Dangers of Duality: A story of Masks, Mischief and Mayhem by Ritvik
Mr.Grover yawned loudly as he glanced at his watch. 3:00 P.M. Won’t the time pass by faster. At work, he often observed a curious phenomenon where time seems to trickle, bit by bit, like maple molasses gently dripping from an old can the way it used to when Mr.Grover’s mom would make her delicious shoofly pies. God how much he missed those!. Despite living in New York, nothing hits the same way like your mom’s cooking, Mr.Grover thought. Lost in reminiscing, he almost missed the giant rock hurtling towards the window on his right side, framed like a beautiful shiny crunchy pecan in his mom’s pecan pie…. Wait, giant rock?
Boooom! The rock crashed right through the window and shattered his shiny new mahogany wood desk, luckily leaving Mr.Grover unscathed as he narrowly dove to the side. A large gigantic robot slowly comes into view, with special focus on the giant twin blades protruding from the fists of the robot and eyes that could shoot red hot lasers instantly. The gigantic robot proceeded towards the Griggins and Golgins Insurance Firm Building where Mr.Grover works as an insurance adjuster. As it approaches, mercilessly stomping on cars, trees, hot dog stands, and street lamps, a sudden figure in the distance zooms in, knocking the robot backwards.
“Don’t Fear Citizens, your savior is here, it is I, Nuclear Megapunch. With the power of my Radioactive Kapow, I will slay this mechanical monstrosity and leave it writhing on the ground. Now stand back, and watch how evil that hides from the light, fails to escape the stronghold of justice…….”
“Stronghold of justice, Nuclear Megapunch, Radioactive Kapow, really, who wrote this insufferable crap! And what’s with this weird obsession with this random side character, Mr.Grover and his mom’s cooking!”. Neil Gaddar angrily stood up and threw the unfinished screenplay on his desk. Behind him stood his assistant, a rather youngish man, still green, and unused to the legendary and explosive temper tantrums of the thespians. He cowered, as Neil advanced forward lost in his tirade. “I didn’t spend years of my life after Northwestern acting in shitty soaps to receive this pile of junk. I graduated from Northwestern theater, goddammit! “And the first real shot I get, my agent gets me this crap. When he said a superhero movie, I thought it would be based on the life and dedicated service of the Steward, not this childish nonsense with flying robots, I used to do Hamlet, and now I’m a glorified CGI jockey!”.
Neil’s assistant steps forward and stammers, “But sir, market research suggests that the primary target audience, children ages 8-16 prefer this sort of film. Most of the kids weren’t even around when the Steward disappeared 13 years ago. Also, we still aren’t sure what character you're getting, and regardless this is merely a draft, I’m sure changes can be made to your liking…”. Neil sighed loudly, and stepped away from his assistant mid-sentence to take a smoke break. As he left, he ruminated. Neil regretted his outburst, after all, he himself was still new in the industry, with this being his first major commercial film. But how could the screenwriting be so bad. To take a man like the Steward, a man so humble that he disdained the flashy nicknames younger heroes would give themselves, a man who upon discovering his powers sought to use it for the benefit of mankind, eschewing fame and recognition, a man like that in a movie like this was antithetical. But none of it was his assistant’s fault, he ruefully reflected. Neil was shocked at his outburst, as he prides himself on his calm demeanor and respectful manner. It must be the Hollywood air getting to him, already transforming him into those entitled privileged divas in the tabloids.
A couple of weeks go by, and one day both the director and the writers are fired by the producers and replaced with more seasoned and capable ones. When Neil heard the news from his assistant, he breathed out a huge sigh of relief. Finally, he would be able to act in the film he really signed up for. Getting the chance to play the Steward was a huge honor. He was a man, who long ago was working in a laboratory experimenting on CRISPR, when, to stop some bank robbers, decided to edit his genome to give himself super strength, flight, invulnerability, super speed, and some amount of control over gravitational fields. Since then, he’s been faithfully serving the city, keeping everyone safe, and thwarting the schemes of the Mastermind.
The Mastermind. Neil winced as he thought of him. Another reason why Neil deeply despised the original script. Contrary to how the script portrayed him, The Mastermind was no fun little comic book villain. There were no cheesy speeches, grandstanding gestures, or convenient blunders allowing the hero to be victorious. The Mastermind was a soulless criminal, who was so feared that at what point, statisticians estimated that 1 in 6 people in the city had lost a family member or friend to the Mastermind’s schemes.
No one really quite knew who or what the Mastermind was as he specialized in building complicated machines of mass destruction, nothing like the kaiju robot thing in the movie, a pale imitation of the very real threat of the Mastermind. Both the mastermind and the Steward disappeared after a furious battle that left the city of Northshore in ruins. The fact that the original directors and screenwriters were seriously planning on releasing a movie that disrespected the Steward’s legacy as well as cheapened the loss of life caused by the evil of Mastermind was astounding.
“Mr.Neil!”, Neil’s assistant called, “Casting is in, and it looks like you’re cast as the Mastermind. The role of the Steward ended up going to Matt Kasbith, apparently he was really thrilled to do this role.” Neil was surprised, this was definitely going to be a tough role. But if he did it right, he could achieve his wildest dreams. No one would ever laugh at him, no longer would he have to act with undisciplined hacks only interested in partying and whiling time away, it was time that he embraced his destiny.
“Is this a bad time? '' Matt Kasbith walked in. “No not at all, how are you, it’s really exciting to work with you” said Neil. Neil was in awe of Matt Kasbith. Coming from a similar background like his, working in soaps and random student films for almost 8 years, doing anything for the money and stability, he suddenly came on the scene 5 years, and starred in a slew of critically acclaimed and commercially successful films.
