When downtrodden, lovelorn loser Stanley Ipkiss finds a mysterious wooden mask floating in the Edge City bay, he can hardly be expected to know that it contains the imprisoned spirit of Loki. However, rather than obsessing over conquering the Nine Realms, after centuries of being cooped up all the Norse trickster god wants to do is wreak havoc in the form of a green-faced yellow zoot suited maniac. That includes robbing a bank that’s already being held up by gangster Dorian Tyrell and sweeping Tyrell’s lounge singer girlfriend Tina off her feet. But is The Mask a superhero movie?
In the source material, the Dark Horse comic book series, The Mask, there known as Big Head, is more homicidal than heroic. He’s got powers, sure: the power to bend reality pretty much at whim – in the film this manifests in Tex Avery style transformations, sneaking down a quiet corridor only to be ambushed by a sentient alarm clock. The thing is that The Mask would rather use his amazing abilities for hijinks rather than truth, justice, or any of that other stuff. Ipkiss, meanwhile, is the proverbial “nice guy” who spends his time watching cartoons and chilling with his dog Milo.
For an origin story, it’s no Batman Begins: there’s no mentor, little by the way of physical conflict – unless you’re counting the sequence where The Mask magically compels a fleet of armed cops to dance the mambo – and the most immediate threat to Ipkiss’ well-being is a pair of bumbling police detectives, Kellaway and Doyle. Ipkiss only finds out about his nightly endeavors when a stack of money from the bank robbery falls out of his closet while the police are knocking on the door. It’s this, I believe, that makes The Mask a superhero film: The Mask brings the super while Ipkiss brings the hero.
The personality of The Mask, we discover, depends on the personality of its wearer. When the thuggish Tyrell puts it on, he becomes a hideous, skulking villain with demonic red eyes, sucking up bullets and spraying them at rival mobsters. Ipkiss’ version is comparatively harmless: he spends most of his time trying to seduce Tina or taking comical revenge on those who have wronged him. He’s what a hopeless romantic might well become with limitless power and no inhibitions. The mask is ultimately purposeless, an agent of chaos, a mayhem-causing tool for whoever happens to be wearing it, and it takes the jeopardy of those Ipkiss loves to make him a hero. The Mask simply enables him to do it.
In the end, Stanley rises to the occasion, punches out the bad guy, saves the girl – The Mask might enable him to do it (by swallowing a bomb and literally flushing Tyrell down the plughole), but it’s Ipkiss who ultimately saves the day. When the day is done, he kisses Tina and tosses the mask out to sea – the hero’s journey complete. His only male friend, Charlie, throws himself off a bridge in pursuit of it, the mask, that stuff that dreams are made of. After all, who wouldn’t want the opportunity to become a hero?
Given the completeness of Ipkiss’ arc, not to mention Jim Carrey’s perfect casting in the role – he is essentially the human personification of a cartoon character and The Mask uses him to full rubber-faced effect – well, it’s no wonder they never made a sequel…