Superhero Identity: Case Studies in the Avengers

The fourth essay in “The Avengers and Philosophy” is “Superhero Identity: Case Studies in the Avengers” by Stephen M. Nelson, and it examines the deep question of superhero identity: what does it mean to say that a particular hero is, in fact, that hero, especially in light of other people who take up that superhero identity, and heroes to take on multiple different identities? Captain America, for example, has been the superhero identity of Steve Rogers, Bucky Barnes, and John Walker, and the Iron Man armour has been worn by at least Tony Stark and James Rhodes. On the other hand, Hank Pym has been Ant-Man, Yellow Jacket, Goliath, Giant-Man, Wasp and even was a hero for a while under his own unadorned name (at the founding of the West Coast Avengers). So, how do we determine the unique identity of a hero. Which of the Captain Americas is the real Captain America … or all they all the real Captain America? And which superhero is Hank Pym really?

Unfortunately for Nelson, comic books and comic book fans have, er, kinda already answered that question. If you look at those lovely “Marvel Universe” type books that profile all the heroes, they end to divide up their heroes into their, er, incarnations (perhaps of immortality), by describing them as, for example “Iron Man (1)” and “Iron Man (2)”. It always been clear, then, that in comics the identity of a superhero depends critically on both the superhero name and the person adopting that name. For example, Laura Kinney is going to take on the Wolverine superhero name after Secret Wars, but she is definitely not going to be the same Wolverine that they just killed off nor the same Wolverine as “Old Man Logan”. In a sense, they are all Wolverines, but they are not the same Wolverine, because the people underneath the masks are different.

Which, then, lets us get much faster to Nelson’s final point: about adopting the mantle of a superhero. Nelson points out that actually taking on the mantle of that hero — as opposed to being a different hero with the same name — has to follow some sort of process that confers legitimacy on the adoption of the mantle. So, for John Walker, it was the government doing it who, presumably, had the right to confer the mantle of the symbol they created on whomever they wanted (although some definitely might have protested that the mantle belonged to Steve Rogers, not the government). For Iron Man, it was conferred on James Rhodes by the original Iron Man himself. For Laura Kinney and Bucky Barnes, their relationship as the protege of the original hero conferred legitimacy. For Old Man Logan, he just is a version of Wolverine, like the past X-Men are, and so what we have are alternate versions of the same mantle. But the FF’s Human Torch is not the same Human Torch that fought in WWII, and so they are two completely different and unrelated heroes with the same name and similar if not identical powers. While Nelson points out that continuity of body or mind isn’t relevant here, continuity of mantle is, and the Human Torch mantle has no continuity, while in all of the other cases there is continuity there.

So, then, what makes it reasonable to claim that John Walker is Captain America and not just another hero with the same name: the continuity of the mantle that he then picks up. This is why Laura Kinney will reasonably be taking up the actual Wolverine mantle, even if (or rather, likely when the original returns) while Johnny Storm never took up the mantle of the original Human Torch.

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