I imagine that every child has fantasized about being a superhero at some time or another. To fly like Superman or run like the Flash or have the cool car and gadgets of Batman sounds like a great deal of fun.
But there’s another side to being a superhero and that is the secret identity. Some heroes have gone to great lengths to make certain they will not even remotely be suspected of being their alter-ego in their civilian guises. Sometimes their efforts to protect their identity cause them to pay a high price in terms of their happiness.
Several years ago I wrote an article on the use of mature themes in theatrical versions of 80s cartoon series. In that article, I specifically referenced the lengths Prince Adam would go in order to preserve his secret that he was actually Eternia’s greatest hero: He-Man. This article will feature an analysis of the price Adam paid to protect his secret identity.
Adam is very fruitful ground for analysis as he is the only hero that I’m aware of who has actually had stories dedicated to the crushing burden of protecting his secret. Also, unlike most other heroes, the danger consistently comes to Adam as he is part of the royal family so he is usually placed in a position of peril instead of seeking out wrongs to be righted. Since he is pulled into conflicts on a regular basis, Adam often has to extricate himself briefly in order to switch identities which leads to the risk of his being perceived as a coward by family and allies.
Since he was part of the group often under siege, many have wondered why Adam bothered keeping it a secret that he was actually He-Man. But there is an excellent reason for keeping his identity under wraps. If his enemies knew his secret, all they would have to do is hold one of his friends or family members (or really anybody) hostage and threaten to kill them if He-Man ever appeared again. Or they would simply find a way to get to and eliminate Adam before he could change.
Adam’s longing to share his secret so he could always be his true self was such an interesting study that it actually became a plot point on two separate occasions. Once in the original 80s series and again in the reboot in the early 2000s.
In the 80s series, the topic was visited in the story “Prince Adam No More” which was written by Paul Dini who would go on to greater fame as the creative force behind Batman: The Animated Series and he knew how to write a compelling story that would engage both children and adults and was unafraid to throw in an emotional gut punch along the way.
The thrust of the story was that Adam’s father, King Randor, was set to begin the annual tour of Eternia and he always chooses someone to be his royal guard. Adam hopes, and is fairly confident, that he will be chosen. While he’s discussing the topic with Man-At-Arms, the court jester, Orko, accidentally gets trapped in an Attak Trak and sets it going. To save Orko and keep the palace from being destroyed by the rampaging machine, Adam transforms into He-Man to stop the tank. After saving the day, King Randor comes out and expresses his gratitude that He-Man is always there for Eternia.
Later Adam and Man-At-Arms resume their discussion and Adam, again, expresses his certainty that his father will choose him to be the guard. Man-At-Arms makes the comment that Randor hasn’t always been pleased with Adam and then Adam said something very telling. He said, “You know, as Adam, I may act like a goof now and then, but, well, that’s only to keep my secret. Besides, I’d never really do anything to make my father ashamed of me.”
Think about that. Sometimes Adam would act a little lazy, be a little clumsy or seem to be a bit unreliable, but his statement makes clear that it is just that. . .an act. Not only that, but he’s tried to be very careful to show these negative attributes in a way and at points where his father wouldn’t be embarrassed by them.
Eventually Adam and Man-At-Arms are called to the throne room where King Randor announces he has chosen He-Man to be his bodyguard for the royal tour and Adam is stunned. Immediately, he says, “But, Father, well, I thought that you and I might make this trip together.”
His father responds, “Really, Adam? But you’ve never shown any interest state affairs. Sorry, Son. I’m afraid on this trip I’ll need someone a bit more experienced. . .and reliable.” To which Adam sadly responds, “I see.”
One can truly sympathize with Adam’s heartbreak. Not only does it seem like Randor lacks faith in his son, but Adam has also been passed over for himself. It isn’t He-Man who makes Adam worthwhile. It’s the other way around. It’s Adam’s courage. . .Adam’s nobility. . .Adam’s goodness. . .and Adam’s perseverance that makes He-Man a hero.
It’s also important to remember that despite looking like a man in his early twenties (since Lou Scheimer, the series’ creator worked on the cheap and used the same cels for Adam and He-Man with subtle changes), Adam is only about 16 years old and of an age where he’d want his father to be proud of him.
Later that night, he voices these same thoughts to the Sorceress of Castle Grayskull as he tells her, “For a long time, I’ve had the power of He-Man. But to keep that power a secret, I’ve had to pretend, you know, to be careless and irresponsible. More than anything, I want to give up that disguise and make my father proud of me” before the most agonizing look of sadness comes over his face. The Sorceress reminds him of the very real danger of revealing his secret and Adam realizes that he can’t endanger friends and family, but believes he can earn his father’s respect without revealing the truth.
