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This is discussion archived from a time before the current discussion method was installed.

Another example of this was at the end of last season's Alias. It was an especially stupid example of the trope.

Silent Hunter: This is one of my most disliked tropes.

Whenever this trope is brought up I can't help remember the worst use of it, in the otherwise excellent Mission: Impossible movie. Tom Cruise has to infiltrate a party impersonating a senator, and it's actually Tom Cruise in latex makeup; the way the Latex Perfection is maintained is by having footage of the senator earlier on, also played by Tom Cruise in latex makeup. This would have been fine if it were convincing, but unfortunately we were being asked to believe that the senator really looked like he had an overcooked pancake for a face.
Shale: Well, let's not be too harsh on the filmmakers. Ever seen an actual senator?

Silent Hunter: First use of this trope, anyone. I seriously think it's the James Bond film From Russia with Love.

Thausgt: The trope survives because IMHO it's a modern manifestation of a fairly persistent theme in literature and traditional stories. Almost every culture has legends of shape-shifters capable of perfectly impersonating someone whom the hero trusts in an attempt to lead them astray, until the impostor makes the one barely-logical slipup which allows the hero to realize the truth of the matter. In real-world terms, the trope addresses a specific fear, which is that an otherwise trusted member of the group (even a group of just two members) can have a sudden change of heart and subvert the group's operations or goals. The best example of what I'm trying to say is, ironically, "The Departed" (or if you prefer, "Internal Affairs"). The two lead characters' disguises may have been purely metaphorical, but they were nevertheless both in life-or-death situations in which their public 'faces' had to seem as unrelated as possible to their genuine affiliations. Who would ever have believed that Billy Costigan was actually a cop until the proof came out?

Another reason that this trope survives is based on technical reality, springing from the same ground as the "uncanny valley" concept. Early in the series, the original "Mission: Impossible" episodes had the villain-of-the-week portrayed by the actor who also portrayed the Master of Disguise in heavy makeup... and then have the actual Master of Disguise take the place of the legitimate villain. Confusing? Not half as hard as it was to write that, and that wasn't half as hard a suspending disbelief for the story or stories in question. It just makes for better drama for an established character to suddenly change behaviors, and then have the change revealed as the result of a virtually impenetrable disguise.

And a third reason has to do with artist laziness. Consider the multi-hour process necessary to apply facial prostheses and makeup to transform one otherwise unremarkable performer into... a completely different, otherwise unremarkable performer. Now imagine trying to draw a comic book Master of Disguise who is realistically assuming or discarding a nearly flawless disguise. Likewise, precious few members of the average movie-going audience would have the patience to sit through more than a highly-edited version of the process as part of a story. On the other hand, perfect masks require only a prop, a suitable camera cut and switching actors with relatively simple choreography. Which one do YOU think the artists will choose?

Sir Elderberry: I'm thinking of adding an example but I'm not sure. On Star Trek: The Next Generation they usually have absolutely no trouble disguising themselves as whatever alien species they need. Granted, they're Rubber-Forehead Aliens, but this extends as far as Troi being able to be kidnapped, disguised as a Romulan, and being instantly able to boss around a Romulan ship in "Face of the Enemy". While they sometimes mention being "surgically altered", it seems not to be a very difficult surgery. Crusher can do it between scene transitions. Possible aversion/subversion/something when Riker's Latex Perfection fails because he gets taken into a hospital for an alien race in "First Contact". Because of the surgical Hand Wave, though, I don't know if it qualifies as this trope or what.

wiley209 - I noticed that there are actually quite a few Halloween costume/mask companies that actually DO make masks like these. You won't find them at your typical Halloween costume shop or joke shop, but they're online and at varying costs. There are more affordable realistic latex masks from a European mask company (the chance is slim one of them may look like someone you know you'd want to impersonate, but they are great for concealing your own appearance), and even better are these realistic silicone human masks that completely render you unrecognizable, but they're VERY pricey. I can't imagine any real-life spies using these, but I know someone online that has fun with this sort of thing for some really badass images/videos (that usually are somewhat in the horror genre), something like THIS.