Undressing Star Wars: The role of masks in the sequel trilogy

Masks and helmets have always been a major part of Star Wars costuming, but they take on a new depth of meaning in the sequel trilogy.

Since no Star Wars meta is complete without a Joseph Campbell namecheck, let’s start with that. In his writing on world religions, Campbell proposed that through wearing physical masks, we not only channel the energy of other entities but become them.

[A mask] is revered and experienced as a veritable apparition of the mystical being that it represents––even though everyone knows that a man made a mask and that a man is wearing it. The one wearing it, furthermore, is identified with the god during the time of the ritual of which the mask is a part. He does not merely represent the god; he is the god. 

(via Joseph Campbell Foundation)

In the context of the First Order, there’s very much this idea of using masks and headgear to create a unified, authoritative, emotionless front, both behind the scenes and in-universe. When the antagonists wear masks, they become the physical manifestation of the dark side of the Force.

While the Resistance uses helmets, they’re not masks––you can always, always see the person underneath. The Resistance’s headgear often guards the skull but leaves the entire face uncovered. Even when visors are used, they’re sheer, light-coloured and allow for the eyes to be seen. Part of this is, of course, a storytelling device: you can’t really root for characters you don’t recognise and whose expressions you can’t read. But part and parcel of this is the idea that the First Order has purposely dehumanised its people, either to make them disposable or to intimidate outsiders. That’s something I’d like to explore a little today.

Finn’s stormtrooper helmet

Finn is marked with blood in Tuanul village, Jakku, in the opening scenes of The Force Awakens.
FN-2187 (Finn) is marked by a dying FN-2003 (Slip) in The Force Awakens (2015).

Stormtroopers have always been presented as nameless, faceless and almost robotic, so Finn’s character is seriously interesting. Not only does it humanise the other side, but we learn that there are troopers who aren’t completely sold on the First Order. Morality in this trilogy isn’t black and white, light and dark anymore: it’s perhaps a little more grey.

For the sequels, costume designer Michael Kaplan reimagined stormtrooper armour as made by Apple. He told Vanity Fair:

[J.J. Abrams] wanted to hold on to the uniqueness and not get too far away from the stormtroopers, keep that iconic look, but still have 30 years of difference. I mean, it would be a little odd to have the same stormtroopers this much later when Leia and Han are so much older.

While Kaplan’s speaking on a literal level here, the new design reminds us that stormtroopers aren’t eternal machines; they are people who are constantly dying and being replaced. It’s unlikely that any of the stormtroopers our original trio faced are still in action.

Our first encounter with Finn is at the Tuanul village massacre at the beginning of The Force Awakens. It’s his first time in combat and he’s stunned when his comrade Slip (FN-2003) is fatally shot. Slip’s hand smears blood over Finn’s helmet, both marking Finn visually and jumpstarting his journey to the Resistance. Symbolically, he’s being anointed or baptised. Finn starts his new life that same day. 

Kylo Ren and Finn face each other in a lightsaber battle.
Kylo Ren and Finn face each other on Starkiller Base.

The handprint becomes even more interesting when you compare it to Kylo Ren’s helmet. The fingers form three red stripes over the white eye area, while Kylo’s helmet has three black stripes over the silver visor surround.

The two characters have some neat parallels, and in a way, Finn’s journey is an accelerated version of Kylo’s. Both are indoctrinated by the First Order: Finn was stolen from his family as an infant, while Snoke has been grooming Kylo since he was in utero. Both rise up against their masters, and both are forced to consider their moral standpoints by our female leads. By the end of The Last Jedi, Finn’s found belonging and purpose, but Kylo’s not quite there yet.

Kylo Ren’s Vader-inspired mask

Kylo Ren’s helmet pays homage to Vader’s helmet, but it’s almost a subversion of it. In The Force Awakens, Kylo pleads for guidance from his grandfather.

Kylo Ren’s helmet is an interesting play on the idea of what Darksiders look like. Darth Vader needed his mask to survive, having become ‘more machine than man’. It’s well-documented that the dark side does terrible things to a body, so the revelation that Kylo Ren was, in fact, a handsome young man was pretty shocking. 

Ren hides his soft, expressive face behind a cold, unflinching, almost animalistic facade. It’s impossible to look at that mask and read exactly what he plans to do—and whether he actually wants to do it.

He’s also concealing his identity as Ben Solo, son of war heroes Leia Organa and Han Solo. By decree of Supreme Leader Snoke, Ben’s birth name is never to be spoken, and Han and Leia seem pretty hush-hush about the identity of Kylo Ren. They hid Leia’s parentage from the galaxy for years (Bloodline, Claudia Gray). So… other than Rey, Leia and Chewie, who exactly knows that Ben survived the Jedi academy massacre and turned to the dark side? I’d put money on that being a major plot point in the next film.

