Why are movie-going audiences drawn to mask-wearing characters?

Masks have been part of the human condition for thousands of years, the origins of which go back 9 000 years to the Middle East. From ritual and ceremonial practices in ancient times to practicality and entertainment – masks continue to be a part of our lives.

In the modern era of living, masks are used for the purposes of entertainment, be it a celebration like Halloween, used in theatre production, or more commonly, used in movies. If there’s one pastime many of us cannot seem to do without, it’s movies, and when it comes to movie characters adorned in masks and costumes, we’re seriously spoilt for choice. In fact, in more recent years masked and costumed characters have come to dominate our cinematic landscape; one need simply turn to the Marvel Cinematic Universe for proof of that. And so fellow Cambridge Mask readers, without further ado, let’s take a look at how face masks have played starring roles in some of our favourite films…

Iron Man (2008) 

Iron Man

When 2008’s Iron Man came to theatres and cinemas, no one could have expected it to be the starting block for what would become the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and while there’s no shortage of mask-wearing superheroes in comic books, Iron Man is truly one of the coolest.  Played with humorous sarcasm and sharp wit by the talented Robert Downey Jr., Tony Stark/Iron Man laid a new foundation for how the superhero and his/her alter ego should be portrayed. Iron Man’s mask design was sleek, aggressive, bold, and heroic all at once, and audiences absolutely loved it.

Batman (1989) 


Almost 20 years before Iron Man, a director with only two films in the bag chose the most unlikely actor to play the Dark Knight; that actor was Michael Keaton. Subsequent years would prove to be kind and today Keaton is considered to be one of the best Batmans. Back in 1989, Batman’s mask and costume were not designed with comfort in mind, but purely for looks. Compared to previous renditions, 1989’s Batman with its gothic production design really did strike terror into the hearts of Gotham’s villains. Over the years the mask has undergone many revisions, but it was Burton’s Batman that created the template – the piercing eyes embedded in the pitch-black mask became the staple for the years to come.

Silence of the Lambs (1991) 

It’s not just the heroes who don masks; in many cases, it’s also the villains, and few have terrorised audiences like Hannibal Lector. One thing’s for sure when you watch Anthony Hopkins in one of his most seminal roles; he’s relishing it all the way! Co-star Jodie Foster has even said that she was genuinely scared of the actor when they shot the film.  When we first meet Lector, his face mask is a muzzle, not to hide his face or to protect him, but to protect others from him. The highly educated and sadistic cannibal would go on to appear in one sequel and one prequel.

Star Wars: A New Hope (1977) 

Star Wars

To say that Star Wars was a game-changer would be a tremendous understatement. The characters created by George Lucas have become cultural icons embedded in pop culture and our very lives. One could go as far as to say that Star Wars is simply part of life. However, out of all the odd, interesting and exciting characters introduced in this galactic universe, none stands out as much or possesses the commanding presence of Darth Vader. The mask’s design is iconic and the character’s presence is only preceded by his breathing – which he cannot do without the use of his mask. Maybe Vader should keep a Cambridge Mask PRO handy, just in case. Darth Vader is one of the few villains that audiences love and his mask commands fear, terror, and excitement.

Robocop (1987) 

Possibly one of the best sci-fi movies to emerge from the 1980s, and there were many, Robocop is deemed by many film aficionados to be a timeless movie whose ideas and concepts have been prescient. Action, suspense, gore, violence, comedy, satire – Robocop is all these genres rolled into one. Perhaps it was Dutch director Paul Verhoeven’s ability to approach the subject matter from an outsider’s perspective that gave Robocop its intelligent quirkiness and commentary on American capitalism and greed. The entire costume took hours for actor Peter Weller to get into and its sleek and robust design remains visually appealing. Robocop keeps his mask on throughout the duration of the movie and only removes it in the final act as he begins to rediscover his humanity.

Spider-Man (2002) 


How can we talk about masked characters without talking about Spider-Man? Sam Raimi, who cut his teeth on such cult classics like the Evil Dead trilogy and the Liam Neeson starring Darkman, delivers an imperfect but highly entertaining and largely faithful adaptation of the comic book character. Tobey Maguire’s masked-up Spider-Man faces off against the masked_up Green Goblin, played with maniacal glee by Willem Dafoe. Made at a time when superhero films were still considered a gamble, Spider-Man proved its profitability by raking in $825 million off a budget of $139 million. The rest is history.

The Lone Ranger (2013) 

There was a time when the Western ruled Hollywood and film studios churned them out by the hundreds. But like all things, the Western’s time in the sun came to an end and has since shown up to make sporadic appearances – Silverado, Dances with Wolves, Tombstone etc. In more recent times the Western has proven to be more akin to independent movies. If there is one character from the genre that was waiting to get the big budget treatment, then it was the Lone Ranger. 2013’s take on the masked former Texas Ranger was a commercial failure despite its star power and great production value. Made by the same team that made the highly lucrative Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, this was the first cinematic release of the masked avenger in 32 years. However, even though this movie had the star power of Johnny Depp, the direction of Gore Verbinski, and the producing credentials of Jerry Bruckheimer, it failed to make a profit, and unfairly so. The fact of the matter is that 2013’s The Long Ranger is an incredibly decent film that pays homage to the masked former Texas Ranger that made his first appearance way back in 1933.

In conclusion 

Masks have clearly etched out a large piece of pop culture. The fact that we continue to be entertained and amused by characters in masks and their adventures is testimony to our ongoing fascination with masks. Masks might have come a lot closer to home in the last two years and possibly too close for comfort, but their place has been solidified in society for a very long time. And if the MCU and the DCEU plan to continue churning out superhero movies, and they will, then we’re going to get a lot more heroes in masks for a long time to come.