How Movie Characters Protect Their Identities (Poorly)

How do masters of disguise such as Spider-Man, Superman and, erm, He-Man protect their identities?

It hardly seems worth the effort of forewarning, but this article contains spoilers for The Tourist, The Wizard Of Oz and Shattered.

Even as a child, something bothered me about He-Man. Prince Adam was first in line to the throne of Eternia; not a modest principality, or somewhere like Luxembourg, but an entire planet that sits at the centre of the universe. You would imagine this would make him quite well renowned – famous, even. So on that very first day he held aloft his magic sword and said “By the power of Grayskull” you’d think the second thing he would do upon becoming the most powerful man in the universe would be to fashion some form of disguise.

But no, evidently having a tan and a booming baritone is enough to convince everyone on the planet that these two men are entirely separate entities. Kind of puts Clark Kent’s glasses into perspective, doesn’t it?

So it’s no surprise that the 1987 movie adaptation of Masters Of The Universe starring Courtney Cox and Frank Langella ditched the whole secret identity malarkey because, frankly, Dolph Lundgren with a tan looks a lot like Dolph Lundgren without a tan, and it was never going to fly with audiences. And when you have a film that proudly proclaims “starring Frank Langella as Skeletor,” that’s saying a lot.

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Motion pictures have to go the extra mile to convince the paying public that a disguise or secret identity would successfully pull the wool over other characters’ eyes. If we can clearly see that it’s Val Kilmer wearing false teeth, then it begins to stretch credibility that all the idiots in The Saint can’t also see that it’s Val Kilmer wearing false teeth.

With that in mind, here is a selection of approaches taken by characters of the silver screen to disguise themselves or otherwise protect their identity. Some are more convincing than others.

Mask

So let’s get the most obvious method out of the way first. Much loved by the superhero community and serial killers, donning a mask is a simple and effective approach to protecting your identity. Yet some characters even manage to mess this up. A teeny-tiny eye mask is about as useful in disguising your appearance as a baseball cap, yet only covering the area immediately surrounding the eyeballs has been a popular look through the ages, sported by a number of heroes from Zorro through to The Incredibles. For all its faults, at least Green Lantern had the good grace to point out the uselessness of such apparel.

The cowl offers much more in the way of face obscuring, unless you are blessed with an instantly recognisable chin; thus Ben Affleck’s Bruce Wayne may have an issue in the forthcoming Batman V Superman. It was never a problem in Daredevil since everyone was too busy chuckling at the red leather bondage gear.

But whether you’re trying to empty a bank of its deposits or stop a rampage by the Green Goblin, the ultimate in ‘Who the hell are you?’ face wear has to be a hood that covers the entire head. From Point Break’s Ex-Presidents to your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, nothing scuppers facial recognition software more than a rubber effigy of Richard Nixon or an embroidered ski mask. The only chink in the obscuration armor is when someone opens his or her mouth…

The comics would have you believe that Spider-Man’s mask also does a great job of disguising Peter Parker’s voice, but I’d argue that Tobey Maguire’s whiny timbre is instantly recognisable whether filtered through a layer of cloth or not. Michael Keaton may not have invented the notion of throwing conversationalists off the scent by speaking with a mouthful of gravel, but he certainly popularised it, and it was something Christian Bale took to glorious new heights in his Dark Knight trilogy.

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Iron Man missed a trick with his get up – he could have easily incorporated a voice changer into his helmet, but instead chose to sound like Robert Downey Jr. speaking into a desk fan. I guess Stark gets a pass, though, for holding that press conference at the end of the film and telling everyone he was Iron Man.

Of course the biggest issue that masks pose in the movies is creating a visual barrier between the audience’s eyes and an actor’s beautiful face – marketers and agents really don’t like that. Thus Spider-Man has had his custom balaclava ripped apart or pulled off so many times it’s amazing he still has a secret identity.

