Before Capes Were Cool #14: The Mask (1994)

(Part Three of a four-part look at the 1990s’ attempt to transform niche indie comic book heroes into Hollywood blockbusters.)

I had considered not even bothering to cover The Mask here. We’re concerned about the “Why was the movie made this way?” question in this series, and it’s pretty straightforward here.

In the original comic book story that this movie is based off of,1 Stanley Ipkiss is a moody, malcontented sad sack who discovers an enchanted mask that turns him into, essentially, a living cartoon character; he uses his new powers to go on a killing spree targeting various people he believes have wronged him—a biker gang, some mechanics who ripped him off, an old teacher—and is eventually gunned down by his girlfriend when she figures it out. It’s sort of a fantastical version of Falling Down. There was talk of adapting the concept into a horror franchise, but director Chuck Russell decided he’d rather emphasize the comedic possibilities of subjecting humans to cartoon physics rather than the gore, and suddenly what the studio had the on its hands was a special-effects-heavy PG-13 comedy adventure they could plug an up-and-coming leading man into.

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The resulting movie is, consequently, a much lighter affair, about a lovable loser who uses his wacky abilities to get a little payback on the people bringing him down before being drawn into conflict with a slick gangster—that go-to villain for when you just need some generic conflict—and winning over the girl. The filmmakers took the basic concept they liked from an edgy comic series, made the main character more likable, got rid of the explicit violence, and wrote in a love interest. There isn’t the complex decision-making that went into making Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles; they just kind of…cleaned it up. But when I actually revisited the movie, I found something unexpected.

I can’t help watching The Mask in 2018 and seeing it as a movie about uncritiqued male entitlement. I’m very sorry, but it’s all I could think about.

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In the movie, Stanley Ipkiss is a Nice Guy. This is essentially the first thing we learn about the character. The movie opens with Stanley telling a girl he is trying to impress that he has procured two tickets to a sold-out concert. She is very pleased, but then says her friend is in town and she couldn’t go to the show without her. Resignedly, Stanley gives her both tickets and tells her to go with her friend. This is portrayed as capitulation; Stanley, we are to understand, is a sucker. To his friend, (Richard Jeni playing a boorish wannabe alpha male,) Stanley says with rueful irony, “I think I’m wearing her down.”

Well, you see where I’m going with this. Stanley did a Nice Thing in getting tickets with the intent that he would be rewarded with a date. But being a Nice Guy does not “pay off” in the logic of the movie. It’s not entirely clear whether we’re supposed to think the woman has deliberately manipulated Stanley to get the tickets or if she is oblivious to his intentions or is simply not interested.

Now, on its own, this is pretty harmless. The Mask is not what I would think of as a morally disgusting movie. But it plays into a narrative that many young boys and young men such as myself were told: chicks don’t go for Nice Guys. You see why this is a comforting narrative. It makes you feel good to envision yourself as a virtuous prince among men, while cushioning the blow of rejection because it’s not your fault that women are shallow and ignore the guy who would treat her right if only she’d give him a chance.

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And that’s sort of what this movie is about. The mask gives Stanley “the chance.” Cameron Diaz’s character, glamorous nightclub singer Tina Carlyle, finds Stanley amusing, perhaps even charming the first couple times they meet, but we are made to feel that Tina would never really fall for Stanley…until he gets a hold of the mask. “It brings your innermost desires to life,” Stanley says. “If deep down inside, you’re a bit repressed and hopelessly romantic, you become sort of a love-crazy wild man.” The mask makes you alpha, in other words, but it’s because he’s really romantic and nice deep down. As the movie progresses, Stanley offers to set Tina up with the Mask,2 and she is into it. Of course she is not interested in this Nice Guy, she wants to go out with the love-crazy wild man! (And it’s worth pointing out that at the beginning of the movie, Tina is the girlfriend of the gangster villain.3 Mean tough guys get the hot girls.) It’s not until Tina finds out that Stanley was the Mask all along that she sees the “real” him, the Alpha Inside, and then she can be attracted to Stanley.

I mean, I’m not reading a whole lot into this; it’s the theme of the movie. Nice Guys, suggests The Mask, may look milquetoast, but they actually have the potential to be great lovers if only given a push. Stanley is a Nice Guy and the movie asks us to feel that he deserves to be able to go out with the lady of his choice. At one point, there is a suggestion that he will instead end up with newspaper reporter/advice columnist Peggy, who is coded in the movie as being more down-to-earth and attainable,4 but she ultimately sells him out to the bad guys for the reward money; again, chicks don’t care about the Nice Guy, only what the Nice Guy can do for them. But narratively it’s convenient because it takes Peggy off the board so Stanley can end up with who we are meant to think of as “the hot one.” And that does seem to be what interests Stanley about her; Stanley does not get to know much about her inner life, and we are not really meant to wonder about it. She’s bold, she’s beautiful, she’s exciting; girls should look at what’s inside guys, but guys are fine to be superficial.5

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Now, again, this is not the most egregious film in the world. It’s not meant to be deep; it’s meant to be a cute little story about a mouse who learns to roar with the help of his magical mask. And, like, it is a lot of fun. Jim Carrey is winning both as Stanley and as the Mask: this is arguably the movie that best took advantage of his early human-cartoon persona. The script is occasionally witty, and the CGI special effects translate Tex Avery-style shenanigans into something that looks somewhat like real life; it’s groundbreaking work that still holds up reasonably well.

But the cumulative effect of seeing a bunch of stories that operate along these lines does something to some young men. I was one of those young men. I thought pretty girls should like me solely based on me being sensitive and nice, and I resented when they didn’t, and I thought the guys they did go out with were jerks who didn’t treat them as well as I would have. It wasn’t until college that I got some new experiences and was able to grow out of this self-limiting and self-defeating way of thinking and was able to start having adult relationships where I recognized women as people.6 But before that, yeah. I watched The Mask, and when Peggy says the “Nice Guys Finish Last” letter that ran in her advice column got a huge response from women who actually did want a Nice Guy, I felt validated. If only I had a mask. I’d show them.

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HERO/ZERO/SIDEKICK/ANTIHERO:7 So, uh…sorry to be a bit of a bummer there. But actually, like I said, this movie on its own is a pretty good time and a solid SIDEKICK. It just reminds me of a mindset that I’d like to forget.

NEXT: I definitely do not have anything to say about Men in Black from a sociopolitical standpoint, so we’ll have a less heavy time, I promise!