience begins to get tired of it, and letting either friends or enemies know the truth allows for new plots and character interactions. On the negative side, people might complain They Changed It, Now It Sucks. If keeping the identity completely secret is somehow intrinsic to the story’s formula, expect this to show up for a What If? episode, or to at least have the Reset Button firmly pressed by the end of the tale, usually thanks to Laser-Guided Amnesia.

Compare The Reveal, where the audience is the group suddenly in on the secret. People might wonder why it doesn’t happen to heroes who engage in Clark Kenting, and have a Paper-Thin Disguise. Those most likely to be let in on it are romantic interests and the Secret Chaser. If the identity is connected to an alternate world or conspiracy, this might result in a Broken Masquerade.

See also Dramatic Unmask, Emerging from the Shadows.

Examples:

  • Superman: Whatever Happened to The Man of Tomorrow?:Alan Moore coined the term, to describe how Superman's identity was exposed. Prankster and Toyman unmask the hero in front of the Daily Planet staff by sending Clark Kent Superman action figures that disintegrate his glasses and the suit he wears over his costume.
  • Batman's identity had been exposed in the Back Story of Kingdom Come leading to Two-Face and Bane having destroyed the mansion. Bruce still operates out of the Batcave.
  • Vance Astrovik of the New Warriors had his Secret Identity revealed to the public when he was put on trial.
  • Watchmen, being a Deconstruction of Superhero tropes, has several examples:
    • In the setting's Back Story, the superheroine Silhouette had her identity revealed and was expelled from the Minutemen because she was a lesbian. A villain seeking revenge murdered her and her girlfriend six weeks later.
    • Ozymandias and the original Nite Owl came public voluntarily. The former runs a highly successful company and the latter wrote a book about his adventures.
    • The true identity of Dr. Manhattan was made public after the death of his father, but since he had already cut all ties to his old life, this didn't change much.
    • In the present, the Comedian's true identity is made public after his death and Rorschach's identity is made public after his arrest.
  • In Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Batman's identity as Bruce Wayne is revealed after Batman fakes his death in a fight with Superman.
  • Parodied in The Simpsons Comics/Radioactive Man crossover, "When Bongos Collide". The dim-witted Radioactive Man, whom Bart has materialized from his comic into the "real world", says in Barts hearing "...or my name isn't Claude Kane III!...Uh, which it isn't, of course." Bart resists the urge to tell him he already knows his secret identity from the comics.
  • In the "Born Again" Story Arc of Daredevil, the Kingpin learns Daredevil's identity and tries to destroy his life, but later on does nothing about it. Finally, in the "Out" storyline, a down-on-his-luck federal agent sells Daredevil's identity to the newspapers for some cash. Instead of admitting he is Daredevil, though, Matt Murdock instead sues the newspapers for libel.
    • In the 2003 film, the Kingpin threatens to reveal that Daredevil's Matt Murdock after being beaten & with the knowledge the police are on their way to arrest him. Matt simply smirks, telling him to go ahead & tell the rest of the inmates at Ryker's Island that the dreaded Kingpin got his ass kicked by the blind lawyer from Hell's Kitchen, and see how that works out for him.
  • Astro City: Crackerjack (in costume) accidentally "unmasks" himself when his apartment building catches fire.
    Oh no—! My record collection!
    • Also, the Silver Agent's identity is revealed when he is convicted of murder. His real name is included on the memorial statue erected after he is executed and exonerated, in that order.
  • Darkwing Duck accidentally revealed that he was Drake Mallard at his high school reunion. He later hypnotized The Masquerade back into place.
    • A Disney Adventures comic featured a villain who became The Dreaded among superheroes because of his knack at unmasking them. All of his victims retired in shame. When he targets Darkwing, however, Gosalyn reminds them all why they became heroes in the first place, and they team up to take him down.
  • Happened once a season in Sailor Moon. Except for the fourth, because all the main characters knew each other's identities at that point. Frankly, how ANYONE remains oblivious to thier identities when they maintain the same features and hairstyles owes Clark Kent's glasses a fiver...
  • Iron Man ends with Tony Stark revealing his identity at a press conference originally intended to do the opposite.