Technology

Employing gadgetry to alter your appearance has a long history in celluloid stretching back as far as The Wizard Of Oz, where a projector and a smoke machine were utilised to great effect to hoodwink the locals into believing that a middle-aged charlatan was “great and powerful.”

A popular way to utilize science and technology to protect your identity is the creation of masks that are so lifelike you can actually cast another actor when you’re in disguise. The Mission: Impossible gang do this so frequently that you’re just waiting for the moment where some bloke rips off his face to reveal Tom Cruise underneath.

There are, however, plenty of other big screen examples. Sam Raimi’s Darkman let Liam Neeson look like anyone for 99 minutes a pop, although that was less about protecting his identity and more about manipulating the criminal underworld (and not scaring children with his crispy face).

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The fact that Dr Westlake’s synthetic skin had a strict ‘best before’ limit is indicative of a common theme with tech-based disguises: their propensity to malfunction at critical moments. Whether it’s Arnie trying to get through customs wearing a robotic lady head in Total Recall or Colin Farrell trying to get through customs with a holographic Asian head in, er, Total Recall, when a piece of wearable tech fails its warranty you’ll probably be surrounded by men with guns who want to kill you.

Sometimes a change in appearance is a handy by-product of technology designed for entirely different purposes. Innerspacetaught us much, including that Martin Short kisses so hard that he can suck a miniaturized pod from out of Meg Ryan’s ear canal. More pertinent to this article, it also explained that electronic stimulation of the nerves and muscles in your face could make you look like Robert Picardo. Who’d have thunk it?

Finally: that holographic mask Black Widow uses in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. It’s caused some consternation among Marvel fans because it seems like such a useful piece of kit that could have been used by SHIELD to gain an advantage in almost any number of scenarios, not least during the film itself. Perhaps we should all just pretend that the mask in question only allows the wearer to look like Jenny Agutter and thus has limited applications. I mean, if you can only pretend to be one person, why not Jenny Agutter? She’s a cultural icon, after all.

Surgery

An over worn plot-twist of many a bargain basement thriller, the plastic surgery route of changing identity has also been embraced by film characters in witness protection schemes and horrific accidents.

The thing that never makes any sense about this convention is the fact that people who have had extensive cosmetic surgery in real life don’t tend to look that great – you can spot that slightly leonine, perpetually startled look from a hundred paces. And yet in the movies you can end up looking like Johnny Depp (The Tourist) or Tom Berenger (Shattered). Somebody give that surgeon a ticket to Harley Street!

Taking a slightly more ‘far-out’ approach to surgical identity manipulation, it took real balls for the producers of Face/Off to repurpose a script originally set in the future and make it modern day. But it’s amazing how far a casual line about “these new anti-inflammatories” goes in helping you accept that a surgical team could swap Nicholas Cage’s and John Travolta’s faces without either suffering from so much as a bit of swelling.

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Metamorphosis

A bit of a cheat, perhaps, but transforming into someone or something else entirely is a pretty good way of either keeping a low profile or maintaining plausible deniability. Despite the name of the film, The Mask probably falls better into this category, as does any movie featuring a werewolf, a cat person or a Hulk.

Shape shifters are ten a penny in the annals of genre cinema, from the T-1000 in Terminator 2 to the bounty hunters from Critters. The most notable modern example would be Mystique from the X-Men franchise. Her seemingly pointless nakedness bothered a few people when her look was first revealed all those years ago, but movie logic comes to the rescue when you consider that her mutation allows her to simulate different clothes as well as appearances, so walking around as a ‘blank canvas’ so to speak, makes perfect sense. Less so: her ability to squeeze all those molecules into a child-sized persona or, indeed, Peter Dinklage.

Gender switch

Another rule of movie law: it’s much harder to track down your man when he’s a woman. If only Richard Kimble had watched Some Like It Hot before he went on the run in The Fugitive – he might have realised that dying your hair and shaving your beard is all well and good, but the one person no one ever suspects is the slightly mannish-looking woman in the ill-fitting dress.

