A bank clerk without much success with women comes in to possession of a mysterious mask which transforms him into his inner personality. Set in "Edge City", a big American city with a pollution and gangster problem, as "The Mask" the bumbling clerk becomes an unconventional super hero in search of justice and a good time too.
From the late 1930s through to the late 1980s, there were only two major companies in the superhero comic business: DC (who had Superman and Batman) and Marvel (Spider-Man and the X-Men). Thanks to the longstanding dissatisfaction with the titans' labour relations, 80s' writers and artists became attracted to the proliferation of independent companies like Dark Horse and Image, and new hero franchises — funkier or darker than the majors would allow — established themselves.
While the later Batman films were being Schumachered stupid, Tim Burton failed to get a Superman movie together and Marvel (pre-X-Men) always came a cropper (an unreleased Fantastic Four film, Howard the Duck). The new kids were savvier about multi-media, which heralded the arrival of the the films, animated TV shows, memorabilia, computer games, action figures and lunchboxes of the 90s spun-off from The Crow, Tank Girl, Mystery Men, Spawn, Barb Wire and The Mask.
All of these, like the more serious Unbreakable and the long-in-development Watchmen, are comic book concepts that trade on the history of the medium, spinning variants on longstanding themes and ideas. The Mask was created by Dark Horse toppers Mike Richardson and Randy Stanley in 1982, although he wasn't drawn (by artist Jim Smith) until 1985, didn't get a regular series (by Mark Badger) until 1987 and didn't appear in the stories that inspired the film (by John Arcudi and Doug Mahnke) until 1989.
Originally, the character owed something to a bunch of DC characters, with attitudes and style copied from Batman's archenemy the Joker. In the story collections The Mask and The Mask Returns, we follow several characters who don the mask and run riot, more often causing
anarchic mayhem than pursuing vigilante justice (Stanley Ipkiss, hero of the film, gets killed off and the chief mask-wearer is Lieutenant Kellaway, the cop played by Peter Riegert).
The film was tailored for Jim Carrey. Hot off TV's In Living Color and the first Ace Ventura movie, Carrey was hitting his stride as a comedy superstar and stopped off at mini-major New Line on the way to the big studios. Thus, the script is more about Stanley Ipkiss (a walking definition of "nice guys finish last"), than the mask itself, which apparently embodies the spirit of mischeivous Norse god Loki. Watching The Mask again a decade on, it's hard not to get impatient with the time spent on Stanley's loser ways and single-guy relationship with his dog. The real business of the movie is what happens when he pulls on the mask and becomes a zoot-suited shapeshifter, riffing manically on Tex Avery's lecherous Wolf and Chuck Jones' Pepe le Pew, and stealing the odd gag from Bugs Bunny.
Although it's a 90s' artefact in many ways, the film has a weird visual and musical integrity in its 40s Latin look and style, just as Burton's Batman was rooted in noir and Expressionism. The tangled plot might get tiresome, as villain Dorian (Peter Greene) tries to take over the rackets of fictional Edge City, and the one clever plot switch (that gangster's moll Cameron Diaz really is better for the hero than Lois Lane-like reporter Amy Yasbeck) is disappointingly glib, but the film sparkles when Carrey puts on the mask — then-startling CGI gags come thick and fast and rhumba rhythms cut loose.
Copping a speech almost verbatim from the original comic, the enmasked Stanley muses ,"With these powers, I could be a superhero, fight crime, work for world peace. But first..." He then avenges himself on the cowboy garage that is bleeding him for work done on his crippled car, assaulting a pair of mechanics with car parts. In the comic, the mechanics die and the Mask proceeds to humiliate his old school-teacher and cut a bloody swath through Stanley's enemies, suggesting he's less a nice guy than
an embittered loser. In the movie, the mechanics live on to become a crude sight gag and Stanley, though he robs his own bank and is sought by the police, really does become a superhero, rescuing the girl from the gangsters and leading the cops to the villains.
He also, in another bit of plotting which will be instantly rethought if New Line and Carrey ever agree on a sequel deal, gives up the Mask, realising it's the inner nice guy that Cameron Diaz actually goes for. Yeah, right.
Despite everything, it's still a marvellously energetic movie.
Reviewed by Kim Newman