Looking back at The Mask

Jim Carrey scored one his earliest hits with comic book adaptation The Mask. Wil loved it as a kid. Turns out, he loves it now...

You look back at most things from your childhood, and odds are they aren’t as good as you thought they were when you were eight. That’s fine – you’re allowed to like rubbish when you’re a kid. I’m just often a bit shocked at how ropey things I liked before I hit double figures actually were. My young taste was generally awful.

I bring this up, because the 1994 CGI-heavy Jim Carrey movie The Mask, which was my second favourite film as a child, is actually way better than I remember it being. It honestly has a depth that I wasn’t expecting re-watching it as an adult. It might actually resonate more with me in my twenties than it did when I was a kid. And that’s because I think it’s actually a parable about drinking too much booze.

The original Mask series, by John Acurdi and Doug Mahnke, and serialised in Dark Horse Comic’s 1989 anthology Mayhem, is not something that anyone would have ever put money on being adapted into a family friendly comedy. The very basics of the set-up is the same as the film – deadbeat loser Stanley Ipkiss finds an ancient wooden mask, which if he wears at night turns him into a green-skin unstoppable live action Tex Avery cartoon. But how it plays out is very, very different.

Instead of the ultimately heroic journey Ipkiss takes in the film, in the short original comics run he uses the powers to settle old scores, chase down friends who owe him money, and violate the mechanics who ripped him off with a muffler. It quickly descends into ultraviolence and a massive police chase, and the whole series is a bit like when you play Grand Theft Auto but don’t do any of the missions, just run around killing police officers. It’s a very strange choice of inspiration for a mainstream PG-13 comedy – as well as the violence, the tone is much closer to, say, the Michael Douglas-as-a-disgruntled-office-worker thriller Falling Down than it is Ace Ventura.

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Following the demise of Mayhem, the concept moved to a four-issue limited series of its own. With Ipkiss killed off in the last issue of the anthology, the lead turned to Lieutenant Kellaway, a police detective character (mostly just used as comic foil in the film) who used the Mask to take down an unstoppable Frankenstein-like crime boss. It became more of a recognisable vigilante story, but still miles away from a standard superhero comic.

Originally developed as an Elm Street–style horror franchise by New Line Pictures, the property eventually turned into a vehicle for Jim Carrey’s rubber-faced talents, coming off the massive breakthrough success of Ace Ventura: Pet Detective.

The film’s plot broadly melded together those first two comic arcs. Stanley Ipkiss (Carrey) is a shy dweeb working in a bank. One night he finds a old wooden mask, which when he puts it on it turns him into the green skinned, yellow suited unstoppable madman – a living cartoon able to pull mallets and machine guns out of nowhere, with an insatiable and unstable personality. Wearing the mask he hits the town, romancing cabaret singer Tina (Cameron Diaz, in her first big role) who’s also a customer of Ipkiss at the bank. Turns out she’s involved with bank-robbing gangsters, and so it becomes The Mask versus gangsters in a pretty standard three-act structure.

Narrative wise, it’s nothing to write home about. It follows the standard (pre-Marvel Studios, at least) superhero movie template pretty much beat for beat. What makes the film interesting is the concept of The Mask itself. Most super heroes can be broadly read as wish fulfilment fantasies. The archetypical example is Spider-Man – weak, nerdy kid gets to become tough and strong. Of course he has to learn to that there is a burden to these powers; “With great power comes great responsibility”, as Uncle Ben said. It’s a morality tale, the message is to do the right thing and help others – a positive message for kids. This is where The Mask differs.

The film The Mask reminds me of the most is not another comic book film, or a Jim Carrey comedy, or anything like that – it’s Jon Faverau’s 1996 indie favourite Swingers. It’s partly an aesthetic thing. In the mid-90s in LA, there was a short-lived swing revival amongst twenty-somethings. In way that hipsters tend to appropriate styles from the past for a fad, for 90s LA hipsters it just happened to be big band music. It’s not surprising that an indie drama or two would capture the scene, and Swingers just happened to be the one that did it (since that’s what Faverau and his mates were into when he wrote it as a struggling actor). What’s kind of incredible is that The Mask, a big budget, made-by-committee studio picture also did it, a few years before.

