The Real Remington Steele
"As is the case with comic continuity, Magneto supposedly died, but then it turns out that he just faked his death by impersonating a new character, and it was all some plan to Take Over the World and engage in hypocritical acts before he's killed again, but then it turns out it's not really him and-the-character-he-made-up-was-actually-a-real-person-who's-still-alive-so-Magneto-was-actually-some-guy-impersonating-another-guy-impersonating-Magneto."
A new character appears on the scene, usually with a noticeable air of mystery surrounding him or her. Eventually, the mask (literal or metaphorical) is removed, and the stranger turns out to be a disguise created by an established character for some purpose.
But—by this point, the company has had to devote a significant amount of collective effort detailing the false guise; it has a name and an image, and hence represents a potential trademark. It'd be a waste to just throw it away.
So, naturally, another heretofore unknown character pops up to become the "real" bearer of that identity. Sometimes this is simply an opportunist taking up the unused mantle; sometimes, it involves a Retcon establishing the guise as a preexisting character.
Named for the TV series Remington Steele, whose premise had P.I. Laura Holt concoct a fictitious male employer to head her detective agency and thus appease chauvinist expectations of potential customers. After that, an anonymous rogue hijacked the identity (and thus the agency) himself.
Anime and Manga
- In Eyeshield 21, protagonist Sena Kobayakawa is forced to play football disguised as the titular player, who allegedly played football at a prep school for Notre Dame. In the arc for the Poseidons team during the Fall Tournament, he learns that there actually was a Japanese player at Notre Dame's prep school only known as "Eyeshield 21"—and that he's one of the other athletes in the tournament.
- It was revealed eventually that Hayato Akaba of the Bando Spiders was Eyeshield 21... but not the player Kakei had faced, who turned out to be Yamato Takeru of the Teikoku Alexanders. In the final chapter, it's revealed that eventually Sena himself becomes the real Eyeshield 21 at Notre Dame prep for a time.
- In Ikki Tousen Great Guardians... The "Saji Genpou" we know is actually Ouin Shishi (Wang Yun); the big bad of Great Guardians is the Fighter with the real magatama of Zuo Ci, a Little Miss Badass young woman who is the true Saji Genpou as well as the local Dark Magical Girl, and the "other" Saji might be in love with her or at elast care sincerely for her.
- Gundam: The Origin, an alternate retelling of Mobile Suit Gundam, introduces a real Char Aznable, who befriended Identical Stranger Casval Deikun shortly before both enrolled in the Zeon military. Casval then sets Char up, switching their ID papers and having Char take a shuttle he knows is rigged to explode in an assassination attempt. Following this, Casval assumes Char's identity and the rest is history.
- The novel Gundam Unicorn briefly toyed with the notion that Full Frontal, the story's Char Clone, was in fact the real Char, who survived the shuttle bomb all those decades ago.
- Gall Force featured a girl named Catty, who turned out to be one of a series of androids. Another Catty appears in the sequel, and in the third story, the original Catty the androids were based off of appears.
- In the 1960s, Cyclops adopted the identity of "Erik the Red" to infiltrate a villain's confidence. In the 1970s, a new Erik the Red appeared, this time an alien agent named Davan Shakari with no connection to the original plot and no particular reason to use the identity (or for that matter, any reason to not use his real name; it's not like he had a civilian life on Earth to conceal). Cyclops actually expressed his confusion at this, pointing out that "Erik the Red" was simply his own disguise.
- In the 90s, another storyline saw the return of the Erik the Red identity, who was even Lampshaded in the text as being someone else we knew in disguise. Later, it turned out that he was Magneto, who has at times gone by the alias of "Erik Lehnsherr".
- In 2001, writer Grant Morrison added a character named Xorn to the X-Men, a Chinese dissident sealed behind a skull-like metal mask to contain his powers. In 2003, Xorn unmasked himself as a disguise for Magneto. But the editors didn't like the idea of Magneto (and Xorn, technically) being Killed Off for Real at the end of the arc (nor did they care much for the way Magneto's character was portrayed despite Morrison's rationalizations), and asked incoming writer Chuck Austen to handle the situation. Under Austen's changes, it was now the real Xorn who had pretended to be Magneto, who had pretended to be his identically masked twin brother, also named Xorn, who joined the team.
