Masks have always been considered a semi-obligatory part of superheroing; you can skip the whole "secret identity" thing if you want, but everyone's gonna think you're a jerk (or worse, Aquaman). With the exception of Superman, who hides behind a hair curl and a lack of glasses, almost every major comic book hero has a cowl, a helmet, a tiara, or some other way of obscuring his or her face. And for a long time, Hollywood was happy to keep things like that -- they gave Catwoman superpowers and a magic cat, but no one's touching the damn mask.
And oddly enough, as superhero movies get more and more faithful to the source material, masks are starting to get neglected. Look at the poster for Avengers: Age Of Ultron -- everyone's still dressed in a silly suit, but not a single mask in sight.
Or half a mask in sight, if you count Samuel L. Jackson.
And even if the studios are only doing that to fill every inch of the posters with as many recognizable faces as physically possible, we submit that the death of the masked hero should be cause for rejoicing. OK, that was a very Dr. Doom way of phrasing it, but what we mean is that getting rid of superheroes' masks is actually a good thing for the genre, because ...
5 The Mask (And The Nipples) Almost Killed The Batman Franchise
The rise of the charismatic superhero lead was ... bumpy. Ten years ago, the biggest superheroes on the screen were Batman and Spider-Man, who could be played by just about anyone, thanks to the fact that both characters practically have their masks tattooed to their faces. And we mean anyone. Not counting Ben Affleck, seven different actors have played Batman, two of whom can only be named by people who own life-sized Batmobile replicas. Spidey had a live-action show on CBS in the '70s, and the main actor's name was Randomguy McWhogivesashit.
And it's hard to imagine a world in which no one knows the name "Adam West," but when he was cast as Batman, his most recognizable role was in a Nestle Quik commercial. People were paying to see Batman, dammit, not an even passably good actor.
Things started to change when Michael Keaton was cast, beating out Hollywood hunks like Kevin Costner, Mel Gibson, and Bill Murray. At the time, fans were scandalized by the idea of Mr. Mom in the cowl, but all the marketing still revolved around the bat and not the man. That's why when Keaton decided to leave the franchise, the studio didn't even hesitate to recast the part with Val Kilmer. And when he left, they threw the costume and a sack of money at George Clooney (or "the guy from ER," as he was called back then). The thinking went that as long as there's a vaguely human-shaped bulk inside the Batman suit, who the hell cares who's playing Bruce Wayne?
We all know how that turned out.
Sorry, we're legally required to show you this.
That's what happens when you give more importance to the mask than the character: Memes are born. Keaton, Kilmer, and Clooney are completely different actors -- imagine how nuts it would be if Iron Man 3 started with Channing Tatum playing Tony Stark, and then in Age Of Ultron he's suddenly Dwight from The Office. On the other hand, think about the single most memorable superhero movie villain ever:
Followed closely by January Jones in a corset.
Heath Ledger's Joker still looked like Ledger in thin greasepaint, and yet he personified the character a lot more accurately than all those extravagantly-dressed assholes in the previous Batman movies. We're not saying the franchise should ditch masks altogether and turn Batman into James Bond with a cape, but it would be nice if we got a Bruce Wayne performance that was half as unique and irreplaceable as Ledger's Joker. Warner Bros. executives should shit their pants whenever a Batman actor quits, as opposed to saying, "Eh, we'll get a new one. Who has a big chin and can do silly voices?"
4 The Box Office Loves Character-Driven Superhero Stories
If you ask most people, they'll tell you that the thing that draws them to superhero movies are the huge fight scenes and explosions -- no one says "Fuck yeah, tender pathos!" as they line up for a midnight showing. And yet, how many of the fight scenes from Iron Man 3 can you describe without checking Wikipedia? They're there, sure, but they're not the most important part. This is a movie where Tony Stark spends a considerable amount of the run time stuck without his armor, telling dad jokes in Tennessee on Christmas ... and it grossed $409 million at the domestic box office.
Add a wacky minority neighbor and this is a backdoor pilot for a CBS sitcom.
That's insane. And it's all possible because we care about Tony, not just as a guy in a badass robot armor, but as a person. The old Batman and Spider-Man films were basically about the villains -- each successive installment was defined by which baddie the hero got to punch now. We got all we were going to get out of Batman himself on the first film, and after that, he was nothing but an excuse to get Uma Thurman and Jim Carrey's butts into green tights.
However, the problem with focusing on the bad guys is that you can't really get invested in them, since cinematic supervillains have the same life expectancy as cops two days away from retirement, black people in slasher flicks, and fruit flies. This, along with the constant change in actors, doomed those movies to being episodic. The third Sam Raimi Spider-Man film, with its completely-masked hero and three freaking villains, had no characters we wanted (or were able) to get invested in, and as a result it's universally recognized as one of the worst things ever.
Sorry, four freaking villains. We forgot about the evil butler mastermind.
The more these franchises advanced, the less people gave a shit -- emotionally and financially. The exact opposite is happening with Marvel's current movies, and the key to that (in conjunction with the aforementioned explosions) is that the real antagonists aren't the supervillains. Nope, the focus is on the heroes' flaws: Thor's rebellious pride, Cap's naivety and subsequent disillusionment, Hulk's anger management issues, Iron Man's compulsion to make machines that try to destroy humanity, etc.
This gives us a reason to keep coming back to these movies ... without robbing us of the essential scene where the baddie bites it in a spectacular way, of course.