Image of Mask
Image of Mask

Heroes and villains in the popular media

In this age of global media, nowhere are masks more prominent than on the pages of the super hero comic books and movie screen. Media heroes and villains often accentuate the human characteristics of good and evil. Masks and costumes amplify the character and demonstrate their transformation from mortal human.

Arch villains similarly are often masked, the mask dehumanizing them and emphasizing the veneer of evil in which they are swathed.

How can a spider be a hero? The answer is in the mask!

Image of Mask
     A man dressed as Batman 2010; photograph
     by Egon Eagle from Wikimedia Commons

In many African societies, spiders are seen as linked to god. Yet in the Western world, spiders are widely regarded as ugly, fearsome and threatening, and evoke one of the most commonly reported phobias (arachnophobia). Why then is Spiderman a hero?

Similarly, bats are commonly feared, seen as night-dwellers and carriers of disease. Many representations of the Devil have bat-like characters. Why then is Batman a hero (albeit with something of a dark side)?

The Marvel Comics superhero Spider-Man character was created by writer-editor Stan Lee and writer-artist Steve Ditko and first appeared in Amazing Fantasy #15 (August 1962). Batman is rather older. Created by artist Bob Kane and writer Bill Finger, the character first appeared in Detective Comics #27 in May 1939. Both characters have become film stars in major blockbuster productions.

Image of Mask
     Darth Vadar 2008; photograph
     by Jose del Corral from Wikimedia Commons

In truth, neither of the characters actually looks much like their animal namesake. It is the mask they wear and the attributes they embody that give some credence to their nom de mask. In both cases, the masks could be seen as evil …. one with bulging inhuman compound eyes (which ironically spiders do not possess), the other strikingly devil-like. Yet the characters are cast as forces of good. In both cases too, the masks and costumes hide a real identity, one of a gawky teenager, the other of a self-indulgent multi-millionaire businessmen. Both characters have their ‘issues’, that relate to how they see themselves in the world. The masks allow them to become someone – or something – else. The forces of evil are intent not only on defeating these protagonists of good, but to unveil them, to reveal who lies beneath the mask.

Even simpler masks can achieve the same deception. The fictional hero Zorro was created in 1919 by pulp writer Johnston McCulley. Meaning fox in Spanish, Zorro’s real persona is that of a foppish nobleman in Spanish California who as his alter ego defends local people against the despotic authorities. Zorro’s identity is hidden by the simplest of elegant black masks, enough, it seems, to convey complete anonymity. And even Zorro is well shrouded compared to the ultimate of heroes, Superman. Superman was created by writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster in 1932 and first appeared in Action Comics #1 (June 1938). Here the hero is revealed for all to see, his face entirely unencumbered. It is his working day alter-ego who meekly hides behind that perfect and impenetrable mask, a pair of horn rimmed spectacles.

It is less surprising that bad guys wear masks. Bank robbers and terrorists are depicted masked, in keeping with both reality and our perceptions. In film, masks can take evil further than reality of course. Darth Vader, the menacing ‘dark side’ Sith Lord in the George Lucas Star Wars films, has assumed a near mythic – and certainly often parodied – status as the quintessential stylized villain. The combination of rasping mechanized breath, bass voice, dark cape and the now universally recognized mask have forged an iconic persona. The American Film Institute listed Darth Vader as the third greatest movie villain in cinema history on 100 Years... 100 Heroes and Villains, behind Hannibal Lecter, and Norman Bates of Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock) fame. The Vader mask helmet represents a mélange of World War I German helmet and Samurai mask, thus encapsulating the image of the evil ‘sword’ (light saber) wielding warrior.

Image of Mask
     Wax figure of Jason Voorhees 2008; from Wikimedia Commons
     by Jose del Corral from Wikimedia Commons

Many nasty characters are depicted masked as the mask confounds their humanity, making them appear less – or more – than human. We have met Jason Voorhees already (The sporting mask), who turned an innocent hockey mask into something chilling. Perhaps no character has better captured the ambiguity of the mask than Hannibal Lecter. Created by author Thomas Harris in several novels, Lecter is deliciously crafted by actor Anthony Hopkins in the 1991 film Silence of the Lambs (Director Jonathan Demme; Producers Kenneth Utt, Edward Saxon, Ron Bozman; Orion Pictures). Lecter is the unsettling portrayal of a sophisticated psychiatrist, with an appalling cannibalistic streak. The mask he wears as a prisoner is a punishment for him, and a protection for those around him. Visually, it accentuates his crimes with the rigidly defined mouth and the metal cords like jagged teeth that cross it.

The mask makes Lecter look a monster …. remove it, and the maskless man becomes the monster.


Who is your favorite masked hero?

What is most unsettling? A horrible mask or when a mask removed reveals a more terrible reality behind it?

Go Back