It’s obviously just execs trying to cash in on whatever the fad was at the time, but it’s normally that these studio approved attempts to put a scene on screen end up bombing hard (look at Times Square, the attempt to do a New Wave Saturday Night Fever, or the bizarre punk James Bond knock off Never Too Young To Die). Yet the swing elements in The Mask aren’t the focus – it’s kind of staggering that it’s just the backdrop to this big comic book movie. The swing elements actually fit in really well with the milieu of the film.

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Despite being set in the present day, the whole film feels like the 30s or 40s, which is when the Tex Avery cartoon that influenced the film so much were originally coming out. Tina is a nightclub singer in the sort of way that doesn’t really exist anymore; the general look of the gangsters is that of the goons in a James Cagney movie; and if you made the Mask’s yellow suit monochrome it would probably sit well on Humphrey Bogart. It actually does a better job of it than Warren Beatty’s intentionally retro Dick Tracy adaptation that came out a few years before. And somehow this 40s influence also makes it a perfect time capsule of 1993.

The connection to Swingers goes further though. The Mask is very much a film about twenty-something guys trying to hook up with girls (or at least until the supernatural powers turn up). Ipkiss’s colleague Charlie (Richard Jeni) is the Vince Vaughn to his John Favereau, blagging tickets to the Coco Bongo, a hot new club that Ipkiss doesn’t really want to go to. He’s not the lad or party animal that Charlie wants him to be, but he ends up going to things anyway because of the social pressures of that’s what you’re supposed to do at that age. He has a solid job but can only afford a tiny crappy apartment. I could be describing a thousand other indie movies and sitcoms and a lot else (it could almost be Peep Show), and it’s not a million miles away from my life now.

Okay, films about post-adolescent males floundering a ten-a-penny, but what’s interesting is that this is taking a main theme from the original adult comic series. It’s the idea that modern life is boring and frustrating and we’d do anything to escape it for a little excitement. The characters of Swingers don’t want a normal life, they want to be famous actors and that’s why they moved to LA. In the original comics version, the mask lets Ipkiss go from a pathetic loser to a somebody even if that somebody ends up getting gunned down by the police. The film version tones down a lot of the comic’s frustration at the world, and makes Ipkiss ultimately heroic, but the core concept is still there.

The true superpower of The Mask is not that he is invulnerable or superfast or can turn a balloon into a tommy gun or swallow a massive bomb. His true power is that he’s really cool and funny and confident. And that the mask can make you – or anyone – cool.

And this is where it becomes a rather obvious metaphor for alcohol.

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Stanley Ipkiss is the archetypical nice guy who always finishes last. We find this out early on, when it’s revealed that he wrote into the local paper’s agony aunt column complaining that no women want the nice guy and he can’t get a girlfriend. Reporter Peggy Brandt (Amy Yasbeck), who’s investigating the bank robberies and used to write the problem page on the side, tells Ipkiss that she’s had hundred of letters from women wanting to meet a man like him. But of course, because Stanley is so shy and awkward, he’s never going to meet any of those women.

What he needs is confidence. And The Mask is an unrelenting ball of hyper-confidence. As soon as he puts it on he rushes to the club and is dancing onstage with Cameron Diaz in no time. Like Parappa The Rapper, all he has to do is believe in himself. This is where the obvious comparisons to alcohol come in. You can stand in the corner at parties staring at your shoes, and you won’t meet anyone. But have a beer or ten, and you’ll be dancing on the tables having a great time. Everyone loves you when you’re drunk, or at least that’s how it feels when you’re drunk. You’re funnier, you’re louder and you’re a loads better dancer. It makes you do the things want to do but you don’t have the guts to do. It makes you speak to that girl or guy you are too shy to talk to. The mask is essentially eight or nine pints, except it also gives you green skin and a yellow suit.

