Comics’ Biggest Mystery: Why Does Nobody Ever Recognise Superheros?

With the exception of Tony Stark’s Iron Man, who relished the idea, the first rule of the superhero club is to avoid being recognized on the streets. The reason for this is obvious: it prevents colleagues, loved ones, and otherwise innocent people from becoming collateral damage. To quote Batman in 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises, “the mask isn’t for you. It’s to protect the people you care about”.

Of course, one of the defining elements of comic book stories is that almost everybody wears a mask or disguise of some description. These range from outfits covering the entire body, such as Deadpool’s iconic red and black jumpsuit, to something maddeningly simple, like Clark Kent’s glasses. However, the most recent portrayal of Superman in Man of Steel (2013) largely abandoned Clark’s classic disguise.

Batman’s villains

Disguises often inject a bit of symbolism into a character’s story, too. In a place like Gotham City or Hell’s Kitchen (Daredevil’s setting), fear is a major motivator, and both Batman and the Scarecrow’s costumes are designed to instill this emotion in their opponents. Batman’s costume is symbolic of the fact that Bruce Wayne is afraid of bats, while Scarecrow’s Dr. Jonathan Crane is obsessed with fear as a weapon.

An infographic from ExpressVPN did a bit of a deep dive on disguises worn by Batman villains, revealing that the line between costume and real appearance can sometimes be blurred. In many depictions, The Joker, Mr. Freeze, and Two-Face aren’t actually in disguise at all. They all fell foul of accidents and the villain persona took over. Now, their original personality barely exists, if at all.

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There are plenty of more (visually) mundane baddies in Batman’s universe, including Catwoman, Poison Ivy, and Riddler, who served as the antagonist in Matt Reeves’ 2022 movie The Batman. These characters all wear their own, homemade disguises and may even have a day job to decrease suspicion. For example, Poison Ivy, whose real name is Dr. Pamela Isley, works as a botanist.

Superman

The question that needs asking is why does nobody ever recognize these feuding armies of cape-wearers on the street? With Superman, it’s possible to get quite scientific in order to find an answer. An article published in Applied Cognitive Psychology states that face blindness, i.e. being unable to recognize somebody, is quite common in humans, as we struggle to overcome even minor facial changes.

The paper notes that, while Lois Lane would be able to recognize Superman even with Clark’s glasses on, a stranger who knows the superhero’s face (but not the man personally) would be confused by the simple addition of a pair of spectacles. Believe it or not, the study mentioned was actually trying to find a way to improve the recognition of people from passport photos to improve security.

For Batman, whose costume is much more than a measly face mask, the reason nobody ever recognizes him as Bruce Wayne is much darker – why would a billionaire businessman care about a hellscape like Gotham City?

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