Masking the Difficulties of the Superhero Film Adaptation

Curator's Note

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.



Interesting post, Greg. In reading it, I was reminded of the anxieties encountered in adapting masked radio heroes to comic book, film, TV and merchandise, which would need to visibly represent previously intangible properties. In particular, the Green Hornet was a tough adaptation because on the radio, he simply wore a fedora and a scarf to mask his face, but on TV, this would make his secret identity iminently recognizable. George Trendle, owner of the property, and William Dozier, producer of the 1965 TV series, went back and forth about this particular representational challenge, with Trendle wanting the character to stay true to his radio origins and Dozier insisting that the scarf had to be swapped for a mask so that the audience would continue to suspend its disbelief (and make out dialogue that would otherwise be muffled by a scarf). In this sense, adaptation questions also address imagined audience expectations and production practicalities (though the character was described on radio as wearing a scarf, the voice actor wasn't actually wearing one, and, of course, comic book dialogue bubbles seem to be able to penetrate any sort of masking)

Great post & comments, Greg!  Thanks for letting me connect with my inner comic book geek.  Since I'm way behind on movie viewing, this is the first I've seen of "Iron Man" beyond the commercial trailers.  What strikes me about this clip is how the *inside* of the mask functions as part of the character's identity: the audience receives a privileged view, seeing not only Downey's face as he exhilarates in the newfound experiences afforded by his suit, but also what Downey's mask enables him to see.  This is clearly different from the role of the mask in, say, "Spider-Man 2" and the recent "Batman" films.  Is the inside view of the mask used at other points in the film?

I also wonder how your insights might translate to a character like the Hulk -- and probably Dr. Manhattan the upcoming "Watchmen" film -- in which the "mask" is provided by CGI.  Clearly Eric Bana or Edward Norton aren't playing the Hulk in a conventional sense ... but the audience can kind of read those actors into the rampaging CGI character.

Yeah, we get this privileged view on Tony Stark's face inside the Iron Man suit pretty much throughout the film.  This definitely gives us a more technologized access behind the mask than, say, Spider-Man 2, but that's given its own justification through the highly privileged place of technology in Iron Man.  Of course, superhero film adaptations tend to flaunt Hollywood's technological superiority, even when the superhero is fairly low-tech.  Daredevil, for instance, gives us a highly technologized visual equivalent of Matt Murdock's super-hearing (which also possibly helps to distract us from Ben Affleck's wooden performance!). 

I've seen the Bana/Lee version of the Hulk but not the Norton one. It seems to me that superheroes who expose the face do have a significant advantage over those who don't when it comes to adaptations (notice that non-adapted superhero films like Hancock tend to avoid the mask), and so even figures whose faces are distorted (the Hulk, Hellboy) still give the actor more to work with (thus attracting an actor of Norton's status).  Having said that, there's still something a bit uncanny about the CGI superhero body that puts me out of the film universe and into more of a video game universe.   I feel the dynamic change when Spider-Man shifts to web-swinging (that body STILL looks like rubber to me) and when Bruce Banner/Eric Bana gets ripped. 

Like any card-carrying geek, I humbly await the new Watchmen film, wondering how these issues will play out with Rorschach, for instance.  Again, I titled this piece the DIFFICULTIES posed by the superhero adaptation, not the impossibilities.  Certainly talented filmmakers can find ways around these difficulties (like the inventive Iron Man solution).  And it's certainly possible that a filmmaker can USE these difficulties to his/her benefit.  I think that The Dark Knight ends with a lovely acknowledgment of how difficult it is to see Batman as human, proclaiming that he serves better as a scapegoat, an icon on which we can project our anxieties.  Here's hoping something similarly evocative happens in Watchmen!

Nice example, Avi, to remind us of the economic stakes of the mask.  That reminded me of The Spirit.  Will Eisner thought of his character as a hard-boiled detective, but the newspaper syndicate that published the Sunday feature wanted to capitalize on the superhero boom.  As a compromise, Eisner gave Denny Colt a small Green-Hornet-sized mask.  The problem with Frank Miller's Sin-City-redux film adaptation of the Spirit is that on the big screen, the comic's noir heritage gets foregrounded, and the Spirit's narratives just aren't cutting edge noir material by Hollywood standards.  In the context of comics, however, his innovative-but-classic visual style and this all-too-human detective figure were novel.

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