- That Xorn has since turned up: turns out he was just misguided, and has since decided the world needs the real Magneto again, repowering him after his depowerment in House of M. Some fans are angry, others are just confused.
- During the "Identity Crisis" storyline, Spider-Man adopted four separate disguises (Dusk, Hornet, Prodigy, and Ricochet) to operate while framed for murder. After the storyline's resolution, a Golden Age hero who had nothing to do with Spidey obtained the abandoned costumes and gave them to four new characters, who he trained to form the short-lived Slingers.
- Justice League of America: An apparent sorcerer named Bloodwynd joined the Justice League in the early 1990s. Eventually this turned out to be the Martian Manhunter, forced to impersonate the real Bloodwynd, who was trapped inside the magic gem the Manhunter had been wearing during the impersonation. This sometimes got really screwed up when Martian Manhunter appeared on the cover at the same time...
- In The Silver Age of Comic Books, Superman and Jimmy Olsen occasionally adventured inside the shrunken Kryptonian city of Kandor where Superman's powers didn't function, and adopted the Batman-and-Robin-inspired identities of Nightwing and Flamebird. They were later replaced by Kandorian scientist Van-Zee (Superman's Identical Stranger) and his lab assistant Ak-Var. Then Nightwing became Dick Grayson's post-Robin identity; Flamebird has also been used by established characters Post-Crisis (including, ironically enough, Betty Kane, who in the original continuity was the overly feminine Batgirl who fought crime with cosmetics). And now all of the Kandorians have been set loose. There was also a brief period when Supergirl and Power Girl assumed the identities of Flamebird and Nightwing while operating inside Kandor.
- The character of "Wonder Girl" originally appeared as the teenaged incarnation of Wonder Woman (just as the original Superboy was the youthful identity of Superman). When the Teen Titans were created in the 1960s, Wonder Girl was added to the team but the Titans were contemporaries of the Justice League of America, and by extension of Wonder Woman. Thus the real Wonder Girl was explained four years later to be Donna Troy, an orphan rescued by Wonder Woman and raised among the Amazons. (This explanation would be subjected to repeated further revisions due to the DC Universe's constant reboots and retoolings, with the result being that Donna has an impossibly convoluted history even for a comic book character.)
- The blue lightning-themed costume worn by Superman during his "Electric Superman" phase was passed on to a woman, who adopted the name "Strange Visitor".
- Squadron Supreme started as JLA supervillain Expies, but later it was retconned that they're evil duplicates of alternate universe heroes.
- In Deadpool, Deadpool himself is convinced he's Wade Wilson (he isn't), and though Agent X claims to be the real deal, doubt has been cast on the assertation. It isn't helped that T-Ray also claims to be the real Wade Wilson.
- For a while who the real Wade is varied Depending on the Writer, now it's just Who the Hell Knows. (Both 'Pool and T-Ray are kind of nuts, so you really can't take either of them at their word)
- "Ronin" seems to be the current go-to identity at the moment for The Avengers. It was first used by Echo (though original plans meant for it to be Daredevil), and now Hawkeye is using it. And when a "Ronin" shows up in Ultimate Spider-Man (an Alternate Universe), it turns out to be Moon Knight.
- Speaking of Ultimate Marvel, the Ultimate version of Black Panther turns out to be Captain America, covering for the real Panther.
- Shortly after the Watergate scandal and resignation of President Richard Nixon, Steve Rogers abandoned the identity of Captain America and adopted the new identity of Nomad, the man without a country. After a few months, Rogers returned to fighting crime as Captain America. Years later, Jack Monroe (aka Bucky), formerly the Sidekick of the Captain America of the 1950's, took up the mantle of Nomad.
- Slightly Averted in a later storyline, when the U.S. government attempts to assert control over Captain America. Steve Rogers allows them to take the name, costume and shield away from him rather than become a government lapdog, only to don a Palette Swapped costume and fight crime as "The Captain". When Rogers eventually reclaims the Captain America identity, the individual the government had placed as Captain America was given the "Captain" uniform, but was re-dubbed "The U.S. Agent".
