The Power of the Mask: How a Costume Can Make Anyone a Superhero

People need dramatic examples to shake them out of apathy, and I can’t do that as Bruce Wayne. As a man, I’m flesh and blood; I can be ignored, I can be destroyed. But as a symbol… as a symbol I can be incorruptible. I can be everlasting -Bruce Wayne (Batman Begins).

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”[1] A name is a label that defines and gives one an identity. An identity can be changed through the use of a mask which obscures one’s identity and thereby gives the power of anonymity. When behind a mask the ordinary person can be anyone; Steve from across the street could be the guy that robbed the bank last week, but no one knows because he wore a mask. A mask can be used just like an identity: for good or for evil.The most common example of hiding identities behind a mask is the superhero, a costumed vigilante for good who uses the power of the mask to strike fear, instill hope, and create mystery. Why the hidden identity though? Why not just come out in the open and make one’s identity known? Policemen don’t protect their identity and they are effective crime fighters.  People might say that the mask is to protect the hero’s loved ones or so villains cannot attack them at home, or because Batman sounds more official than Bruce Wayne. These answers would be the most common and seemingly valid to the general public. The Dark Knight trilogy brought the use of a costume into an entirely new light though. The purpose of Batman’s costume is not to protect his personal identity, but is designed to make him an eternal symbol of hope and justice that can transcend any one person; that anyone can be Batman, and anyone can be a hero.

The mask is both a separate identity and a part of the wearer, altering the person behind the mask just as the person behind the mask enhances a specific aspect of the mask due to personal nature.

Bruce Wayne and his costume; two parts that together form the symbol and persona of Batman

Bruce Wayne and his costume; two parts that together form the symbol and persona of Batman

When Bruce Wayne assumes the identity of Batman he follows a different code than he does normally, moving outside the laws that govern ordinary men through the power of the mask. A man without a known identity is a man without laws to constrict him. Mr. Wayne is capable of far greater acts when wearing the mask than the normal human. A costume is a powerful object that demands great respect from both beholder and the user alike. A spectator only views the mask and is not directly affected by it, while Bruce Wayne can lose himself in the persona of the mask and find it hard to separate his original identity from his new one. It is essential that Bruce infuse the costume or mask with a certain unique flavor based on his personal experiences and personality, but also make sure that the line between mask and wearer remains clear. In this sense Batman remains the same, yet evolves with each subsequent user.

Bruce Wayne begins his journey as Batman when he dons his cowl for the first time in Batman Begins. It is at this moment in time that the persona of Batman is created and assumed by an ordinary man with no superpowers, just determination, willpower, and some gadgets. As the first Batman, Mr. Wayne is the author of Batman’s identity and the prototype on which the symbol is presented to the city of Gotham. Batman will go only as far as Bruce Wayne can carry him, at least in the inception stage of his journey. While the symbol of Batman must become everlasting, the effectiveness of a symbol depends on its creator and those who implement it, namely Bruce. Bruce Wayne the man can have problems, injuries, and emotional breakdowns; Batman must be an invincible figure whose only emotions are truth and justice. Paul Lawrence Dunbar’s poem “The Mask” summarizes the burden that Bruce Wayne must carry and hide as Batman.

“Why should the world be over-wise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.

We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise.

We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream otherwise,
We wear the mask!”[2]

The citizens of Gotham that depend on Batman for hope and protection cannot afford to ever see weakness. To them the mask is Batman, not the man underneath. The Gothamites are cognizant of Bruce Wayne behind the mask and wonder about whom he is, but the power of the mask makes them forget he has human weakness and transforms him into a superhero. As Batman, Bruce Wayne must become more than a man; he must become a thought, an idea. Batman and justice must be synonymous. “Ideas do not bleed. They do not feel pain”[3]. Batman’s outfit separates him from ordinary people giving him not only extraordinary abilities, but also extraordinary obligations.