  • In the Grand Finale of Power Rangers in Space, all the Rangers reveal their civilian identities to the public. Power Rangers Time Force has Wes get his visor cracked while attacking a monster and his dad susses out his identity.
  • In seasons one and two of Heroes, Claire Bennet was hunted by her adoptive father's Company, for the purpose of becoming the subject of brutal biological experiments due to her ability.
    • In the series' final scene she unmasks herself to the world.
  • Years ago, Ms. Might of the Whateley Universe had her husband killed, her children terrorized, and her house destroyed when an old enemy learned her secret identity. Now that she's Lady Astarte and the headmistress of Whateley Academy, she's a real stickler on the 'secret identity' and 'no threatening students' families' rules.
  • Danny did this in the Grand Finale of Danny Phantom on the urgings of his sister and his parents. Now the whole goddamn world knows who he is. Fans were mixed.
  • Ben 10: Ultimate Alien, the third in a continuity of shows, starts the first episode with this trope.
  • Right at the end of a Bananaman episode, Bananaman's power runs out and he turns back into Eric right in front of TV cameras and a studio audience. This is just a one-off joke and nothing comes of it.
  • Happened in the final season of Hannah Montana.
  • Parodied in one episode of SpongeBob SquarePants where Mr. Krabs and Plankton decided to switch places. In the end, Spongebob and everyone notice that they were dressed like each other, Spongebob and Patrick then proceed to unmask each other, revealing each other to be various people, such as Sandy, Squidward, and even each other.
  • Used twice in All Fall Down: once to reveal to the reader who the Ghoul really is, and again when Sophie reveals her identity to her best friend, Grace.
  • Happens in Worm when Coil leaks the civilian identities of every member of the Nazi supervillain group Empire 88 to the local media. This backfires spectacularly. Used again when Dragon and Defiant attack supervillain Skitter in her civilian identity at a local public school.
  • In the prequel comics of Injustice: Gods Among Us had Superman reveal his identity to the world in front of the United Nations building as he begins his quest for "peace". He later attempts to reveal Batman's on TV, but when Bats stops that signal, he quickly goes to the one thing he apparently can't stop: Twitter.
  • Fresh Pretty Cure! had the main heroines reveal their identities to their parents and close friends prior to the final battle. HeartCatch Pretty Cure! makes the assumption when Tsubomi tells the survivors of Dune's desertification to get into her grandmother's greenhouse and she, Erika, Itsuki and Yuri stay behind. She also ends up saying her Pre-Asskicking One-Liner prior to all of that in front of everyone when she snaps out of her depression and realizes things aren't all tits up.
  • Spider-Man has, over the course of over 50 years had several unmaskings; whether it was the Green Goblin finding out his arch-enemy was his son's best friend, Aunt May finding a sleeping & battered Peter with his destroyed costume on the floor, and the various unmaskings to other heroes in the Marvel Universe, before culminating with him willingly unmasking himself as Peter Parker during the Civil War. And then literally making a deal with the Devil, after revealing his identity gets his Aunt May shot, to erase his marriage from history in exchange for Aunt May's life & his secret identity. He has since unmasked again to the Fantastic Four, and the post-Secret Invasion New Avengers.
    • His Ultimate Universe counterpart had a serious problem with this. The Ultimates & S.H.I.E.L.D. figure it out because they're, well, S.H.I.E.L.D., he accidentally blabbed his Secret Identity to the X-Men after they removed his mask to check he was still breathing, Gwen Stacy found his costume, Daredevil recognized his heartbeat, most of his major enemies managed to remove his mask, and even his Principal & the Book Dumb Kong were able to figure it out. Really, the only people he willingly told were Mary Jane, the Fantastic Four & Eddie Brock. This, of course, came back to bite him in the ass as he wound up dying because the Green Goblin knew who he was, at which point it simply became public knowledge... And, apparently, Flash Thompson was the only person who didn't figure it out before then. This even extended to the mainstream Mysterio finding out who Spider-Man was, as Spider-Men revealed he'd been jumping between the two universes.
    • It's happened at least once in every Spider-Man film.
  • Forever Evil: Nightwing is publicly revealed to be Dick Grayson, in a show of force by the Crime Syndicate.


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