- Spider-Man recently introduced a new heroine called Jackpot, who is probably best known so far for maybe possibly potentially being Mary Jane Watson. It wasn't, but no sooner did we find that out than the girl was killed. This girl is intended to be the "Uncle Ben" for the original Jackpot, who came up with the identity but passed it off to someone else as she didn't want the Great Responsibility.
- The "original" Jackpot (Sara Ehret) then receives an epic chewing out by Spidey for her Refusal of the Call resulting in an innocent's death which prompts her to take the identity for real...and shortly afterwards a villain learns her true identity (by utter coincidence) and sends a thug to kill her husband in front of their daughter, forcing both to go into hiding under false identities. Man, Spidey's rotten luck really is contagious, huh?
- Many fans thought the Irredeemable Ant-Man's use of the "Slaying Mantis" identity would result in him eventually having to face off against the real Slaying Mantis, but as of this writing, no dice.
- Thunderbolts: In the original version, Baron Zemo was disguised as "Citizen V", a Legacy Character for an obscure patriotic hero who fought alongside La Résistance during World War II. After the betrayed The Commissioner Gordon character Dallas Riordan assumes the identity, and much other Hilarity Ensuing, a disembodied Zemo finds himself in possession of the body of a real descendant of the original Citizen V.
- Inversion: one of the hinted identities for the Batman villain Hush was his dead sidekick Jason Todd, the second Robin. While this turned out to not be the case, the writers at DC Comics decided to bring back Jason Todd for real in a later story arc.
- Sonic the Hedgehog: Fiona Fox was originally introduced as a robot created by Dr. Robotnik to seduce Tails and ultimately roboticize him, but ended up being destroyed. A few years later, we find out that the robot was based on the real Fiona, who had been Robotnik's prisoner. The real Fiona became a recurring character, and ultimately, recurring villain, as she ended up pulling a Face Heel Turn to be Scourge's girlfriend.
- One arc in the Batman comics explained how Batman had appropriated the identity of dead criminal 'Matches' Malone as cover for infiltrating the underworld. However, it turns out the real 'Matches' is not dead and he comes back, wanting to know who has been impersonating him.
- An odd Fanfic example occurs in the Tokyo Mew Mew fandom; when Ao no Kishi, the Mysterious Protector, was revealed to be the series' most frequent victim of Die for Our Ship. Shippers were not happy and rewrote him as one of the other guys... even when the series would stop making sense if it were true.
- The end of Irma La Douce is much like the Avatar short mentioned below. Throughout, the protagonist (a French cop) had impersonated a Quintessential British Gentleman, and was ultimately jailed for murdering his alter-ego. He's unexpectedly freed at the end when unexpectedly, a real person who looks and acts exactly like his fake identity shows up.
- The Importance of Being Earnest sees a character pretending to be his own fictitious younger brother called Ernest only to have a woman fall in love with his Ernest persona and also have someone else turn up pretending to be Ernest.
- In an example that's like Remington Steele the series, rather than strictly this trope, Marco Denevi's noirish novel Rosaura at 10 O'Clock concerns a young man whose neighbors get on his case about not having a girlfriend, so he tells them he's having a secret affair with a married woman named "Rosaura", and he sends himself perfumed letters. Therefore, he's shocked when one day his landlady tells him, "Rosaura was here this morning asking for you".
- Harry Potter: Mad-Eye Moody.
- Well before Remington Steele was created, there was a mystery novel, The Gossip Truth (1968), in which a gossip columnist had spiced up her stories by creating a character, Simon Sherborne, who'd happened to drop by this party or that. She portrayed Simon as The Ace; any party he's at becomes more interesting because he's there. As with The Emperor's New Clothes, none of her readers wanted to admit they were so "not-with-it" that they didn't know the elegant Mr. Sherborne. Then, of course, a fellow showed up saying he was Simon Sherborne, and seeming just as cool as the fiction whose name he claimed....
- In Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, it turns out that the Klingons were being manipulated into fighting The Federation by a shapeshifter, and so our heroes go undercover to expose the Klingon leader Gowron... only it's not Gowron, it's Gowron's right hand man, Martok. The producers so liked J. G. Hertzler's performance of Martok that they soon had the real Martok be discovered at a Dominion prison and eventually rescued, becoming a major Recurrer.
