Why The Mask couldn’t have been adapted properly in the 1990s.
By Davey R
Tell me when you’ve heard this one before: You’re in a coffee shop, preferably Power Up Coffee in Paisley, having a chat with your friend when you talk about old comic book adaptations. You mention The Punisher or Blade, and you say “I wish they could have adapted that properly back then”.
The one film that gets mentioned amongst my group of friends more than any other is the Mask. However, this is one film that absolutely couldn’t have been adapted faithfully in the 1990’s. Why not? Read on, dear reader.
The Mask started off with a short run in Dark Horse Comics as a short comic called “The Masque”, squarely aimed at people aged between 16 and 25, and was a product of it’s time. Whilst we had The Joker paralyse, maim and (implied to have) rape Barbara Gordon in Batman The Killing Joke, the largest two comic book publishers in the industry saw a huge tonal shift.
This came up with brilliantly post-modern takes on superheroes and the genre as a whole. From Alan Moore’s deconstruction of the genre and the tropes associated with it in Watchmen, to DC doing the unthinkable by killing Superman, it became clear that the whole genre started to shift tones.
In this comic book period, we got great graphic novels, including James O’Barr turning a superhero into a beyond-the-grave revenge thriller in The Crow. As an aside, check out both the original graphic novel and the 1994 adaptation of this classic if you haven’t already done so.
So, where does The Masque fit in to this?
Well, The Mask was a product of this time period in comic book and graphic novel history. Whilst the more colourful versions of superheroes were appearing on children’s television and dominating the world of professional wrestling (Thank you, Vince McMahon), the world of graphic novels and comic books had started to get an older audience.
This audience had become jaded by real-life world events, such as the cold war, Richard Nixon, Margaret Thatcher and the like, and thus wanted to see this reflected in what they read: Enter The Mask.
The Mask, as both a study of the history of graphic novels and as a normal read, is utterly fascinating. Why? Well, let’s start with the basics. Stanley Ipkiss is not your normal superhero’s alter ego. He’s a down-on-his-journalist in his late 30’s and is brutally unlikeable.
He has a big drinking problem, he can’t control his finances, his temper or his body, being visibly overweight and sloppy. In the first issue, we see the decaying of his relationship with his girlfriend, as his dangerous temper blows over the point where he could control himself, and we see him threaten to beat his girlfriend, thus ending the relationship.
He’s also a miserly idiot, who thinks of nothing about harassing and attacking a co-worker who owes him $60. Clark Kent, he is not. Then, we see the MacGuffin of the comic and the reason for the whole issue: Stanley finds the mask in a charity shop whilst looking for a gift to give Kathy, as a way of apologising.
The jade mask (from “somewhere east” but never specified) starts speaking to him and eventually, the abusive wife-beater gives in and puts on the damned mask. From the moment he puts on the mask, the spirit locked within takes over his personality and helps Stanley get a cathartic release for the most dark recesses of his subconscious with a new personality and reality-warping powers.
The new personality, Big Head, takes revenge on Ipkiss’s boss, the poor man who owed him $60, and many others, including several police officers, and some youths who attempt to steal a car. The graphic novel gives the reader no room to breathe: the violence is bloodthirsty, frequent and gory in the most graphic of ways, which gives us nausea, whilst Big Head breaks the fourth wall frequently to joke about it.
After Stanley removes the mask for the first time, he gets a moment of clarity and discovers that he actually has a conscience, and thus leaves it with Kathy after he has yet another screaming match with her, with this time actually devolving into full-on violence.
It’s sickening to see, but it serves a purpose, as it helps build the shock of the twist at the end of Stanley’s character arc. Later on, Stanley tries (and succeeds) to break into the apartment to make up with her for the umpteenth time, to only get confronted by an angry Kathy and a small army of police officers.
Realising that putting on the mask is his only way of making it out of the apartment as a free man, Stanley obliges and we see an escape from the apartment not unlike Rorschach’s escape from Moloch’s flat in Watchmen. The difference?
Whilst Rorschach escapes without deliberately killing police officers, Big Head goes for blood, killing at least eleven (the number of people he kills is unclear and never confirmed) of the poor guys in sanguine, inventive and bloodthirsty ways. It’s not unlike scenes in Sin City, Judge Dredd and 300.
Realising that Stanley is Big Head, Kathy heads to his apartment, where once he takes off the mask, Kathy shoots him through his abdomen, before putting on the mask herself.
You can see why this couldn’t have been adapted properly, can’t you?
Is it possible to adapt this graphic novel to film in today’s world?
Whilst this graphic novel was never going to be acceptable to be translated into a child-friendly feature film, there is a way to adapt it into a decent film in today’s world, particularly now certain attitudes have changed.
