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This is the thirtieth installment in a series of articles tracing the complete history of superheroes in film and television, from the first superhero serial all the way to the current Marvel and DC cinematic universes.  For the previous installment click here, for the first installment click here.

1994’s “The Mask” was based on the Dark Horse comic book series created by Dark Horse’s founder Mike Richardson.  The film starred Jim Carrey in his first film appearance after his break-out role in “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective,” as well as being a break-out role in its own right for Cameron Diaz, who was making her feature film debut.

The film takes a decidedly different turn with the material than the original comic book series had.  The comics were much darker in tone, although the violence was still as cartoonish and over-the-top as it was in the film.  Originally, New Line Cinema had intended to keep the tone of the comics intact, seeing “The Mask” as a horror film instead of a comedy.  The original intent was to have the next “Friday the 13th” or “Nightmare on Elm Street” franchise, but this ultimately wasn’t to be the case.

The film went through several drafts as a horror film before the decision was made to make it a comedy instead.  Earlier that same year, Jim Carrey – who had risen to prominence as a member of the skit comedy television series “In Living Color” – had become a huge star with the hit comedy film “Ace Ventura.”  Due to his natural facial elasticity and over-the-top humor in both “In Living Color” and “Ace Ventura,” Carrey was cast as the film’s protagonist, Stanely Ipkiss.

When the decision was made to change the tone of the picture, special attention was taken to retain the look of the character.  The superhero character – called Big Head – is fairly close to the comic books.  He has a large bald and green head with no ears and big teeth.  Even the bright yellow zoot suit was taken directly from the comic books.

The film follows Stanley Ipkiss, a meek and timid bank teller who hates his job, his boss and his customers, as he finds a strange wooden mask in a river.  He initially jumped into the river because the mask, tangled up in some garbage, looked like a floating body and he attempted to save it.  When he discovered it was just garbage, for him that was the end to a perfectly b-e-a-utiful day.  He picks up the mask and takes it home with him.

He soon puts on the mask, and finds out that it grants him magical powers.  Powers which he states he can use to become a superhero.  Big Head is still violent in the film, as he is in the comics, but his violence is is tempered with comedy and a much more cartoonish style, in the vein of old Tex Avery cartoons.  He is seen chasing an alarm clock down the hall of his apartment building with a large mallet, and even makes a machine gun out of a balloon animal.

After the success of “Ace Ventura,” the success of “The Mask” pretty much cemented Jim Carrey’s reputation as a comedy powerhouse and one of the biggest stars of the 90s.  In fact, both of those movies introduced many catchphrases into the pop culture such as “S-s-s-s-smokin’!” and “Aaaaaalrighty, then!” which remained popular throughout the decade.

“The Mask” went on to become the second highest grossing superhero movie of the time, behind Tim Burton’s “Batman” which came out five years before.  The film holds a 77% on Rotten Tomatoes, with the critical consensus being that “it misses perhaps as often as it hits, but Jim Carrey’s manic bombast, Cameron Diaz’ blowsy appeal, and the film’s overall cartoony bombast keep ‘The Mask’ afloat.”

“The Mask” is the perfect example of why straying from the source material can sometimes be a good thing, and can even make the story or the characters better.  A film like “The Mask” could never be made today because the fanboys would eat it alive for being a little bit different.  No, “The Mask” wasn’t the same as the comic book, but that doesn’t invalidate its existence.  The only validation “The Mask” needs to exist is that it was a wonderful movie which was successful in everything it tried to be.

“The Mask” was followed by a sequel, “Son of the Mask,” in 2005.  “Son of the Mask” tried to go too far in the cartoonish direction, and comes off as much more of a children’s movie than the original.  “Son of the Mask” is generally considered to be a failure.

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References:

Ebert, Roger (July 29, 1994). “The Mask”.  rogerebert.com.

“The Mask (1994)”. Rotten Tomatoes.

“The Mask (1994)”. Box Office Mojo.

“The Mask”. British Board of Film Classification.

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