Finding the symbolism behind the masks in Star Wars

In the first season of the Star Wars Disney+ series “The Mandalorian,” we only saw the title character remove his mask once — and that was only because he was seriously injured and required emergency medical treatment.

For the Mandalorian — whose real name is Din Djarin — the mask he wears is more than just a helpful disguise for his profession as a bounty hunter. It is “the way” — an important part of his beliefs as a member of the Mandalorian order. For reasons the show has not yet fully explored, the Mandalorians that Din Djarin follows forbid the removal of one’s helmet in front of another person.

Whether Din Djarin will start to bend this rule in season 2 remains to be seen, but until then, the mask continues to add to the mystery surrounding the character and the role he will play in the larger Star Wars universe.

Masked characters have been a part of the Star Wars tradition since the very beginning. From Darth Vader’s introduction in “A New Hope,” to his grandson Kylo Ren in “The Force Awakens,” masks in Star Wars serve a variety of purposes.

From a purely aesthetic sense, masks offer an opportunity for the Lucasfilm special effects and costume departments to show off some cool character designs. Darth Vader’s mask became instantly iconic, and the combination of the mask, bright red lightsaber, and flowing black cape have made this character popular with cosplayers for 40+ years. Masked bounty hunter Boba Fett comes across as a badass even with minimal lines of dialogue, and Kylo Ren’s helmeted silhouette is synonymous with Disney-era Star Wars.

However, masks in Star Wars have always been about much more than just looking cool. There’s a rich symbolism behind the use of masks in Star Wars, and while characters have their different reasons for wearing them, some common themes emerge.

A mask of necessity

At the most basic level, Darth Vader wears a mask because he HAS to. During his battle with his former master, Obi-Wan Kenobi, on the lava planet Mustafar, Anakin Skywalker was burned beyond recognition. The mask he wears as Darth Vader helps him breathe and stay alive.

However, he also uses the mask for intimidation. He knows the mask makes him appear scarier and less human, and he uses that to his advantage. He’s more than happy to play the role of Emperor Palpatine’s mysterious dark side enforcer.

Most people in the Star Wars universe are too scared to attempt to learn more about the man behind the mask…at least, until Luke Skywalker comes along. Although at first he rebels against the idea of Darth Vader being his father, Luke later develops compassion for the man many in the galaxy have dismissed as a masked monster.

Darth Vader removing his helmet as he is dying on board the second Death Star, after saving Luke’s life, is one of the most powerful and emotional moments in the entire Star Wars saga. It symbolizes that he is leaving the “Darth Vader persona” behind him, and becoming Anakin Skywalker once again. He is allowing himself to be more vulnerable with his son. By shedding the mask, his physical form dies, but he finally finds peace by becoming one with the Force.

A mask to hide behind

Although Kylo Ren/Ben Solo wears a mask because he wants to be like his grandfather Darth Vader, he technically doesn’t need a mask to survive. Instead, for Kylo Ren the mask is pure symbolism. He uses it to bury his old identity of Ben Solo, and to become someone new — an instrument of the dark side manipulated by Snoke.

Still, no matter how much Kylo Ren tries to leave Ben Solo in the past, the mask can’t cover up the man he truly is. When he takes his mask off for Rey in “The Force Awakens,” we see how much he desperately wants to be loved and accepted. Even when he rebuilds the mask in “The Rise of Skywalker,” he eventually tosses it aside, along with his lightsaber.

I’ve heard people argue that Kylo Ren is just a lazy copy of Darth Vader’s character, but I’ve never seen it that way. I’m fascinated by the concept of a character who chooses to wear a mask in order to evoke a connection with their family’s past.

Of course, the irony of Kylo Ren trying to be like Darth Vader is that Darth Vader eventually rejects his dark side persona, as Ben himself rejects Kylo Ren at the end of TROS. For Vader and Kylo, their masks symbolize the oppressive influence of the dark side, trapping them inside a metaphorical cage. Only when they allow others to see their true selves are they able to find freedom.

A mask of mystery

It’s a little trickier to talk about the symbolism behind Din Djarin and his mask because this character’s story is still ongoing. We don’t know whether he will choose to be masked for most of the series, or whether he’ll eventually cast his mask aside.

In those earlier episodes of season 1, the Mandalorian is a man of few words. When you take that, combined with a mask that obscures all his expressions, the Mandalorian comes across as aloof and perhaps a little cold. We have to judge him solely by his actions, and as the season goes on, we come to realize that there is a compassionate heart beating behind the armor.

While the mask is obviously a cool character look, I would prefer to see the Mandalorian mostly unmasked by the end of the series. Masks in Star Wars often symbolize the repression of one’s true self, and I’m curious to see what will become of the Mandalorian as he finds freedom from the hurts in his past. The quest to find Baby Yoda’s family will be an important part of that healing — maybe we’ll even see a little suit of Mandalorian armor for the Child!

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