Monday, October 31, 2016

Beneath the Mask: Our Favorite Masks of Fandom

Halloween: the only holiday where cosplay is socially acceptable! Throughout history, people have enjoyed dressing up, and one of those heavily regaled traditions is wearing masks. To celebrate this magical holiday, we've assembled a few of our favorite masks and those who wear them.

Kelly Chaplin

The Blue Spirit (Avatar: The Last Airbender)

For those of you who haven’t heard of and/or watched Avatar, I highly recommend that you stop reading this right now and binge watch the entire series. But for those of you who have watched it, then you probably remember the Blue Spirit. Granted, we don’t see much of this mask, but when we do, I find that most Avatar fans rejoice.

When General Zhao (a figure that is in direct competition with Prince Zuko and his quest to capture Avatar Aang) succeeds in capturing the Avatar, Zuko becomes the Blue Spirit, a masked figure that slips seamlessly in the shadows.

What’s truly important about this mask is that it gives Zuko anonymity and is something that he can use for two important reasons.

One, he uses it as a tool. As the Prince, Zuko can’t just take the Avatar from the General, but as the Blue Spirit, he can slip in secretly and rescue/recapture the Avatar himself.

Secondly, and most importantly, Zuko uses it as a persona, leaving him free to do the things the prince of the fire nation wouldn’t be able to do. This is because by becoming the Blue Spirit, he feels free to do some things that his morals as the prince will not allow. It gives him the ability to let go of his responsibility and tainted name.

In the first appearance of the Blue Spirit, Zuko dons the mask to (at first) recapture the Avatar for his own gains. I won’t recount the whole episode for you but by the end, Aang ends up asking Zuko if, before the war, they could have been friends. I’ve always found this to be a pivotal part in the series for Zuko and Aang. And besides, it’s a great opportunity to show the audience that Zuko is multifaceted.

Plus, the Blue Spirit is pretty bad ass.

The Masquerade (Daughter of Smoke and Bone)

Daughter of Smoke and Bone is a magical and poetic book series complete with political intrigue, well-developed characters, and universal themes. Ultimately, the series centers on the love of two people, Akiva and Karou.

The first time Akiva and Madrigal (Karou) meet is on the battlefield. She spares his life, even though they’re on opposite sides, even though he’s an “angel” and she’s a “demon.”

The second time they meet is in the streets of Loramendi during The Warlord’s ball. And it’s simply and utterly magical. This has become one of my favorite scenes for a few reasons.

Akiva and Madrigal function as a type of Romeo and Juliet. They’re on opposing sides in a war against “demons” and “angels.” Madrigal (and everyone else in her race) has some animal feature (they're chimera). For example, Madrigal has ram horns jutting from her head. While Akiva and his entire race have bird wings (hence angel). Oh, and both groups have different ways of using magic.

For many years, Akiva’s people have enslaved Madrigal's people, so there’s definitely animosity there. But what’s even worse is that Madrigal is betrothed to (basically) the prince of her people (the Warlord) and the enemy number one to Akiva’s kin.

So, the Warlord has thrown a party, and he’s decreed everyone wear masks (because masks are cool). Much to the chagrin of Madrigal, she even has a light dusting of sugar on her body just for the Warlord (shivers).

But Akiva wants to see Madrigal again, and so he wears a mask to hide his angelic features and dive into the depths of enemy territory.

The mask acts as a guise to reunite them! That mask represents just how far Akiva is willing to go (into the pits of enemy territory) just to dance with her! To know her! That mask gives him the ability to see Madrigal’s world through her own eyes. That mask is a way to bring them together in such a way that would have never been possible otherwise.

And on a deeper level, it could symbolize how everyone is equal, enforcing the theme that we’re all living beings, so we should be treated equally and should be able to love equally.

Bethany Baldwin

The Phantom (Phantom of the Opera)

If it is for a mask you ask, then Phantom surely fits the task. All right, so my poetry leaves some to be desired. Still, if I don't know much about rhythm and meter, I certainly know about theatre. I have a pretty good foundation in it, though I'm always learning more. My favorite story involving the use of masks is The Phantom of the Opera musical. And no, I'm not talking about the Gerard Butler film. We don't talk about that. I'm speaking of the original musical created by Andrew Lloyd Webber that the film just happens to be based on.