When Batman puts on his costume, he is making a visible promise to defend the innocent from evil, and creating a firm bond between the guarded and the guardian.[4] Batman’s promise, like the symbol of the superhero, must be eternal and will endure long past anyone who might assume his identity. When Batman keeps this promise he instills not only hope and faith in the normal citizens, but also inspires them to be more than average, to take matters into their own hands. The strength of the Batman’s image relies on the man behind the mask; this is a well known fact. What is overlooked is that the symbol also relies on the ordinary citizens to form its backbone and support. An ideal that no one stands for is no ideal at all, and if no one believes in Batman’s cause, then he has failed.

In The Dark Knight, two Gotham ferries are shutdown in the middle of the river that surrounds the city. The two boats cannot communicate with each other but are informed that if they do not take the detonators provided to them and blow up the other ship before midnight, then everyone will die. This challenge is a ploy by the Joker to ruin all the work that Batman has done inspiring the people of Gotham. The Joker is surprised when the Gothamites do not blow each other up; Batman’s resilience and refusal to be corrupted has inspired them to assume his mantle even though they are not behind a mask. The people took matters into their own hands just as Batman had intended all along. The greatest example of this change is Harvey Dent, the D.A. for Gotham City. He is the man that can assume Batman’s mantle without wearing the costume, fulfilling the idea of transcendence that the mask generates. However, along with transcendence comes adaptability. Harvey’s eventual corruption and fall from grace proves he is not worthy to be a hero, but also makes Wayne realize that Batman as Gotham’s protector has a responsibility to the people of Gotham. Batman decides to cover up all the bad things about Harvey and take the blame himself, “because sometimes the truth isn’t good enough. Sometimes people deserve more. Sometimes people deserve to have their faith rewarded”[5]. A true hero performs whatever task is necessary for the good of those he has sworn to defend, even if he must condemn himself.

The Dark Knight Rises is the culmination of both Batman’s and Bruce Wayne’s mission to create lasting protection for Gotham City and its denizens through whatever means necessary. Batman has been gone for a decade, Bruce Wayne believing he had accomplished his goal of teaching Gotham to defend itself; however there is one more lesson to learn for the people of Gotham and Mr. Wayne himself. Bane’s appearance and initial defeat of Batman throws the city into a state of chaos, and Gotham is left to fend for itself while its protector is powerless to help. Even in defeat though, Batman cannot, and will not, give up. Bruce Wayne can be beaten, bruised, and paralyzed, but Batman must forge on; the call of duty is unending and Batman must continually rise above it. Bruce Wayne would not have been able to succeed in the beginning but his bond with Batman has imbued part of that persona’s power and resiliency inside of him. The two which were separate are now one. Batman’s escape from the prison Bane placed him in, and his subsequent return to Gotham makes the citizens of Gotham realize that they too are entwined with the symbol of Batman. Whatever happens to Batman, Gotham will soon follow. John Blake is one of the select few who will ever be able to grasp the true meaning of the mask, because he will fill Batman’s shoes. Bruce Wayne may retire, but Batman will carry on, “A silent guardian, a watchful protector, a dark knight”[6].

[1]Shakespeare Quotes.” eNotes. 1990. http://www.enotes.com/shakespeare-quotes/what-s-name that-which-we-call-rose (accessed Sep 14, 2012).

[2] “We Wear the Mask”- Paul Laurence Dunbar

[3]  Niccum, Jon. ““V for Vendetta” is S for Subversive.” LJWorld.com. 17 Mar 2006. http://www2.ljworld.com/news/2006/mar/17/v_vendetta_s_subversive/?arts (accessed Sep 14, 2012).

[4] DeJesus, Edmund X. “Capes and Masks: Why Do Superheroes Wear Costumes?.” World of Superheroes. 11 Aug 2011. http://www.worldofsuperheroes.com/columnists/fan-written-articles/capes-and-masks-why-do-superheroes-wear-costumes/ (accessed Sep 14, 2012).

[5]  The Dark Knight. Directed by Christopher Nolan Warner Bros. Pictures, 2008. Movie

[6] The Dark Knight. Directed by Christopher Nolan Warner Bros. Pictures, 2008. Movie

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