Top Ten Star Wars Masksby Todd King, contributing writer
We're all wearing our own masks these days to stop the spread of COVID-19 (well, we all should be) but when I think of masking up while daydreaming about things like Star Wars, I consider the many masks worn by our favorite characters from the saga. I was always drawn to the mystery of the masks; what lay behind them? What are they hiding? What does the world look like through their coverings and helmets?
The design of Star Wars masks is second to none in sci-fi/fantasy films. Many of the masks are iconic and instantly recognizable. Whether the masks are on bad guys or good guys, the artists of Star Wars tend to always err on the side of cool. The masks are simply cool-looking even without the stories attached to them. But then, along with the actions of the masked characters and their parts in the larger stories, there's no way to separate story from mask.
I bring up stories because the criteria for my top 10 favorite masks needs some quick consideration. First, I chose the masks based mostly on my personal tastes in aesthetics. Second, their significance to the stories and their impact on the lives of characters also play a part in my decisions. Finally, the masks' iconic status and place in pop culture drive my choices a little, too. So, let's get to it.
# 10: Biker Scout
The scout troopers to me seemed a larger departure in design from the original Stormtrooper than the Snowtrooper and AT-AT Driver in The Empire Strikes Back. This design was familiar with its black-and-white armor scheme but the outfit seemed more flexible and kinetic which they needed as scouts on rough terrain. While I admit it was their choice of transportation, the speeder bike, that made them cool from the outset, I think the mask has both a cool and a creepy vibe to it. Something about the look of the visor, the lack of a mouth-shaped communicator, and the blinders made it particularly intimidating.
# 9: Seventh Sister
The Inquisitors were always intimidating but the Seventh Sister was particularly deadly. Sarah Michelle Gellar brought the Rebels character to life in the Sister's hell-bent mission to destroy the Jedi. There is something special about this mask since it just fits so well with the Star Wars aesthetic. To me it combines the silhouette of Darth Vader with the angular face of an Imperial Gunner and the hood of a Long Snoot. Whether you know those characters or not, this mask is just plain cool and immediately evil. Lucky guests got to see the Seventh one in person at Star Tours and the Jedi training live shows in Disney parks.
# 8: Darth Nihilus
Before General Grievous with his skull-like head, there was Darth Nihilus from the sequel to Knights of the Old Republic. Many will cite Darth Revan from the original game as one who's mask should be on this list. I'll admit it's freaking awesome, but Nihilus's horror-inspired design got me hooked. The hollow eyes and bony exterior are reminiscent of Jason from Friday the 13th and Skeletor from Masters of the Universe. They all work well to represent a scary villain. Nihilus's story is that he's so deep into the dark side that he must literally feast on the Force and become the "Lord of Hunger." It ravages his physical self and with unnatural powers he transfers his dark soul into the mask itself to keep him "alive." He's not a zombie or a wraith, just a power-hungry Sith Lord whose mask is beset with the dark side of the Force itself.
# 7: TIE Fighter Pilot
The TIE Fighter Pilot is a fantastic take on the original Stormtrooper mask. Its all-black sheen make it particularly cool especially since it is designed for interfacing with their ship with its air tubes protruding from the front. I had always thought, even as a kid, that the reason the pilots' uniforms were black was because they followed Darth Vader in his abilities as a pilot and were his troops. In a way, you could say they were since Vader was always a gifted pilot. Regardless, they're quite striking and a great opposite to the hero Rebel pilots.
# 6: Emperor's Royal Guard
That expressionless face hides any and all motive or emotion from the Imperial Royal Guard. They look ceremonial and regal with their long red robes and force pike staffs but we know they would jump to the Emperor's aid in an instant if needed and stab you before you could say "super star destroyer." That thin black slit is the only indication that someone is under the mask and is looking at you, figuring where to slice you up first. The blood red helmet really stood out when they first appeared against the all black and white armies of the Empire. Look closely in The Phantom Menace and you'll see this helmet design in blue while they guard the Supreme Chancellor. When Palpatine reveals his true self as a Sith, we see these guards have already been redressed in red (a favorite Sith color).
# 5: Boushh
Finally, a good guy on this list. Well, not "guy" per se, but somewhere in legends there is/was a bounty hunter named Boushh—but in Episode VI, Leia uses the mask to infiltrate Jabba's palace and rescue Han Solo. Leia's surprise appearance adds to the aura of the mask and introduces a running theme in the movie regarding the shedding of disguises to reveal true selves. The design of this mask is a little grotesque and just plain weird, but that's what makes it work. You'd never suspect a princess to be under that helmet! It's so different from other bounty hunters and troopers that it really sets the design apart. Like many of the other masks, bounty hunter or not, it's an excellent cover to keep one's intentions unknown.
