In some ways, 1994’s The Mask was ahead of its time. Sure, when we try to pick out the greatest comic-book adaptations today, we’re spoiled for choice: with Marvel entering the third phase of their cinematic universe, transforming formerly obscure characters into mainstream icons, and DC’s Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice ready to kick their movies up into a higher gear, the list of adaptations looks set to grow and grow.
Still, movies based on comic books remain largely superhero-centric, which is a shame considering the huge range of fantastic titles out there deserving of a larger audience. Just over 20 years ago, particularly in the UK, comic books and their respective characters were generally seen as childish, goofy, for nerds only – and the lack of quality adaptations was testament to this perception.
By the time Jim Carrey exploded onto the screen as the green-faced hero back in 1994, which major movies based on comics did we have? Tim Burton’s two Batman flicks? Four Superman films (only two of which were, and still are, widely-loved)? Dolph Lundgren’s The Punisher? We’d had plenty of TV-based projects too, but in terms of conveying to wider audiences just how exciting, diverse, and interesting comic books could be, Hollywood was leaving plenty to be desired.
So, considering the cultural landscape The Mask was produced within, it’s impressive just how good – and fairly true to the comics that spawned it – the film is.
While Jim Carrey himself may not be everyone’s cup of tea, The Mask was the first major film he’d starred in which didn’t feature a completely over-the-top performance from beginning to end (although, to be fair, it was the second film that he starred in). Sure, he’s a rubbery-faced buffoon once he’s wearing the mask, but as downtrodden bank-worker Stanley Ipkiss, his acting is much more subtle: just as the mask itself allows the wearer’s true self to emerge, The Mask gave Carrey an opportunity to unleash his wild side whilst showcasing his more reserved acting abilities too.
But let’s rewind a little bit here. If The Mask is, as I’d argue, still a fun, well-made movie, and a decent translation of the comic, why am I even bothering to write an article about why the source material deserves another adaptation?
Heart of darkness
For starters, let’s look at how The Mask managed to be faithful to the comics it lifted from. John Arcudi’s first stories featuring the titular mask did indeed star an average guy named Stanley Ipkiss, one of life’s victims, who comes across the mysterious item in an antiques shop. While this wasn’t the first time the concept had appeared in comics (creator Mike Richardson’s Masque strip had run in Dark Horse Presents years earlier, and a four-issue series titled Mayhem had appeared in 1989), it was Arcudi’s 1991 series that helped to boost the character’s popularity.
Working with artist Dough Mahnke, Arcudi blended black comedy with bloody ultra-violence – which is really where the source material and the movie part ways. For those who don’t remember, the movie saw Ipkiss become a slightly mischievous superhero who crossed paths with the villainous Dorian, a gangster looking to take control of Edge City, whilst romancing Cameron Diaz’s Tina and eluding the hapless cops on his tail (assisted by his adorable canine pal, Milo). While there were moments of black humor (Ipkiss taking revenge on the mechanics who ripped him off by fitting tail-pipes where they don’t belong, for example – a scene right out of the comics, watered down), the film was very kid-friendly, PG-rated through and through.
The comics, however, focus more on revenge, criminality, and the corrupting influence of power: when Ipkiss realises just how strong the mask can make him, he goes on a brutal killing spree, taking down everyone from a group of thugs (with another scene lifted directly for the film, in which the Mask fashions a tommy gun out of balloons after impressing the goons with his balloon-animals) to an elderly teacher who used to humiliate him in class. The action is bloody, and over the top: Ipkiss can pull all manner of weapons from thin air, take on the appearance of anyone he chooses, and survive insane levels of damage without harm.
Considering the darker territory the comics explored with the concept, now is the perfect time for a new adaptation, especially when equally bizarre anti-hero Deadpool is set to star in his own outrageous big-screen adaptation. As I said earlier, The Mask was a film ahead of its time: considering how undervalued comic books were by many back then (especially Hollywood bigwigs), it’s surprising so much of the source material’s content remained intact.
At a time when mainstream audiences typically only associated comic-books with stuff like Batman, Superman, and Spider-Man, adapting such a dark, strange series was a fairly bold move – originally, there were plans to make the movie more of a horror than a comedy, until New Line Cinema decided against it. At the time, going for such a dark tone would likely have confused those who only connected comic books with kids, and might have been too strange to be taken seriously as horror, perhaps even alienating much of its intended audience.
Treading a darker path
Now that most people have a greater appreciation of comic books, and filmmakers generally get to enjoy a tad more freedom, it would be fantastic to see a straighter adaptation: while the Mask himself cracks jokes and behaves like a Loony Tunes character, the idea of someone – anyone – being given almost endless power, just by finding an anonymous relic, is a great concept, particularly when the mask itself is such a dynamic visual: that green face is still iconic, and if done right, could look incredibly creepy with today’s stellar technology & prosthetics.
Another element from the comics that could work brilliantly on screen is the mask’s habit of jumping from one wearer to another: rather than simply staying with Ipkiss for one arc after another, it ends up passing between various characters. After Ipkiss, it falls into the hands of Lt. Kellaway (who also featured in the film, as a more hapless, clownish character), and then Ipkiss’s former partner, Kathy, takes control. Each wearer is affected by the mask in different ways, and this helps to keep the storylines fresh – definitely a welcome change from the majority of big-name series in which the same characters go on and on and on for thousands of issues.
This idea gives any potential future adaptations the freedom to jump from one character to another, one gender to another, one location to another – multiple films could exist, each with a completely different protagonist and flavor. Not that this could possibly be yet another cinematic universe, but a few solid films could definitely have their place in modern pop-culture.
Disregarding the flop that was Son Of The Mask (best nobody ever talks about that again) enough time has passed since Carrey’s flick now that a fresh spin on the character would likely be welcomed, especially with a darker, more psychologically heavy tone.
Considering the number of comic-book adaptations heading to the screen, the Mask deserves another crack at the box office – for those who can’t wait until (or, sadly, most likely if) that happens, the original Dark Horse series are available in two huge omnibus editions, and are absolutely worth reading for fans of Carrey’s movie and great comics alike.