Being that it’s not the subtlest of films, Ipkiss actually spells this out to Tina when he’s locked up in prison, she asks him how it works, and he replies “It brings your most innermost desires to life. If deep down inside you’re a bit repressed and hopelessly romantic, you become some sort of love crazed wild man.” Just like alcohol, it gives you the confidence to be and do what you want to do. Importantly, the film establishes that the character of The Mask is not contained in the mask, and instead is an extension of the wearer. Everyone becomes different when they wear the mask.

A tad disappointingly, we only get to see three different people try on the mask during the film – and one of them is a dog – but we can clearly see the difference when someone other than Ipkiss wears it. That other person is Dorian (Peter Greene), an evil sadistic gangster and Tina’s (ex)boyfriend. When he wears it, he has none of Ipkiss’s humour, and is instead just a merciless monster. In effect, when a bad person gets drunk, they just become evil more nasty, and violent.

But wearing the mask too much, just like alcohol, is destructive, and can be very addictive and corrupting. Peter Parker has been blessed with a power that he knows he has to use for good. Ipkiss on the other hand knows he shouldn’t be using the mask at all. When reporter Peggy Brandt starts asking him about it, he tells her “It’s crazy, I’m losing control. When I put that mask on, I can do anything. Be anything. My life is wrecked. Wrecked.” Peggy reassures him, telling him “You don’t need it. You, Stanley Ipkiss, are all you’ll ever need to be.”

It’s a story many addicts will tell you. They were shy, but then had a few drinks and it made them more outgoing, and they made friends and had fun. So they drank more. But the they found they had to be drunk to be that person people liked. And they couldn’t have fun without drinking. They needed it to be normal. So they kept drinking, despite what they are doing to their body, and what they are doing to their relationships, and the people around them. That’s what is happening.

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Why would you ever want to go back to being Stanley Ipkiss after being The Mask? Despite being vaguely heroic, The Mask does bad things. He harasses Ipkiss’s landlady. He steals money from banks. He makes the whole police force do embarrassing dance numbers against their will. When Dorian threats to kill Tina and blow up everyone in the club, he has to put the mask back on the save the day, but after that he knows he has to throw the mask away. Prior to this he tries to get rid of it but it keeps returning by almost supernatural means and he ends up wearing it again, not unlike an addict struggling with their self-control.

Unlike most comic book ‘superhero’ movies, The Mask is not an origin story. It does not set up the on-going adventures of The Mask, it’s a one off story of a man tempted by a corrupting power, but have the strength to overcome it. The later Mask comic series tended to introduce a new wearer with each new arc, because that’s how the storyline worked. It’s refreshing that the film doesn’t really leave itself open for a sequel. Of course it would have been easy enough to cook up some hokey scenario for Ipkiss to get back in the mask if a second one had happened (when he throws it into the ocean, both his dog and Charlie chase after it). The spin-off Mask Saturday morning cartoon basically did this, turning Ipkiss into a recurring superhero. But the film is trying to tell a one off story, not start a franchise.

(We’ll ignore the belated sequel Son Of The Mask, partly because it includes none of the original characters, but mostly because it is atrocious).

You can think I’m reading far too much into this, and completely ignore this, and it’s still a great film. Jim Carrey is great fun, and it captures him in his early OTT prime. The CGI is still fantastically inventive and definitely holds up (it’s actually a great example of how to use CGI relatively sparingly. At the time it was probably due to the fact it was still so expensive, but they let Carrey in make up carry most of it, and only put in CGI for the real Tex Avery stuff. It’s something a lot of modern films could learn from). But under all this, there’s the underline pathos, which make the film really work. It’s actually about something.

Next time: why Milo is the greatest dog in cinematic history.