If you've heard of Phantom then you already know masks are a huge part of the story. You can't see a poster or a piece of merchandise without seeing a mask. Why? Because the titular main character never leaves home without one. The Phantom uses a pure white mask to cover up his deformed face.

Masks also fit into the song "Masquerade" when nearly all of the characters come to a ball in costume.

I love The Phantom of the Opera. Some disagree with me, but it will forever remain one of my favorite musicals. It's a rock opera that blends history with murder, and it so fun and scary and beautiful at the same time. Obviously, the show also depends on the performers. My favorite version of the show is actually available for purchase and stars some of my favorite theatre actors: Ramin Karimloo, Sierra Boggess, and Hadley Fraser. I can't recommend them highly enough.

Being in the "Phandom" (see what I did there?) can be interesting as well since people have such different opinions on the morality of the story. Christine, the main female character, must choose between the murderous Phantom with the velvet voice or her childhood friend Raoul. I'm a Raoul supporter, though the Phantom's glossy voice and harrowing backstory are quite a pull for some. Overall, I love the story of The Phantom of the Opera for many reasons that would probably take me ages to figure out. The songs, the story, and the right actors create a beautiful show for everyone to enjoy and think about.

I also want to give a shout-out to one of my favorite movies, The Princess Bride. Masks are important to this story as well since the Dread Pirate Roberts hides his eyes with a mask for some of the film to disguise his true identity. I've loved The Princess Bride since I saw it on vacation when I was ten. The acting is lovely, the writing superb (there are so many witty lines... one could have a quote battle), and the story just wonderful. While some of the special effects and whatnot create an almost corny atmosphere, The Princess Bride actually benefits by not taking itself too seriously. If you haven't seen this film you need to. Now. For real. And if you don't... I'll send the Dread Pirate Roberts after you!

Jaime Heller

Darth Vader and Kylo Ren (Star Wars)

One of the most intimidating masks in pop culture is undoubtedly the mask of Darth Vader. Whenever someone sees him coming--whether they're Stormtroopers or Rebel Alliance soldiers--they quake in fear at the shiny, black mask. His mask is interesting because it both looks alien and human--you can see the contours of his face and where his eyes sit, but everything is covered in the black material (apparently made of woodoo hide, fancy). His expression never changes, so it's hard to know what he's thinking. Will he give you a new order or will he suddenly start force-choking you? It's hard to tell.

At the same time, Vader needs the mask to stay alive (hence the breathing). But why? What's truly under the suit? When we finally learn this in Return of the Jedi, Vader doesn't seem so powerful and terrifying; he's just a man, he's just a father. This mystery--of who is under the mask--is what makes Darth Vader's mask so powerful.

Which is why Kylo Ren's mask in The Force Awakens is also interesting. Whereas Vader's mask is necessary not only to strike fear into his soldiers and enemies but to keep him alive with the breathing apparatus, Kylo Ren doesn't appear to need the mask. Sure, masks are usually helpful keeping the wearer's head safe, but this is Kylo Ren--powerful Knight of Ren. He doesn't need the mask. He uses the mask only to strike fear in people. But his mask is much more inhuman than Vader's. The eye-visor is a single color with no distinction of eyes or cheekbones, no humanity to him. And the mouth is covered with a dark muzzle of sorts, as if his words aren't his own. Kylo Ren's mask looks intimidating because one cannot sense at all what he is thinking, but it also reveals what he strives to be: Darth Vader in all his Sith Lord glory.

Kylo Ren undoubtedly fashioned his mask to look similar to Darth Vader's (even if it's part of his Knights of Ren uniform; it's reminiscent of Vader), to evoke the presense of the old Sith. He's using it to pretend at the power he wishes he had. So when he takes off the mask in the interrogation scene, the moment is once more anti-climatic. The face behind the terror isn't someone to fear; he's just a boy. With the mystery gone, we see Kylo Ren as he truly is: someone trying to be more than himself, someone grasping at the power Vader once had.

From the identical Stormtrooper design to Boba Fett's distinguished helmet, the Star Wars universe is full of all types of masks and helmets. Each one is used for a different purpose and has a different place in the galaxy. What's important, though, is what is underneath the mask.