Often the domain of the comedy, it’s interesting that when the plot point becomes a woman pretending to be a man, the film in question is far more likely to be a drama (Albert Noobs), an inspirational adventure (Mulan) or… um… a musical (Yentl). I guess the powers-that-be think there’s something inherently funny about a man putting on make-up and a dress, although anyone who saw Big Momma’s House may care to refute that.

Unless a particularly androgynous actor plays the role, it’s often asking a lot of the audience to believe that all the characters on screen are totally buying this form of disguise. Prosthetics help, but you’ve got to wonder how unobservant Robin Williams’ family have to be in Mrs. Doubtfire not to recognise their ex-husband/father even through several layers of latex.

But hey, sometimes a film is so charming and endearing that you just go with it – I can’t think of a disguise less convincing than Hugh Bonneville’s attempt at a cleaning lady in last year’s Paddington, but the security guard’s infatuation still made me giggle.

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Change ethnicity

A surprisingly effective approach, albeit one that has the potential to come across as very little offensive if all it amounts to is changing skin color and putting on a funny accent. I love Trading Places, but the scene where Dan Aykroyd pretends to be Jamaican has, to put it kindly, dated somewhat.

Bond has form here, disguising himself as a Japanese man who definitely didn’t look like Sean Connery in a pudding bowl wig and rubbish eye make-up in You Only Live Twice. As the 20th official Bond film, Die Another Day was meant to be a tribute of sorts to the previous chapters in the franchise’s history; perhaps a character changing his race was one nod they could have avoided. Nonetheless, chief baddie Gustav Gaves is revealed to be North Korean, only looking like Toby Stephens by virtue of some gene therapy.

But the crown undisputedly belongs to Dudley’s own Lenny Henry, who was genuinely unrecognisable whilst hiding from the mob as a white man in True Identity. The mob in question was headed by none other than Frank Langella (I really must stop embarrassing Frank with mentions of his lesser films) who himself had undergone plastic surgery to escape the authorities. Double Whammy!

I don’t want to, but I’ll have to mention White Chicks. Although the make-up in that film would be better placed in a horror rather than a comedy.

Stand in the dark

Never underestimate the obfuscating effect of poor lighting. Concealing oneself in the shadows helped Arnie trick his wife in True Liesand Deep Throat bring down the American government in All The President’s Men. It’s also an effective way of keeping the audience in the dark – Keyser Soze’s poorly lit appearance at the very beginning of The Usual Suspects revealed his identity to Gabriel Byrne, but not to anyone sat in the audience. Which is probably just as well; the twist wouldn’t have been as good otherwise.

Even that recent teaser trailer for Spectre demonstrated that saving money on the electricity also does wonders for identity protection. Well, as long as you don’t have the distinctive tones of Christoph Waltz, that is.

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Disguise kit

Let’s end on the classic. Sometimes all you need is a wig, a false nose and a pair of glasses. It’s achieved various levels of success for Inspector Clouseau in the Pink Pantherfilms, the aforementioned Simon Templar in The Saint, Mitch Leary in In The Line Of Fire, and, of course, Mr Sherlock Holmes. But as a child of the ’80s, I’ll always default to Chevy Chase in Fletchas a great example of how a little face dressing, and a lot of mimicry skill, can go a very long way.

Finally then: Superman. Kal El’s attempt at blending in with humanity has a lot more going for it than people give credit. As has often been pointed out, he doesn’t just wear a pair of specs; he carries himself in an entirely different way as Clark Kent, and Christopher Reeve expertly played that variance in physicality during his tenure as the Man of Steel – enough to make me think, with a sizable pinch of salt, that he could hide his identity from all but his closest friends and colleagues.

It will be interesting to see how Henry Cavill plays it moving forward, but at least we won’t have to tolerate the incredulity of ace investigative reporter Lois Lane not being able to put two and two together.

So there’s a not-exactly exhaustive list to which you are warmly encouraged to contribute in the comments below. As long as you don’t mention Dana Carvey in The Master of Disguise. Deal?