Adam is able to reluctantly convince his father to let him be the guard as he needs to learn how to properly rule the kingdom one day. Randor admonishes Adam that the trip is too important for Adam’s usual antics and Adam promises him that he can be relied upon.
While on the tour, Randor, Adam and Man-At-Arms are ambushed by Beast Man. Adam bravely tries to stop him, but is overpowered by the far stronger villain and left stunned. When he recovers, Man-At-Arms asks him why he didn’t transform and Adam admits he wanted to prove that he could be a hero. Man-At-Arms reminds him that he was give his powers to help others, but that nobody ever said he could use them to make himself happy.
Realizing his true responsibility, Adam changes into He-Man and rescues his father who actually joins him in the battle and admits he was a bit of a rowdy in his youth, essentially admitting he was a little irresponsible in his younger days. He also admits he loves his son and, even though he’s a little hard on him, he is proud of him. Learning this brings a great deal of peace to Adam.
It’s a truly great story that reveals the burden of Adam’s secret. He has to pretend to be something he’s not to hide the hero that he is and he does it so convincingly that he’s afraid he had truly caused his father to be ashamed of him. What a burden for a young man.
I always appreciated the fact that, ultimately, Adam would be able to show himself to be more of a hero to his father in the series’ last hurrah, The Secret of the Sword when he brings his sister, Adora, back to Eternia. Randor tells him, “Son, today you’ve made me the happiest man in all Eternia” before warmly embracing his son and you know that Adam has finally achieved his goal.
About twenty years later the idea was revisited again in the rebooted He-Man and the Masters of the Universe series in the aptly titled “The Courage of Adam”.
In this conception of the mythos, Adam was a little more deserving of his reputation of not being as princely as he ought. Not that he was lazy or cowardly, but all he had ever known was peace so he wasn’t in a rush to learn the nuts and bolts of being a good ruler. However, once Skeletor waged war upon Eternia, Adam unhesitatingly shows his bravery by accepting the mantle of He-Man to defend his planet.
This episode picks off immediately after the pilot. In that story, Adam did appear to run away from battle. But he ran to Castle Grayskull to accept the mantle of He-Man in order to be able to stop Skeletor’s onslaught. This illusion of cowardice causes the character of Teela, the captain of the guards and Man-At-Arms’ adopted daughter, to tease Adam and even his father believes that Adam, in his own words, “chickened out”.
Adam expresses his frustrations to Man-At-Arms who tells Adam he cannot reveal his secret. As in the previous series, Adam realizes this truth and says, “Yeah, no kidding. But that’s no reason that I, me, Prince Adam, can’t show that I’ve got what it takes also. And who knows? If I step up in battle, I mean REALLY step up. . .I’m no He-Man, but maybe he won’t be needed.” And this is important because this statement shows that this isn’t about Adam earning his father’s respect as in the previous story. This time, it’s about proving himself worthy to his family, friends and allies.
Man-At-Arms is quick to point out that as long as evil exists, He-Man will be needed. However, Adam simply shrugs and walks away with a smile. In his youthfulness, he’s clearly convinced that he can prove Man-At-Arms wrong. But it also shows another facet of his bravery, albeit flawed by the impetuousness of youth. So determined is he to prove himself an asset in his true form that he’s willing to sacrifice his awesome gift to do it which also puts his life infinitely more at risk.
Eventually he gets his chance when a character named Stratos seeks leave from King Randor to help his people negotiate with a difficult group of rivals. Randor offers the services of one of the Masters to accompany Stratos and Adam immediately seizes the opportunity to volunteer. Randor is quite pleased by this as he tells Adam, “It heartens me to see you showing some initiative, Son. You have my permission to accompany Stratos.” And the smile on Adam’s face tells you the satisfaction he gets from making his father proud.
Eventually Skeletor and his goons get involved and Adam fights against them as himself and acquits himself admirably until Skeletor conjures up an enemy so powerful that Adam must become He-Man to stop it.
The ending of this story is rather bittersweet as Adam looks sadly on the vista as Man-At-Arms seems to voice his thoughts, telling him, “You fought well, Adam. But I think you now see that He-Man will always be needed.”
The episode ends with Adam continuing to look on the vista with a haunted look and one knows that he does understand, but the reality of having to hide his true self saddens him.
Being a superhero could be a great deal of fun. But as we’ve seen, a lot of sacrifice goes into the decision to be a hero, especially when one’s identity must remain a secret. Truly, there is a price for courage.