With great power must come great responsibility.'' Anyone who grew up in the '60s will at least dimly remember those immortal words-uttered in the narrative of the final panel of Amazing Fantasy, Spider-Man's first comic-book appearance. The web-slinging adolescent Peter Parker was the first superhero whose unearthly powers were accompanied by a strong dose of earthly teen angst.
The power/responsibility edict is one that most superheroes seem to know instinctively, although others, such as millionaire playboy Lamont Cranston (Alec Baldwin) in The Shadow take a little time to figure it out. And last year's most popular superhero (no, it wasn't the Shadow) ignored the mandate completely as long as he could. ''With these powers I could be a...superhero,'' Stanley Ipkiss (Jim Carrey) crows after first putting on the face wear that turns him into a bald, green-faced human cartoon in The Mask. ''I could fight crime protect the innocent work for world peace! But first '' Whereupon he goes out and kicks the butts of two mechanics who razzed his bank-clerk alter-ego earlier that day. In fact, Ipkiss, who has stumbled upon a mask that apparently contains the spirit of Loki, the Norse god of mischief, doesn't bother to fight crime until he's more or less forced to after he's targeted for death for robbing a bank before the villain's gang gets to it.
The Mask is the movie or cartoon, or comic book that every solipsistic adolescent male has wanted to see ever since he was able to comprehend what ''superpowers'' were. Sure, fighting crime is very civic-minded, but wouldn't someone who could bend time and space at will want to get a little cookie for himself? It's a venal proposition, of course, but also an entirely human one that The Mask frequently indulges in. In addition to Ipkiss' id-gratifying nights out as an emerald-headed shape shifter, The Mask overturns other genre cliches with an oddly pleasing feistiness. It sets up a classic bad-girl-versus-good-girl romantic entanglement for Ipkiss, then turns it on its head by having the ''good girl'' (Amy Yasbeck) betray him. Talk about the fulfillment of the ultimate adolescent fantasy-the hero ends up with the babe & (Cameron Diaz), not with the woman whom narrative convention has deemed ''right'' for him.
It's this kind of nose thumbing at presumed virtues, along with cool special effects and a Jim Carrey performance that's equally effective in both shy-guy and rubberband-man modes, that made The Mask such a crowd-pleaser in theaters last summer. The movie itself is lighter than gossamer and full of sequences that, despite their visual brio, play like padding. (Why does the Mask decide to distract a huge assemblage of cops with a mambo number, for heaven's sake?) Like Batman, this is one of those movies whose sequel promises to be more coherent and entertaining.
As for The Shadow, the public seemed to respond to the question ''Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?'' with a raspberry-punctuated ''Who cares?'' But I wouldn't put The Mask's theatrical success and The Shadow's disappointment down to a decline in public morals; it's more a matter of the latter's refusal to adopt a consistent tone. One minute this tale of the crime fighter who can make himself invisible by clouding men's minds is a conscientious attempt to visualize the moody, fog-shrouded atmosphere of the old-time radio show on which it is based. The next it's a peculiarly campy extravaganza. Then it's a special effects-laden fantasy flick. And while the movie's re-creations of New Deal-era Times Square and other period New York locations are impressive indeed, screenwriter David Koepp (who scripted Jurassic Park, which shares The Shadow's craven refusal to take its genre seriously) and director Russell Mulcahy sink the movie through their lack of conviction. In demonstrating that they're above such superhero silliness, they shoot their project not in the foot, but in the heart. At least the makers of Mask acknowledge that goofiness can be its own reward. The Shadow: C The Mask: B-