Hannah Montana is the first real 21st century superheroS

Pop culture has gone superhero-crazy, but almost all superheroes date from the middle of the last century. Where's the new, fresh costumed adventurer who speaks to the ringtone generation? How about Hannah Montana, the Disney Channel's superstar?

Hannah Montana travels around, using her pop-star powers to save the world. Her main superpower is popularity, which is like the perfect teen girl power. Although it's mostly off-screen, you get the impression that her life as Hannah Montana consists of non-stop charity fundraising, and making people's lives better in small but huge ways. She doesn't actually fight any giant monsters that I'm aware of, but she does "punk" the Queen of England in one episode.

Hannah Montana is the first real 21st century superheroS

But more importantly Hannah Montana revolves around that most basic of superhero concepts: the secret identity. At a time when kids are growing up accustomed to having their whole identities online — including other ideas that are alternate, pseudonymous or downright fanciful, Hannah Montana is a show about a girl who has a dual identity.

I hadn't ever watched Hannah Montana until about a week ago, when there was literally nothing on except utter trash, and Hannah seemed like the most fascinating trash on offer. And indeed, it is trashy — but it's even more fascinating than I had realized.

Hannah Montana is the first real 21st century superheroS

Here's the show's setup: Miley Cyrus plays Miley Stewart, a young girl who is secretly teen pop sensation Hannah Montana. Nobody knows that Miley is Hannah Montana, except for her family and her two closest friends. As Hannah, Miley travels the world and performs for famous people as well as sell-out crowds. As Miley, she's at the bottom of her school's social pecking order, despised by the popular girls who all worship Hannah Montana. And just like Clark Kent and Superman, the means by which she transforms her identity borders on magical realism — she becomes Hannah by putting on a chintzy blonde wig and a bit of makeup, and nobody ever recognizes her as Miley. It's pretty amazing.

And Miley's real-life dad, Billy Ray Cyrus, plays her dad on the show, Robby Stewart. Unlike his real-life incarnation as a super-famous Country-Western singer, Billy Ray's character on the show appears to be unemployed, and all he does is sit around the house with his slacker son Jackson all day. Except when Miley turns into Hannah Montana, her dad serves as her manager and also frequently shows up to accompany her on the guitar. Because nobody must know that Miley is Hannah, her dad also wears a disguise — a giant porn mustache. Nobody can tell that he's the same guy with and without that giant mustachio.

Hannah Montana is the first real 21st century superheroS

And finally, when Miley's best friend from school accompanies her on her gigs as Hannah Montana, she puts on a ridiculous blue wig and becomes a totally different person. It's amazing.

So far, every episode of the show I've watched has revolved around Hannah's dual identity, and the trouble she goes to so that nobody will ever know that Miley is the famous Hannah Montana. Often, there's some annoying/vexing situation faced by Miley in her "civilian" identity, which she could solve easily as Hannah, because everything is at her fingertips when she's in her superstar mode. But she has to solve her real-life problems as Miley, rather than resorting to using her clout as Hannah, because it's important for her to live a "normal" life. Also, if she makes the mistake of showing up someplace as Hannah, then she instantly becomes the center of attention, putting her friends and family in the shade. The show's theme tune, "Best Of Both Worlds," refers to the fact that Miley/Hannah lives a double life in which she's both a regular girl and a superstar.

In the big-screen Hannah Montana movie, all of the classic features of the "secret identity" storyline are cranked up to the maximum — there's a nosy reporter who's determined to find out Hannah Montana's secret. She starts developing a romantic relationship with Travis, her childhood sweet heart — at one point, she meets him as Hannah, and encourages him to ask Miley out. (Somehow, even Travis doesn't realize they're the same girl with different hair.) But when he does ask her out, she's stuck having dinner with the mayor as Hannah, and she keeps trying to go back and forth between the mayor's dinner and her date with Travis — until she's caught out, and Travis dumps her. In the climactic scene, Hannah is on stage performing at a concert, and Travis walks in. She decides she can't live this double life any more, so she pulls her wig off and reveals to the crowd that she's really Miley. But the sold-out crowd begs her to keep being Hannah Montana, and everybody promises to keep her secret — including the reporter, who's taken a picture of Hannah "unmasked," using his cameraphone.

Hannah Montana is the first real 21st century superheroS

It's interesting to see a show that's so explicitly about secret identities, since actual superhero narratives in the past decade or so have had such a hard time with the "secret identity" concept. The Spider-Man movies made a big point of unmasking Spidey every chance they got, especially the second one. Tony Stark "comes out" as Iron Man at the end of the first movie, and the second movie is all about him being superheroic in the public eye (so that, like all celebrities, he has no privacy and no division between public and private.) In Smallville, Clark Kent's only superheroic identity is "The Blur," whose identity and nature are, well... blurry. The only major recent superhero narrative that I can think of that deals with the consequences of keeping a dual identity is The Dark Knight, in which Bruce Wayne is under pressure to reveal his true identity for almost the entire film, and the film concludes with Batman taking on a new false identity, that of wanted criminal. In comics, Spider-Man's biggest recent storyline was his public unmasking (which was, admittedly, later undone by Satan) and the DC Comics heroes all call each other "Bruce" and "Clark" and so on, even when they're out in public wearing their costumes.

Hannah Montana is the first real 21st century superheroS

Back in May, we linked to an essay which Iron Man director Jon Favreau had tweeted, calling Iron Man the first 21st century superhero, because he lives his life totally in public and is intertwined with technology. But in many ways, Hannah Montana is the real 21st century superheroic archetype — like Tony Stark, she mostly saves the world off-screen — and her popularity suggests the "secret identity" concept isn't as irrelevant as a lot of people might have thought. In fact, Hollywood may discover there's a lot more mileage (no pun intended) in the idea of superheroes having secret identities than anyone realized.

Because that's the thing — we're all used to living our lives in the Panopticon of the internet, with everything happening in public thanks to Twitter and Facebook and whatever Foursquare is calling itself this week. But we're also comfortable with the idea of having different identities in different situations, and my sense is that's more true for kids than for everyone else. The internet doesn't just lay our lives bare and expose everything we do, like some kind of gigantic cyber-strip search — it also makes it easier to create different avatars for different parts of our lives. Both literally, in the case of MMOs and virtual worlds like Second Life, and figuratively, in the sense of having different identities on message boards and social networks. What R.D. Laing wrote in The Divided Self (1964) — that we're all fragmented individuals, putting on different fronts in different contexts — is even truer in the internet era.

So Hannah Montana is actually more emblematic of the era we live in than Tony Stark, and the very flimsiness of her disguise — and the fact that everybody accepts it in spite of how flimsy it is — speak to our condition as well. Actually that word "in spite of" seems misleading — as the movie reveals by having her unmask publicly, people accept the disguise because it is so obviously fake. The cheapness and weakness of the disguise encourages everybody to collude in making it successful. Smack a wig on Miley and a Burt Reynolds 'stache on Billy Ray, and everybody will swear they're totally different people. Because if you admit that the wig and the 'stache aren't totally convincing, then you're depriving Hannah Montana of her power to save the world. And who would want to do that?