Author’s Note: In an effort to avoid over-speculating and working off limited text, this article does not deal with the Episode IX trailer.
From the very beginning of storytelling, masks have played a pivotal role in allowing the audience to understand the narrative and the characters. In the modern day and age, when geekdom is the dominate pop culture phenomenon, masks may be more important than ever, and maybe more forgotten than ever.
Stars Wars, likewise, uses masks instrumentally. Darth Vader/Anakin is the prime example, but it goes far beyond that. Padme/Amidala. Palpatine/Sidious. And, of course, the stormtroopers. The sequel trilogy continues this tradition, particularly with the big four characters, Rey, Finn, Poe, and Kylo Ren/Ben Solo. Individually, and at times together, their masks tell the stories of who they are.
Everyone’s favorite angsty darksider is the most obvious place to begin this analysis. From the first moments of The Force Awakens we are introduced to this character that hardens back to the Sith of old. Vader. Revan. Power. Darkness.
Later in the film, we see a masked Kylo Ren (via some amazing mask acting by Adam Driver), speaking to the mask of his grandfather, Darth Vader, asking, pleading, for the strength he needs to hold onto the dark side. In this moment we see the truth that Lor San Tekka alluded on Jakku. The mask is not truly who he is, but rather who he wants to be. He is trying to make a visage that will fit how he feels. But Rey breaks that reality for him, calling him out for being a monster and getting him to remove the mask for the first time in the film.
In The Last Jedi, the mask is forced off of him by his abuser, Supreme Leader Snoke. But it shatters when he is called out for losing to a girl “who had never held a lightsaber before.” Leaving Snoke’s throne room, Kylo stares at his mask before breaking it to bits. If this girl, this scavenger, could break him so, does the facade even matter?
Speaking of that girl, the introduction the audience gets to Rey is with her in a mask as well. However, her mask is very, very different. For her, the mask is who she is; where Kylo failed at making a lie his reality, Rey succeeds. This is why she takes it off almost immediately. She is unaware that it is even there because it is her.
Herein we must discuss the difference between the literal and the figurative masks for all characters. The literal is, of course, the actual physical prop we see the actors wear. But it represents so much more. Any character wearing a mask is having some conflict of identity. This is the tradition of masks that started in Ancient Greece and continues through our modern cinematic storytelling.
For Rey, the intertwining of the literal and figurative masks is a survival mechanism. In the literal, she needs it to be able to stop sand and other debris from flying in her eyes. But figuratively, it goes so much deeper. The mask is who she is because she has gotten so good at lying to herself that she has actually altered her perception of reality. The Force Awakens is her slowly realizing she even has the mask on, which is why it is so important that the film starts with her silently holding a prop and ends the same way. The mask has been replaced by the mantle of the Jedi. The Last Jedi, then, is her discover just what in the blazes that means.
Like his dear friend, Finn starts The Force Awakens with a mask that he very quickly removes. Unlike Rey, though, his mask is removed both literally and figuratively.
When we first see Finn, then FN-2187, remove his mask, it is after the slaughtering of citizens on Jakku. Finn was already marked here as different, with blood smeared on his mask. Then, when he returns to the First Order cruiser, he takes it off. We get the first glimpse of our soon to be hero, current Cowardly Lion. That mask is soon forced back onto him by Phasma (a case of masks all her own), as he heels to the power of the First Order.
Yet he is still aware of this mask, literally and figuratively, and knows he has to find a way to get it off. Get it off he does. Still very much the Cowardly Lion on this space Oz adventure, Finn rescues Poe Dameron, Resistance pilot and all around hero in his own mind, because he needs a pilot. For Finn it seems like nothing more than a simple getaway. It becomes more, as his stormtrooper mask is permanently removed.
In the TIE fighter, while he is teaming with Poe, FN-2187 takes his mask off to begin helping his new friend, who christens him Finn. After crashing on Jakku, we never see Finn with the stormtrooper mask again. Actually, it would seem he didn’t even save it from the crash. He’s crossed the threshold, and there is no turning back now.
Where Kylo’s mask is textbook, and Rey’s mask is tragic, Poe’s mask is … unusual. On the surface, it would seem that he doesn’t even wear a mask. He’s all bright smiles and go get ‘ems. Still, he has a mask. This one.
That’s right, Poe’s mask is his pilot’s helmet. On the surface it is easy to glance past this, as he is just that: a pilot. The Force Awakens shows that off to the max. We, like Poe, see him being a pilot as simply who he is. He’s a pilot. He’s a hero. Because he said so.
Now, this is not to diminish the immense talent and obvious accomplishments of this ace, but rather to imply that we are never just one thing. Poe can’t just be a pilot. He can’t just be the guy that swings in at the last moment to save the day. He has to be the leader. He has to be the Resistance.
Jump to The Last Jedi and we see that happening. Whereas The Force Awakens went very freely between masked and unmasked Poe, Last Jedi is extremely intentional. He starts the film with his helmet on, being all heroic again. Kind of. Well … okay not really. In his need to be a legend on the level of the Luke, Han, and Wedge’s of the galaxy, he gets an entire squadron killed just to prove he can jump in his X-Wing and blow things up.
We never see him in his mask again. His heroic pride mask gets exposed by Holdo and later Leia, and he is forced onto a journey of self-discovery wherein he becomes the leader the Resistance needs.
The Return of the Masks
Speculation is rampant with regards to Episode IX, but one of the more persistent rumors is that Kylo Ren’s mask will return in a fresh format. While we have to wait until December for that particular idea to become a reality, the masks of our heroes and villains will no doubt tell us very important things about the narrative, and maybe even the future of Star Wars.