I had this plan to extol the virtues of being a cinema purist when it came to Superman. I will always see Christopher Reeve as the Man of Steel, no matter who plays him on film. However, since I haven’t seen the newest take and I am not really a comic book buff, I didn’t feel right drawing comparisons and casting criticisms against anyone.
However, I did want to take a stab at comparing the genre of superheroes and comic books and secret identities. I found myself unable to sleep last night and thought on early versions of who would be considered falling into the mold of a “superhero” or comic book character.
One of the earliest pieces of literature I have read was The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Emmuska Orczy. It tells the story of the events that occur during the French Revolution. This is the stuff everyone thinks about when they aren’t thinking of the plot of Les Miserables. Basically, the commoners rose up and ousted the monarchy, executing nobles with the guillotine. While their complaints and anger were not misplaced, the extreme measures were barbaric in nature and probably didn’t score them any points as French heroes, though they were more or less regarded as such.
At the center of the story is a foppish and wealthy baronet by the name of Sir Percy Blakeney. While he exudes a playboy attitude, caring more about fashion and high class topics than current events across the Channel. However, it is merely a disguise, a misdirection, that he uses to hide the fact that he is indeed an avenger of the nobility and rescues them in secret from their captors. As a master of disguise and excellent swordsman he eludes Revolutionaries at every turn, leaving a calling card of a scarlet pimpernel.
Sound familiar? Rich, well to do playboy, pretending to be dim, all the while using a secret identity to fight crime. Yep. I thought that, too. Sir Percy is a sort of French Bruce Wayne. He even has a wife, an actress named Marguerite, who is unaware of his identity. In fact, it becomes a plot point that he thinks she has betrayed her class by taking revenge against the Marquis de St. Cyr. He had ordered her brother beaten for being involved with his daughter and Marguerite’s action led to the death or the Marquis and his sons at the hands of the guillotine.
Soon, Marguerite becomes distant from her husband, thinking more fondly of this dashing and damned elusive Pimpernel, which unbeknownst to her is really her husband. This is another trope in superhero genre comics and stories where the secret identity is left to watch the person they love more enamored with the hero than the everyday persona they use as a façade. Think of Superman/Clark Kent and the relationship with Lois Lane.
Hell, the character’s name is a comic book hero name, The Scarlet Pimpernel. Color and object combination. Green Arrow anyone?
Of course, in the end, she learns the truth, in a way that I found to be reminiscent in a lot of films, like the end of The Usual Suspects. My favorite adaptation was the 1982 miniseries with Anthony Andrews and Jane Seymour, where she sees the obvious clues laid in front of her, suddenly connecting all the dots and her now, newly discovered knowledge, deepens her love for her estranged husband and she becomes a pseudo member of "The League of The Scarlet Pimpernel."
Marguerite Discovers Percy's Secret
Kujan Puts It All Together
In fact if you watch the 1982 or even the 1934 version with Leslie Howard, you can see a line drawn from the tropes or conventions from those adaptations to movies or stories told today. The disguises, the switches, the twists are very much present. The bad guy as a camp foil, his fashion sense mocked even in combat. AND IT’S MAGNETO HIMSELF!
But, but, I heard the firing squad shoot you!
So, if you are a diehard comic book fan, pick up a copy of Orczy’s novel or go find the movie adaptations and see how a 1905 character foreshadows a lot of your modern day hero conventions. Sink me!