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.
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 ...
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.
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:
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?"
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.
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.
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.
When the mask was established as a standard part of every superhero's equipment, it was done so by artists who had no qualms about breaking the laws of physics in every single panel. Comic artists can subtly change the way Iron Man's helmet looks in order to produce facial expressions -- all it takes is a tiny difference in the shapes of the eyes and mouth. It's like you can see what he's thinking! Also, you can literally see what he's thinking, because it's a comic.
Meanwhile, Batman's mask in the comics is apparently made out of papier mache, since you can see every single expression line on his forehead through it:
We can't get away with that stuff in movies, and if we could, it would probably look "Ultron lips" creepy. The Iron Man movies get around this problem by showing Tony's face within his helmet, but not all franchises are that clever. Watch the first Spider-Man movie again; it's jarring, right? Not only is Spidey masked -- and thus completely expressionless -- most of the time, but they also gave an unmovable helmet to the Green Goblin ... despite the fact that he's played by Willem Dafoe, whose real face is a better Green Goblin mask than anything a props department could create with an unlimited budget. The result is like watching two action figures try to emote while a giant kid smashes them together.
Oddly enough, the otherwise terrible Amazing Spider-Man 2 had a much better idea: Not only is the new Goblin someone with a personal connection to Spidey (who doesn't die at the end of the movie!), but his face breaks out in terror acne because of monster serum or some shit, so there's no need for a mask. Even Jamie Foxx's distractingly Mr.-Freeze-esque Electro look is preferable to another non-faced villain played by a stuntman for 90 percent of the movie while the actor plays UNO with his assistant in his trailer.
One of the best things new superhero movies have done has been to cast the right people for the right parts, regardless of how popular they were before the movie. Case in point: Chris Pratt is everywhere now, but before Guardians Of The Galaxy, he was just a pudgy sitcom actor:
Iron Man director Jon Favreau had to fight to cast Robert Downey Jr., whose highest-grossing movie at that point was the Rodney Dangerfield tour de force Back To School (1986). They didn't cast Downey Jr. because he was a superstar -- he was cast because he's so perfect for the role that he might seriously be a parallel dimension Tony Stark. When you have someone that good in your movie, going out of your way to show his face (like when Tony's mask gets conveniently torn off during battles) is more than a commercial decision; it's an artistic one. In other words, it would be silly to pay Downey Jr. $50 million to play a character he was born to play and then have him ... not do that.
This has been the approach with the other Avengers characters, with one big, dumb exception. The only one who has to have his human face hidden during action sequences is the Hulk, since it wouldn't be practical to put Mark Ruffalo on a diet of celery and steroids until he truly becomes a green giant. Even the movie posters for Cap, Iron Man, and Thor show the characters without their helmets, while Hulk's shows a very tiny Edward Norton looking down at his feet as if he's ashamed of himself.
As a result of all this, Hulk is the easiest character to recast without people noticing/caring ... and what do you know, The Incredible Hulk is also the least successful current Marvel franchise. The first Iron Man was nominated for two Oscars. The best Hulk was able to get? A BMI Award for Danny Elfman's music, because we guess Danny Elfman's body mass index is sick as hell.
Finally, let's not forget the reason superheroes started wearing masks. It wasn't a weird fetish or for looking cool -- they were protecting their secret identities. We'll wait while our whippersnapper readers look away from Friendster and Ask Jeeves what a "secret identity" is.
Secret identities are a concept that doesn't apply to these movies anymore. Think about Star-Lord in Guardians of the Galaxy, one of the best loved Marvel movies we've seen so far. His code name is a running joke. Everyone simply calls him Peter Quill. He doesn't really have a suit and he almost never wears his helmet. Shit, he even lends it to Zoe Saldana at one point ... which is OK, because she only has two major emotional facial expressions anyway.
Marvel Studios, Paramount Pictures
That scene at the end of the first Iron Man when Tony quotes Ozzy Osbourne at a press conference ("I am Iron Man") wasn't just a good joke -- it's arguably one of the most important moments in the Marvel Universe, since it set the tone for how they would deal with secret identities. That is, not at all. Which is a great approach, because the dramatic potential for that trope was drained the 157th time Spider-Man stood up a date because he was saving the world and had to suffer in silence.
More importantly, this helps humanize the characters. We almost never hear the heroes (or anyone affiliated with them) call each other "Captain America," "Black Widow," or "Hawkeye" -- it's "Steve," "Natasha," and "Who are you? How did you get in this team?" It isn't just because it would sound campy and stupid, either. It's because the characters in the movies recognize each other as people, not icons, and when they talk to each other, they train us to think of them the way they think of themselves. It's yet another effective way to make them easier to relate to, which is the endgame. And it works.
It's not Iron Man we go to the theaters to see -- it's Tony Stark. And until we can say the same thing about Bruce Wayne, Marvel movies will keep kicking DC's ass.
Marina Reimann writes and researches for Cracked on the Quick Fix team. Her interests fall into two categories: Deadpool and William Shatner.