Interpersonal communication depends on body language and facial cues. Various studies have offered up conflicting reports as to how much the nonverbal aspects of a conversation actually make an impact, but there’s no denying that it’s a lot easier to understand where someone is coming from when you can see their face.
And yet, some of our most popular onscreen stories concern appearances concealed by masks and helmets. Right now, The Mandalorian is gambling on the idea that you don’t need to see a man’s face in order to consider him a hero. Disney+ made a big splash with its flagship original series, and while 90 percent of that buzz (conservative estimate) is powered by the effervescent cuteness of Baby Yoda, the show’s blend of familiar Star Wars iconography with deliberate invocation of Akira Kurosawa and classic western tropes (which have their own place in familiar Star Wars iconography) has made it one of the more intriguing new shows of the fall.
While the great screen cowboys of yesteryear were notable for their stoic deadpans, The Mandalorian pushes that to the next level—at the center of the series is the mysterious titular bounty hunter, who has a name but to date is only ever seen wearing his full, traditional Mandalorian armor, helmet included. It’s not until about halfway through the first episode of the series that it’s even clear that Mando is human, a revelation which comes during the flashbacks to his childhood and violent glimpses of the battle that killed his parents and left him an orphan.
In episode four, “Sanctuary,” those who don’t spend their free time reading Wookiepedia learn some important details about the Mandalorian’s helmet: Specifically that he keeps it on at all times in front of other people, but can take it off when he’s by himself. (Which also answers the question of “How do Mandalorians eat?”) But it’s the previous episode that makes the significance of the helmet clear to Mandalorian culture, thanks to the ritual questions of “Have you ever removed your helmet?” and “Has it ever been removed by others?”
While the importance of the armor is well-established, not being able to see the Mandalorian’s face renders his emotional choices a bit of a challenge for the viewer—while the sight of the futuristic carriage in the dumpster is heart-wrenching, his decision to go back and rescue Baby Yoda is ultimately hinged upon the moment when, having gone all the way back to his ship, he finds the metal ball that the child wanted to play with at the beginning of the episode. It ultimately works—there’s no doubt, once he strides back to the outpost, what he intends to do—but it owes a lot to both our narrative expectations and the visual cues provided by the writing and directing. But even as we get to know more and more about the character, the helmet is a reminder that we’re not really supposed to know him.
For The Mandalorian, wearing the helmet is a religious act, one which represents the sublimation of self. Over on HBO, Watchmen takes a darker look at what it means to put on a mask, beginning with the theory—derived from the source material—that the desire to disguise yourself for the purposes of fighting crime is rooted in psychosis. Wearing a mask to fight crime is still illegal in the series’ alternate-universe United States, unless you’re a police officer working in Tulsa, Oklahoma—a test program meant to protect law enforcement after a brutal massacre by a group of masked spiritual descendants of the Ku Klux Klan.
The detectives of Watchmen wear masks to conceal their real identities, but which mask they choose represents some form of self-expression: Wade Tillman/Looking Glass (Tim Blake Nelson) reflects peoples’ own images back at them, while Angela Abar/Sister Night (Regina King) celebrates her childhood blaxploitation hero by dressing up as “the nun with the motherfucking gun.” And the tradition of masked vigilantes, as revealed in episode six, “This Extraordinary Being,” goes back to Angela’s grandfather, Will Reeves (played as a young man by Jovan Adepo). A Black police officer and victim of an attempted lynching, Will takes the hood and noose his fellow officers placed over his head and forges a new persona from them. As Hooded Justice, he can not only help people, but unleash the anger pent up inside him. Will is hiding who he is (even wearing white face paint beneath the hood to disguise his race), but in some ways the mask lets him be honest about himself on a whole other level.
Watchmen comes along at an interesting time; after a decade of films set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the idea of a superhero wearing a mask to preserve their “normal” life feels almost quaint. By the end of the franchise’s first film, Iron Man, the characters have largely rejected secret identities. Captain America never bothers to hide his face (unless he’s eating shawarma), Hawkeye and Black Widow are shielded only by code names, and Doctor Strange didn’t even bother to change his. T’Challa’s a king and Thor’s a god, so why would they care? The characters who do try to preserve some sense of privacy have good reasons for doing so: Scott Lang’s criminal record doesn’t jibe well with the Ant-Man persona, and Peter Parker wants to live like an average teenager—though those hopes might be dashed by Spider-Man: Far From Home.
Many Marvel characters still wear masks of some kind. Star-Lord has his red-eyed space helmet, Captain Marvel sometimes rocks the full glowing-eyed mohawk look. Iron Man’s mask and Cap’s helmets transformed them from people into icons—ideas upon which we can project ourselves. Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse took this a step further with the idea that by wearing a mask, a superhero enables the less-super to imagine themselves capable of heroics—as the refrain goes, “Anyone can wear the mask.” The film’s central message paints the mask as a positive, a choice to represent hope and courage to others.
Theoretically, that level of projection is possible for the Mandalorian—but thanks to the way in which the character has been unveiled, the mysteries surrounding his origins are one of the show’s most intriguing factors. Instead of imagining ourselves in his place, we’re trying to figure out who, exactly, he is. And perhaps that’s the key difference here: When someone wears a mask, what matters is if the viewer understands why they’re doing it.