# 4: Clone Trooper
There could be more than one separate list about the cool masks of Clonetroopers because there was a wide variety of designs, each with different functions and ranks. The first version would be the standard clones we saw in Attack of the Clones. There, we watched along with Obi-Wan Kenobi as thousands of clones of Jango Fett marched in frightening synchronicity and put on armor that resembled a proto-stormtrooper motif. Until I actually saw the movie in 2002, I didn't know these troops would not only be clones of a Fett, but also that their armor and helmets would have a Mandalorian-inspired composition. The end result is a cool blend of later Stormtroopers and common Mandalorian masks. It's a fantastic construction that uplifts the idea that these designs evolved over time. If I had to pick my favorites of the clones, I prefer the early captain designs like Captain Rex above.
# 3: Boba Fett
I certainly could have put Din Djarin from The Mandalorian here, or Bo-Katan, or perhaps the Armorer or the heavy gunner. While there seems to be more variety in the Clonetoopers, the design of the Mandalorians' masks all share similarities for many reasons in the fiction. Further, the personalizations of the armor is often subtle. Those customizations are in painted colors and minor tweaks to the central "T" shape of the masks' front. Having grown up with these movies, the impression on my young self was strong—and Boba Fett will always hold that aura of mystery and danger with me. The red highlights on the mask against the green around the helmet make for a unique color scheme in the movies. Even though Boba Fett at first was a lone character and we knew nothing of his past life or his Mandalorian heritage (or even what a Mandalorian was), it looked like his mask and armor were hand-made for his purposes and were one of a kind. He seemed so different and cool that we couldn't help but wonder about his character in spite of his short life on-screen. His whole presentation, including his mask, left a lasting impression on fans and he remains a favorite among many to this day despite his estimate five minutes of screen time in the Original Trilogy.
# 2: Stormtrooper
There's no denying how iconic these masks are. They're grim, calculating, stolid. They're the prototype for nearly every other mask in Star Wars, with their expressionless eyes, angry scowling mouth, glossy white finish—like they've all just come off an assembly line--and black accents; they're almost understated, undecorated, and yet as intimidating as the other masks on this list. You see this mask and it signals danger. Although there are lots of Stormtroopers (so they don't have that uniqueness like Boba Fett) and they represent the dispensable troops of the Empire, they will always represent a vision of futuristic armor and don't look like a product of the late 70s but of truly a galaxy far, far away. Often copied, never duplicated.
# 1: Darth Vader
Yes, this choice is a bit (very) predictable. It is the most iconic mask in Star Wars and arguably in cinema history. So, if everybody puts this at the top of their list, why would I do it, too? Can I add to the discussion of Vader's mask that hasn't been discussed already? I doubt I can.
We all have personal responses to art. Feelings and thoughts and memories and complex emotions can be stirred within us, and very often, we humans share the same responses when we collectively experience the art of film. We all thought Vader was forbidding and made us all uneasy—it exhilirated us at the same time. But what else has been said already? Some familiar aspects about Vader's mask includes the fact that it was inspired by ancient Japanese samurai; and that it had early conceptual treatments by the great Ralph Mcquarrie where he believed this character would need to transport between ships in the vacuum of space; its silhouette is unmistakable; the eyes and mouth resemble a skull; and simply put, its design is meant to evoke evil upon the quickest first glance. Audiences were known to have boo'ed him the moment he was on the screen and nobody knew who he was yet. All that is true and already makes it number one but what is its personal impact?
For me, it is both scary and sad. Whatever expression the mask elicits, you know he wants you dead. It is symbolic of the remorseless dark Jedi, the Sith, and displays the lack of consciousness of the Empire. There is no mercy on that front. It is the look of terror and it is also the sound of terror. That breathing sound is like that two-note theme from Jaws that instills fear the instant you hear it. However, that breath provokes a sense of curiosity. Why does he breathe like that? What happened to him? We knew, even in the earliest of times when we were little, that Darth Vader's mask was his life-support system. Something caused him to need this mask to live. As his story in the Original Trilogy unfolded, the mask became less of an evil symbol and more one of a fallen human being. Somewhere behind that pointy angular sheen was a man. He eventually regained that humanity and his mask came off. George Lucas at one time addressed those who thought no man was behind the mask—that he was all machine—and said that Star Wars "was about human frailty, not about monsters."