Whilst violence towards women has sadly increased in the world today, the punishments and legal definitions of domestic violence have changed to the point where whoever gets the job to adapt this has an easier ride of doing it due to changing attitudes both in society and in the feature film production industry (be it in India, Canada, Hollywood or the UK).
The subject of gun control has become a bigger talking point in the media thanks to mass shootings such as Virginia Tech, Columbine and Sandy Hook, which makes Big Head even less likeable, even if he has a darker personality type than Deadpool. This really is the perfect time to make this film and make it work.
Okay, you’ve twisted our arm, but who should be involved?
Director: This shouldn’t be given to someone who makes family films, so I’m sorry Steven Spielberg, but in my opinion, you shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near this, but equally, someone who is renowned for bloodthirsty films shouldn’t be allowed to help this dark film see production.
So, if not M Night Shyamalan, Steven Spielberg or Quentin Tarantino, who? Well, there are two ideal directors I have in mind. Firstly, Alejandro G Innaritu. Why? Birdman. If this film is to stand out as a well made film, and not just something like Venom, then we need a director noted for taking a production risk or two, and after seeing Birdman recently, Innaritu’s style of film would be perfect.
His films take a one-shot style, with minimal camera cuts. Take Birdman, where there is only one cut in the whole film, and the style of camerawork makes the audience both fascinated and nauseous. This style would do brilliantly at showing the brutality of Big Head without going full on Tarantino with the gore.
The other director is a bit of left-field choice, but considering the subject matter and the themes of domestic violence in the source material, maybe a good female director should deal with this one. If this is a better case, then I’d strongly recommend the director of the 2013 remake of Carrie, Kimberly Pierce.
What else has she made? She was the director of films such as Boys Don’t Cry, The Last Good Breath and Stop-Loss, all of which deal with the themes of ultra-violence and toxic masculinity. She’d be a perfect fit, if the studio could get her to dial back on the gore factor.
Who should star in this remake?
Stanley Ipkiss: Whilst most studios would probably opt for a younger cast in the film than the comics have the characters, in this remake, I’d have someone who’s heading towards middle age, but is fully capable of the physical aspects of this film.
So, I have one actor in mind. Michael Fassbender, who has proven himself capable of handling dark themes and physical stunts in films such as X Men First Class and Hunger. Fassbender would be my ideal pick by a long shot, as this film would be a perfect transitioning role as at 42, he’s not much older than Ipkiss is in the source material. Fassbender has never shied away from dark material, and this would really test his range.
Kathy: Whilst it may annoy certain fans of the novel (mainly white men), I’d race swap this one, but purely because of one actress who is no stranger to science fiction, both dark and light, and that woman is Tessa Thompson.
She’d be perfectly cast, as we’ve seen the range of her roles through both Thor Ragnarok and WestWorld. If you aren’t sure of why I’d cast her, check out her performances in Dear White People and Heroes. She’d be phenomenally good, and is perfectly capable of physical stunts should the production house wish to make the inevitable sequel if this film does well.
Why would this film do well?
Firstly, the time is right. Whilst Disney are dead-set on remaking all of their animated classic films into live-action, Hollywood isn’t too far with successful sequel/soft reboots aplenty. From Men In Black International, which I strongly recommend that you avoid after seeing it in cinemas recently, through to more successful attempts at this such as Jurassic World and Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom as well as the latest Star Wars trilogy.
Along with this, darker source material is getting successfully adapted, like Deadpool 1 &2, Kingsman and Kingsman 2: The Golden Circle. If Kingsman can get adapted successfully and make as much money as it did, then making The Mask shouldn’t be an issue.
Also, in the wake of rising feminism and Time’s Up, violence against women cannot be played off for humour any more, and as such, making this film faithful will be a lot easier to do, as you’re not supposed to like Stanley Ipkiss.
He is a violent, wife-beating thug, and when you see him get his ultimate comeuppance in the source material, you’re supposed to feel happy that Kathy has finally stuck up for herself and gained her bodily autonomy in the process.
Honestly, that last moment, with her standing over Stanley’s body wearing the mask should be a real, gut-punching “Yass!” moment, and would serve brilliantly for bringing in a sequel film. The Mask is not meant to be an easy ride, hence why it rewards you by showing you Kathy going full-on Carrie style at the end.
What do you think, dear reader? Did you enjoy reading that, and if not, why not? Please, whichever way that you reacted to it, don’t hesitate to let me know on Twitter, where you can find me @TopRopeDavey, and please, come and enjoy some of the best coffee in Paisley at Power Up Coffee on Causeyside Street.
Yours, as always,