Jen Krueger: Mass, er, Mask Appeal
A couple weeks ago, I tweeted the rankings I’d give recent comic book movie baddies when it comes to how alluring I find them. Bane took a solid first place, but the gap between the Winter Soldier in second and Loki in third was miniscule. I jokingly added the conclusion to be drawn is that I’m attracted to men with their faces covered or long dark hair (which often obscures a face in its own right), but the thought of masked villains versus unmasked villains kept popping into my mind days later. I realized that the joke I’d made stemmed out of a true preference for bad guys wearing masks, and started to wonder why I like my antagonists so much more when I can see so much less of their face.
The easy answer, of course, is that wearing a mask makes someone mysterious, and anyone from teenage girls to pickup artists could tell you being mysterious is an age-old way to attract others. It’s just human nature to be curious about what someone is thinking, and the more difficult it is to deduce what that might be, the more curious about it we become. Sure, I still like the Winter Soldier in the scenes where he has no mask on in the latest Captain America movie, but in comparison to his masked scenes, my interest in him was almost halved.
By this logic, popping a mask on a character should be a surefire way to get me more invested in him. I thought about other comic book movies and realized that logic does indeed hold…except when it comes to heroes. Give me a scene of Iron Man in his full suit, and a scene of Iron Man either with his face shield down or the camera POV inside the suit with him, and I’ll enjoy the latter option more every time. I find it much more difficult to care about Spider-Man when he’s in his full costume than I do when he’s not wearing his mask. And as much as I like Captain America in his latest movie, put on his mask and I find him downright silly. But if I love masks on villains, why is my response to masks on heroes the polar opposite?
Probably because I need something much different from a hero than I do from a villain. Ideally I should be rooting for the hero of a comic book movie, and it might seem like this is a pretty easy thing to get the audience to do since protagonists in this kind of film tend to be on an irrefutably “good” mission that more or less amounts to saving the world. But with goals that usually boil down to the same altruistic point, I find the mission of any individual comic book movie protagonist rarely varies enough from other works in the genre to get me invested in the achievement of the hero’s goal. It’s enticing me to care about the individual emotional journey of a hero that will get me truly rooting for a protagonist, and to care about what Tony Stark or Peter Parker or Steve Rogers are going through, I need to be able to empathize with them. Their faces are a gateway to their emotions, so connecting with their internal struggle is infinitely easier when they’re not wearing a mask. It makes them more real, and thus makes it more likely I’ll be able to put myself in their shoes.
And that’s exactly what I don’t want when it comes to a comic book movie antagonist. I want the baddie swearing to burn the world down to seem like he could really do it, but with every piece of emotional information revealed about a villain, he becomes more of a real person and less of a threatening force. If I can put myself into the baddie’s shoes, it’s easier to sense not only what he’s going to do, but also what the limits of his capabilities are. Throwing up a wall between me and a villain’s emotional state in the form of a mask, though, helps to keep the baddie mysterious and unpredictable. Sure, this mysteriousness may often translate into me finding a villain physically attractive, but more importantly it means I find the role narratively attractive.
Narrative attractiveness is much harder to rank, though. I’d definitely need more than 140 characters for that.