The hidden agenda: A masked trail from Zorro to Watchmen
Hollywood has shown us how masks can consume a man, eventually revealing as much as they conceal. Amid talk of a Zorro reboot, a look at heroes, villains, and iconic cover-ups.
There are whispers of a possible reboot of the Zorro franchise, that evergreen tale of a masked bandit who swoops in to save the day.
Zorro made his first appearance in Johnston McCulley’s bestselling 1919 book, The Curse of Capistrano. He was a cinematic hit by 1920, with Douglas Fairbanks starring in The Mark of Zorro.
So many masked-crusader tropes can be traced back to this character. The immense wealth and secret identity (Zorro is really Don Diego de la Vega, the only son of a rich landowner). The costume, an all-black cape and mask. The mission to defend commoners in a corrupt state (in his case, California).
McCulley went on to write scores of Zorro stories. The character has appeared in 11 Hollywood films over the course of a century, and numerous comic books and TV series.
The idea of the masked renegade isn’t fictional, of course. England’s Robin Hood, in the 15th century, is rumoured to have been one, or several, real men. Japan’s Nezumi Kozo, in the 19th century, used rats to trick rich people out of their homes. Zorro is believed to have been modelled on the real-life vigilante Joaquin Murrieta Carrillo, a 19th-century bandit in California who became a symbol of Mexican resistance against Anglo-Saxon and Spanish colonists.
As merry as the men might have been, there have always been shades of grey linked to this particular kind of hero. In cinema, the mask usually indicates not just a hidden identity, but a sense of menace. It’s what sets Batman apart from all-American good guys such as Superman and Captain America.
In more recent decades, the mask has taken on new meaning. It’s been worn by nutty ne’er-do-wells such as Stanley Ipkiss (The Mask; 1994). By mind-twisters such as the order-issuing giant rabbit Frank in the psychological sci-fi thriller Donnie Darko (2001). And by villains in horror franchises ranging from Halloween (1978 onwards) to Friday the 13th (1980), Scream (1996) and Jigsaw (2017). Take a trip back in time, through the many facets of this storytelling device.
Symbol of protest
If the Guy Fawkes mask is familiar today, it’s largely because it was adopted by the hacker collective Anonymous, in 2008. The reason Anonymous chose it harks back to the film V for Vendetta (2005).
First, Guy Fawkes. He was a terrorist who tried to bomb the House of Lords in 1605, while wearing a plain white vaudeville mask. He and his co-conspirators had hoped to bring down the Protestant monarch and replace him with a Catholic queen. Guy Fawkes Day is celebrated in Britain every November 5, to commemorate the date on which the plot was foiled.
The mask now known as his may or may not have much in common with what he wore. It was inspired by the Fawkes tale, but designed by David Lloyd for the film V for Vendetta (based on the 1980s Alan Moore graphic novels). The protagonist V is an anarchist who takes on a neo-fascist regime in a dystopian Britain. For more-recent uses of this mask in cinema, watch the series Mr Robot on Amazon Prime, starring Rami Malek as a cybersecurity engineer recruited by an anarchist.
Object of fear
What’s a slasher movie without a good mask? The Friday the 13th franchise (1980-2009) comprised a dozen films, including spin-offs, that drew heavily from classics such as Halloween (1978), but created an entirely new symbol of terror. The serial killer Jason Voorhees and his hockey mask were even mirrored in the real world, by a British serial killer named Peter Moore, who mutilated four men while wearing similar gear in 1995. The Scream franchise (1996-) added a fresh look with its ghost-face mask inspired by Edvard Munch’s 19th-century painting. Between Jason and Scream, it’s been years of popular outfits for Halloween.
In The Princess Bride (1987), a farmhand named Westley (Cary Elwes) is driven by the singular ambition of winning back Buttercup (Robin Wright), the love of his life. He leaves the farm to seek his fortune, is attacked by pirates and left for dead; but lives on to become a warrior and scholar. He absorbs everything the world can teach him because it might prove useful in his quest. And when he returns to the fictional land of Florin, he represents perfection wrapped in mystique, because no one sees his face.
Westley’s Man in Black is reminiscent of the masked men in classic literary fiction, particularly Alexandre Dumas’s d’Artagnan Romances. This series began with The Three Musketeers (1844; a tale of oft-bumbling, sometimes swashbuckling heroes) and ended with The Vicomte of Bragelonne, which featured the grim and loosely historic tale of a political prisoner in 17th-century France, now simply known just as The Man in the Iron Mask.
Both these stories have had numerous cinematic retellings. The Zorro films, in fact, are written in the same vein as the more popular Three Musketeers.
The Princess Bride is different. Westley’s character stands tall, as the righteous hero of a fantasy-adventure that is also deeply romantic, funny, and cinematically in a far superior league. “It’s just that masks are terribly comfortable,” Westley says, at one point, tongue-in-cheek. “I think everyone will be wearing them in the future.”
Agent of chaos
In The Mask (1994; starring Jim Carrey), Stanley Ipkiss leads a rather beleaguered existence as a bank teller, until he finds a mask containing within it the spirit of the Norse god Loki. Wearing the mask transforms Ipkiss into a daredevil, a green-headed trickster, a force of mythological proportions with a wicked sense of humour.
It also launches within him a tug-of-war, as the meek man contends with an alter-ego who delights in chasing down his bullies, seducing the glamorous woman of his dreams, robbing the bank he works at. It’s a tussle that slowly changes how he sees the world, and his place within it.
The whirlwind of a film (based on the Dark Horse comic books by Doug Mahnke and John Arcudi) is, amid all the extravagant drama, a layered fable about what lies hidden within the Everyperson, and what a world of power with no consequences might look like.
Similar themes abound in the worlds of superheroes, particularly in the DC universe. Christopher Nolan’s films on the Dark Knight (2005-12) do most justice to the ways in which a mask can consume a man. Nolan turns the billionaire playboy-vigilante Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) into a symbol of the shadowy nature of vigilantism, particularly when fuelled by the potent combination of privilege and dysfunction. Gotham City becomes the increasingly darkened setting of a war to reshape the world, fought alone, by a man who is slowly losing the battle between his fading conscience and his mounting rage.
Alan Moore’s Watchmen graphic novels (1986-87), and the 2009 Zack Snyder film of the same name, are rooted in an alternate 1985 America at the height of the Cold War. An age of superheroes has ended; they have been outlawed because of their violent methods. Some continue to work with the government covertly. The story’s anti-hero, Rorschach, operates outside the law. When a former comrade is killed, he sets out to investigate, and warn the others.
All the while, Rorschach wears a moving inkblot mask, in a persona he created when he was still the young vigilante Walter Kovacs. Over the years, the mask has taken over. The moving inkblot is how he sees himself, as he seethes through the world, dispensing an absolutist’s interpretation of justice.
In the 2019 HBO series, the story moves to Tulsa, Oklahoma, in an alternate 2019. White supremacists have misinterpreted Rorschach’s journal to fit their agenda, and are waging war against minorities and the police. After a particularly brutal massacre that targets the latter, the force must be rebuilt, and new instructions are issued: conceal your profession, cover your face while on the job. Everyone’s a vigilante now.