Kylo takes his mask off twice in The Force Awakens. The first time is when Rey calls him ‘a creature in a mask’. It’s our first sign that Kylo wants to be seen as a man, not a monster, and Rey is able to look him in the eyes and discover his insecurities. The second is for Han, and we see his conflict writ large across his face. It’s a far cry from his first appearance, where he seems to cut Lor San Tekka down without a hint of remorse.

Kylo Ren considers his helmet in the Supremacy turbolift.

Adam Driver discussed the significance of Kylo’s mask in a 2017 interview with British GQ:

The person Kylo’s pretending to be on the outside is not who he is. He’s a vulnerable kid who doesn’t know where to put his energy, but when he puts his mask on, suddenly, he’s playing a role.

Kylo’s mask meets its demise in The Last Jedi after Snoke dismisses him as ‘just a child in a mask’. Through the events of the film, we learn a tonne more about him as a character and get pretty invested in his redemption—and losing the mask was a key step towards that. The question is whether he’ll regress and start wearing it again.

Captain Phasma’s chrome dome

Captain Phasma leads her army of stormtroopers.
Captain Phasma, commander of the First Order’s stormtroopers, in The Last Jedi (2017).

Phasma’s chromium armour is almost ceremonial: it’s impractically shiny, lacks malleability and is made from metal salvaged from Palpatine’s yacht. It leans heavily medieval, like Kylo’s Knight Templar-inspired wear, and the line detailing along the edges and the crown of the head call back to the details of Kylo’s helmet. They’re perhaps a symbol of rank or merit within the First Order.

While the shape of Phasma’s helmet isn’t so different from her soldiers’, the reflective surface is seriously interesting. Wearing a mirror on your face is such an intimidating move—imagine trying to speak to somebody and only seeing a distorted version of your own face. Phasma’s main role in the films is to play antagonist to Finn, and the majority of their time together has Finn unmasked and reflecting on his image of himself. Rey’s mirror cave scene really dives deeper into that idea of being forced to find identity within yourself, rather than in other people.

There’s a shot from The Last Jedi that I love: the final standoff between Finn and Phasma, during which Finn smashes Phasma’s pristine, glossy helmet to reveal the very human, very mortal woman underneath. You get just this shard of pale, blue-eyed, vulnerable face. It’s fantastic. 

Rey’s scavenger head wrap

Our first shot of Rey in The Force Awakens.

The first time we see Rey, we have no idea whether she’s male, female, humanoid or alien. She’s out scavenging a Star Destroyer, completely covered with a headwrap (actually a top with long sleeves wrapped around her head, Kaplan told Clothes on Film) and soft goggles made with lenses salvaged from a stormtrooper’s helmet. It’s practical and makes for a magical moment when she removes her coverings after a hard day’s work. We never see Rey wearing her makeshift mask again, but her reveal neatly mirrors Kylo’s later in the film.

Kylo’s kintsugi helmet

Kylo Ren's helmet is repaired by an unknown character in the teaser trailer for The Rise of Skywalker.
Kylo Ren’s helmet is reforged in the teaser for The Rise of Skywalker (2019).

As I write, The Rise of Skywalker is still six months away and we’ve only seen a snippet of this mask, but it’s one of the most exciting for me. I practice kintsugi and had idly thought that Kylo’s smashed helmet would be a fun, if seriously tricky, project. The shot of the shards on the floor of the turbolift last episode set this up beautifully.

This mask is all about symbolism. As a helmet, it’s useless: it’s structurally damaged, liable to break again and fails to look intimidating at all. The voice modulator is likely defective and there’s little hope of it protecting the wearer from smoke, toxic gases or heat. No, it’s a storytelling device. Either Kylo is trying and failing to pick things back up as the menacing presence we met in The Force Awakens, or some other party has reforged his helmet. Perhaps the Knights of Ren are akin to his grandmother’s decoys… or perhaps somebody else is posing as him in an attempt to overthrow the Supreme Leader.

Whichever way, this mask speaks loud: like its owner, it’s split to the bone. Kintsugi serves to accentuate the breaks in an object, embracing damage as a beautiful and valuable part of the item’s life. A good artist will mend a piece so it’s watertight, food safe and functions just as it was intended. Normally a metaphor for healing and redemption, it takes days and a steady hand to mend, cure and gild a piece. This piece is broken and Kylo isn’t kidding anybody. He’s still holding on (let go!).

The colour of the fusing medium is interesting. Red is the galaxy’s shortcode for the dark side, but it’s also the colour of blood. Maybe another parallel to Finn’s bloodied stormtrooper helmet? Abrams could absolutely have chosen to mend the helmet with silver, which is a traditional kintsugi colour, but he didn’t. That’s no accident.

This article is part of Undressing Star Wars, an ongoing series on costume design in the Star Wars saga. You can find more film discussion pieces here.

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