Anna Gensimore

Labyrinth is the brainchild of Jim Henson, George Lucas (strangely enough), and creature designer extraordinaire Brian Froud. It stars David Bowie and a teenager Jennifer Connelly as she portrays a girl named Sarah who mistakenly sends her baby brother away to the kingdom of the Goblin King (Bowie). 

There's a pivotal scene in the movie where Sarah takes a bite of an enchanted peach. She slips away into a dream world populated by masked characters in elaborate costumes straight out of a fantasy novel. Jareth, the Goblin King, coquettishly eludes Sarah as she looks around the ballroom in fascination and apprehension. The masquerade ball is Jareth's attempt to give Sarah her heart's desire in exchange for forgetting about her quest to rescue her baby brother. She is bewildered at this world and these caricatures of an aristocracy; the sort of place and people Sarah has fantasized about belonging to instead of her typical suburban life. A clock chimes the hour and it startles Sarah into remembering her reality, and she causes the gilded dream to shatter bringing forth the garbage dump where she's fallen asleep. 

To me, the masks represent the confusion Sarah feels adjusting to this period of her life. As a teen, she's beginning to understand adult interactions and doesn't exactly know if she likes the reality as opposed to the worlds she's built up based on her reading. Sarah's father has remarried and she now has a baby brother, for the entirety of her life she's been the center of his attention. Jareth's fantasy world offers her the opportunity to reclaim that feeling of importance. It is a point of maturity for Sarah to deny that desire and move on to save her brother


Corvo Attano, the head bodyguard of the deceased Empress Jessamine, is on a quest to rescue Empress Jessamine's daughter and avenge her death. Due to the circumstances of Empress Jessamine's assassination, Corvo has been implicated in her death and is the key suspect. This makes his quest all the more complicated, thus he must adopt a disguise. 

This comes as a mask given to him by a genius inventor and ally. Corvo's mask gives him heightened abilities of perception and provides anonymity. Citizens of Dunwall (the setting of the game) start to whisper about a masked phantom that is terrorizing the aristocracy with no idea that he's the same man who supposedly murdered their Empress (and his lover) in cold blood. Corvo, of course, due to this anonymity is eventually able to restore his reputation by uncovering the treacherous plot that certain officials cooked up to not only take out Jessamine but to continue the rat plague that is ravaging the kingdom. It's quite a useful mask indeed.

Sky Destrian

Steve and Bucky (Captain America)
One thing masks are known for is their ability to mask the identity of superheroes. So, today I want to talk about one masked Avenger, Captain America, and his best friend, Bucky Barnes.

Cap's uniform throughout the comics and the movies is very similar, and the movies drew upon his outfit in the comics to create the outfit that Chris Evans wears. In The First Avenger, we first see Cap's famous mask/helmet when he's just a prop for the WWII propaganda, but interestingly, he keeps a similar uniform throughout every movie. It's interesting to think about what prompted the helmet to be included in his first costume (besides being reminiscent of the original comic design). Was it to hide his identity so that it's easier for the audience to project their hopes and dreams on to him? Was it for fashionable flair? Was it to bring out that gorgeous blue-green in his eyes? It's very telling that even after Cap stopped performing, he kept the uniform, choosing to embody the positivity and glory of the United States through his outfit, famous shield, and yes, even his helmet (which often has the letter "A" emblazoned across the top--for America, of course).

Bucky Barnes, Cap's best friend, also wears a mask, though as several people online have noticed, Bucky's is more like a muzzle. (At certain points in the movie, his eyes are also obscured by either goggles--which make him appear more robotic and menacing--or smudged eyeliner.) Much like Cap, Bucky does keep his Winter Soldier outfit relatively the same throughout the movies, except for one key point: he removes his muzzle. It's symbolic for his emancipation from HYDRA and his ability to be an individual, make his own choices, and speak his mind.

It's also interesting how Cap and Bucky's masks mirror each other, each covering different parts of the face. Each mask has become iconic and symbolic to show aspects of their values, character traits, and back story--and that's a great purpose for masks if I do say so myself.

Which masks from fiction are your favorites?


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