- Family Matters: The "Stefan" character started out as a chemically-induced, temporary transformation of Urkel. Eventually, Steve was cloned, and the clone decided to permanently become Stefan. This one was a case of Real Life Writes the Plot, as Jaleel White had become so fed up with the Urkel character that he wanted a chance to play someone more normal, and this was his chance to do so. Reportedly one of White's favorite roles to play was the Bruce Lee Clone, who was neither Steve or Stefan and in many ways was more ridiculous than both of them could ever be.
- On Scrubs, Elliot gets tired of "Dr. Eliot Reid" being presumed to be a man, so she pretends to be "his" nurse in order to quiet down a sexist patient. When he becomes skeptical, she gets the Janitor to fill in as "Dr. Reid".
- Luann: A plotline culminated in the revelation that the Gunther she'd been talking to for several weeks was actually her longtime crush Aaron Hill in an elaborate costume, trying to make some kind of point. If only I could remember what that point was. If only I could remember how he supposedly got the real Gunther to cooperate.
- Planescape: Torment: The nameless protagonist has the option to tell almost everyone he meets that his name is "Adahn". Since the game is set in the belief-shaped Outer Planes, if he does this enough, a "real" Adahn will appear.
- Super Mario Bros.. 2 turned out to be All Just a Dream, but the enemies in it later turned up in non-dream Mario games.
- Used in Dragon Quest IX, with the first Lleviathan being Johanna's dead father affected by a Fygg. The real one makes an appearance in the Playable Epilogue, but only if you accept Johanna's quest after defeating the Big Bad.
- Professor Layton and the Curious Village: Don Paolo disguises himself as the well-known Inspector Chelmey. The real Chelmey turns up in the second game.
- In the Kingdom Hearts franchise, we have the name and identity of Ansem, which is initially used by Xehanort. Unusually for the trope, the real Ansem is practically nothing like the fake one, in terms of looks, personality, motivations, or moral alignment.
- In Teen Titans, there's a situation similar to Eric the Red above: a mysterious new criminal named Red X seeks to partner with the Titans' enemy Slade; he turns out to be an alias of Robin used in an unsuccessful ploy to investigate and/or capture Slade. In later episodes, the Red X costume is stolen by an unknown thief, essentially identical to the persona being portrayed by Robin, even still sharing Robin's voice actor. In this case, he's basically Robin's Shadow Archetype. It's never revealed who stole the Red X suit, but given the Teen Titans cartoon ignored everyone's civilian identities, it's presumably just be some random thief who happens to match Robin's martial arts skills (odd in itself given that Robin was trained by Batman). Red X explicitly was not any previously-introduced character from the cartoon, though.
- A variation of this trope occurs in Gargoyles. In the "City of Stone" arc, baddie Macbeth has appropriated the legacy of The Hunter, an identity used by several characters roughly a thousand years ago as part of several vendettas (including several against him). Later on in the season, it is revealed that the original legacy had survived, and we meet a trio of "real" Hunters.
- In the Avatar: The Last Airbender short "School Time Shipping", Haru, Jet, and Zuko compete to see who will accompany Katara to the dance; who does she go with? Zuko's Alter Ego, the Blue Spirit!
- Zuko: "I did not see that one coming."
- Buzz Lightyear of Star Command featured the character Shiv Katall, a bounty hunter hired by Zurg to hunt down defectors from his organization. Unknown to him, Katall was actually Buzz in disguise (and before him, Commander Nebula). Unfortunately the ruse was inadvertently exposed by Buzz's team. Some time after this however, Shiv Katall mysteriously reappears, his identity taken by Evil Buzz Lightyear.
- A variation: The South Park episode 'Not Without My Anus' - later revealed to be an in-universe television special - features a journalist/court prosecutor named Scott as a villain. Years later, in 'It's Christmas in Canada' the kids meet a real Scott. This Scott was introduced with five words: "That's Scott. He's a dick."
- In The Simpsons, one of Bart's crank calls to Moe's involves asking for a "Hugh Jass". The difference is that this time Moe actually finds a guy named Hugh Jass in his tavern, which Bart does not anticipate. The guy turns out to be nice enough to let him off the hook however.
- Throughout King of the Hill, Dale often uses the fake name "Rusty Shackleford," apparently the name of an old classmate who died when he was in the third grade. In an episode in the last few seasons, the real Rusty Shackleford confronts him. Turns out he just moved away.