It’s not surprising that Hollywood has turned to adapting comic book superhero stories. It’s rather more surprising that it took them this long. After all, superheroes come to film with strong backstories and are fully predesigned for strong visual action against clear-cut villains. What could be more classical?
But superheroes were created for a different medium in different historical circumstances, and this poses certain difficulties in bringing them to movies. One such problem concerns the mask itself.
Superheroes were created to appear in a publishing venue with limited capabilities to reproduce fine linework and color. This is one reason why costumes are much more important to the comic book superhero than their pulp magazine predecessors. The superhero costume was partly an industrial necessity, since comics were produced on a demanding monthly schedule with artists drawing faces repeatedly (and using different artists over time). Batman’s cowl is simpler to draw than Bruce Wayne’s face. Daredevil’s primary color costume helps visually distinguish him more vividly than a boring earth-tone men’s suit, particularly as rendered through 4-color printing. A mask decreases the variability in appearance that is required to make a hand-drawn-but-mass-produced product resemble the continuity of a real world.
A mask, however, poses problems for film, since movies depend so much on human faces to provoke our identification. Also the commercial film industry emphasizes the star, who becomes hidden beneath the superhero mask. Why should a film pay top dollar for a nuanced actor like Tobey Maguire or Robert Downey Jr. if they’re going to spend the most interesting part of the film with their face covered? The mask makes sense for comics, but it poses a barrier for film, limiting our access to the actors’ expressive eyes, reducing the performer to a physically sculpted action figure.
Recent films have used various techniques to overcome this difficulty in adapting comic book superheroes. Spider-Man 3, for all its limitations, does an admirable job of staging much of its action far above the city where no one can see the hero’s and villain’s faces (exposed by blast impact), thus allowing its actors to interact in more human, involving ways. Iron Man has an even more daunting adaptation challenge, since it essentially must enclose Robert Downey Jr. in metal from head to toe, leaving only tiny slits for eyes. In this clip, the film gives us a video feed of Tony Stark’s face, allowing Downey to convey the newfound joy of flight while also staging action in the iconic Iron Man suit.