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.
- Happens once a season in Sailor Moon. Except for the fourth, because all the main characters know each other's identities at that point. Frankly, how ANYONE remains oblivious to their identities when they maintain the same features and hairstyles owes Clark Kent's glasses a fiver...
- 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-Ass-Kicking 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.
- 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.
- In Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Batman's identity as Bruce Wayne is revealed after Batman fakes his death in a fight with Superman.
- 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.
- 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 Bart's 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.
- Astro City:
- Crackerjack (in costume) accidentally "unmasks" himself when his apartment building catches fire.
Crackerjack: 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.
- Crackerjack (in costume) accidentally "unmasks" himself when his apartment building catches fire.
- Darkwing Duck:
- Darkwing Duck accidentally reveals that he is Drake Mallard at his high-school reunion. He later hypnotizes 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.
- 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.
- Injustice: Gods Among Us has 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.
- 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.
- Forever Evil: Nightwing is publicly revealed to be Dick Grayson, in a show of force by the Crime Syndicate.
- Superman: Truth, a storyline in the post-Convergence Superman comics, sees Clark's secret identity revealed to the world.
- Disney Ducks Comic Universe:
- A frequent plot point are the lengths to which Paperinik (Donald Duck's superhero/antihero alter ego) goes to protect his secret identity. Sometimes he fails, at which point whoever found out his identity is fed a memory-erasing candy.
- He actually reveals his identity to Gyro in the second story. That's where the candies come from: Gyro, not trusting himself with the secret, reveals the memory-erasing candies' existence and takes one. Since then, whenever the situation forces Paperinik to reveal his identity, Gyro takes one of the candies as soon he doesn't need to know anymore — or, as revealed in Paperinik New Adventures, every time he finds out on his own.
- Mickey actually knows, having deduced it. He never tells anyone, not even to Donald.
- A few characters in Paperinik New Adventures know and, for various reasons, cannot have their memories of it erased. This actually showed why Paperinik is so protective of his identity: a Bad Future had the time-travelling criminal the Gryphon frame him as a terrorist and expose his identity, ruining his life and forcing his family and loved ones to leave Duckburg in shame.
- Happens frequently in Miraculous Ladybug fanfiction. Usually between the two heroes (who have a Mutual Masquerade in canon) but occasionally with their respective friends or families. There are also a few notable public reveal stories, such as Spots Off.
- Waiting is worth it: When Izuku accidentally losing full control of his quirk in the Tournament Arc, gravity is cancelled out in the entire stadium. This brings up various concerns, as not only did everyone in the stadium witness first hand Izuku's raw power, but by extension the rest of the world through broadcasting. This is seen as a problem, as Izuku's mother, All Might, UA and by extension the entire Japanese government has been trying to keep Izuku's power a secret for fear of any villain wanting to use his powers despite having grown up to defend himself. At best, he would be seen as nothing more than an asset like all other celebrities, at worst other governments would see him as a weapon of mass destruction.
- In the 2003 Daredevil film, the Kingpin threatens to reveal that Daredevil's Matt Murdock after being beaten and with the knowledge the police are on their way to arrest him. Matt simply smirks, telling him to go ahead and 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.
- Iron Man ends with Tony Stark revealing his identity at a press conference originally intended to do the opposite.
- Power Rangers:
- 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.
- Scarecrow reveals Batman's identity as Bruce Wayne in the climax of Batman: Arkham Knight, though he's less interested in Batman's identity, and more interested in making all of Gotham experience true fear, by destroying their symbol of hope. Once the cowl comes off, Scarecrow's reaction is along the lines of "Bruce Wayne? Well, that's not who I expected."
- 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.
- 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. Overall 'unmasking' someone is widely regarded as a bad move, breaking one of the unwritten rules that keeps supervillain/superhero conflicts on a manageable scale. As with Empire 88 it makes the villains desperate and in the case of a hero can ruin their personal life.
- Danny does this in the Grand Finale of Danny Phantom on the urging of his sister and his parents. Now the whole 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.
- Parodied in one episode of SpongeBob SquarePants where Mr. Krabs and Plankton decide to switch places. In the end, SpongeBob and everyone notice that they are 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.
- Happens several times in Spider-Man: The Animated Series:
- The Sinister Six unmasks him once. Fortunately, Peter's powers are on the fritz at the time, so they think Peter is just pretending to be Spider-Man.
- Eddie Brock finds out the truth when the Venom symbiote bonds to him, since Peter was the symbiote's previous host.
- Peter intentionally unmasks himself in one episode to a terminally ill little girl as a parting gift after she helped him.
- After rescuing Mary Jane from yet another threat as Spider-Man, he can't hold himself back anymore and declares his love for her. Mary rejects him, saying she is already in love with Peter Parker. After hearing this, Peter decides it is time to reveal the truth. She takes it pretty well after the initial shock and they eventually get married. Too bad she is actually a clone of the real Mary Jane. Even worse, one with Clone Degeneration...