“Now listen, I don’t have much time, I have to attend a dinner. I’ve seen some of your earlier work, Neil, you seem like a promising young man. But here’s the thing. When working with me, it’s a whole ’nother level. You have to be at your best, and I’m not just your costar, I’ll decide on takes and if you can’t hack it, I’ll find some other young actor to take your place, you’re replaceable. Just remember that.” With that ominous warning, Matt left.
Over the next few months, Matt stuck to his word. During takes, the director, Assistant Director, and Matt would all scrutinize Neil’s acting, ruthlessly tearing him down, and a couple of times, even reducing him to tears. Neil was in shock, he knew the conditions in Hollywood would get bad, but he had no idea the extent to which everything would just pile on itself and crush him under the weight of his own hubris. But he had to succeed, this was life and death, he had a name to create for himself and he wasn’t going to stop at some mild pressure from work. In fact, the more he spent on set, he felt this weird sensation crawling around his insides, inducing anxiety and stress. It was so weird how literal frustration and anger appeared like a chimera, sometimes even in his dreams, swirling round and round his psyche.
One day, after a brutally painful day, where he fumbled several times during a lengthy cinematic monologue, untrue to the character but positively brimming with anger and vile sentiments, Matt furiously slapped him as hard as he could. He knocked Neil to the ground, and then turned around, and recited the monologue completely perfectly. Without another word or a glance at poor Neil lying on the ground, he then walked away.
When Neil drove home, still brimming with shame, anger, and humiliation, he was fixated on Matt’s performance. How does he do it? How does he deliver the dialogues so perfectly, with just the right inflection of voice, with emphasis on the right places, completely flawlessly on the first take. Wasn’t Matt just another TV serial actor, how does he do it? That night, instead of falling asleep and getting ready for the 6 A.M. shoot tomorrow in the meat freezer, Neil went down a Matt Kasbith rabbit hole. Matt Kasbith appeared relaxed and calm, expounding on the power of belief, and how he truly becomes his characters, whether they be disgruntled cowboys, shopkeepers, or police officers. Neil looked at tons of film analysis blogs, random internet forums, video interviews, wikipedia pages, and yet he found nothing. Until he saw a random interview from 2019, where, fresh from the success of his 3rd film, Matt Kasbith expounds on his fondness for method acting, a type of acting where the actor lives and acts like the character their playing, until it’s impossible to distinguish the player from the role. Matt Kasbith goes on to describe the work of actors like Heath Ledger preparing for roles like the Joker, how dedicated they went. Neil realized that that’s probably what Matt Kasbith expects of him, that in order to prove himself and make Matt proud, he would need to embrace the challenge. Neil knew that he would need to take method acting to a whole new level, and truly embrace his character. It was quite a strange thought indeed, and Neil had the realization of just how much filming this movie has changed him, his initial impressions on the Mastermind were really different indeed. But a job is a job, and it is time.
Neil found it difficult at first. Like all great actors, the true artist embraces the darkness of his mind, and Neil needed to tap into that. Day by day, he worked, starting small at first. Deftly side stepping grocery store scanners, laden with bags of hot cheetos and chocolate milk, and sharply shutting doors on old women on walkers, he was finally leveling up. No longer the pathetic loser who had trouble with enunciation and tonation, Neil decisively spoke his lines with a kind of confidence that only comes from grabbing Life by the throat. He looked back on the last 2 weeks with pride, as he saw his prowess increase. Matt too began to warm up to him, almost as if he instinctually sensed what I was doing, Neil thought.
As Neil walked out of set after a great shoot where he battered several extras around with a robotic arm, he slowly gazed outside. His eyes seemed to skim past the K-mart, Kohl’s, H and M, Wendy’s, and Olive Garden, in the shopping complex in front of the studio, and move, almost as if on their own accord, to the right, and fix on the Metrogoldman Bank. Big shots and famous oil barons would store their money there or so the legend says. It was like Lady luck and Gentleman Opportunity both met and showed him the path illustrated by a glowing line, leading straight to success, wealth, and power. But how was he going to go through such an ambitious undertaking?
Neil glanced at the Mastermind suit he was still wearing from the shoot. To his surprise, as he thought those words in his mind, the suit started to glow.. A disturbing thought occurred to him, what if this suit can read my mind. As soon as he thought that, the scarlet and purple bodysuit started to morph, a protective helmet suddenly encasing his head, and armor encasing his torso appeared at light speed. Twin dual laser swords appeared in both of his hands. He grinned to himself.
As he walked towards the front desk, people began to stare. He knew they must have been intimidated by the awesome power of his suit. A security guard approached from behind. “Sir, we allow no weapons inside the building, so I suggest you take off this suit at once”. He slashed the laser sword across a marble podium, neatly slicing it in half. As the top half slid off, the guard blanched and slowly backed away. Neil strode into the building like he owned it. What else can this suit do, he thought. He remembered reading in comic books as a kid that the Mastermind suit was a neural interface designed to be intuitive. He thought about flying and rocket boosters appeared from the footpads, propelling him in the air. He then rocketed forward through 2 walls, causing untold destruction before reaching the vault. The suit had a powerful proton cannon he could use, but that would only suffice for one layer and needed to be charged.
He remembered an old TV show in which he was an extra, where he played a security guard whose only line was “you’ll never get through the complex 3 layered vault!” to the villain. He shuddered at the recollection of his old acting roles. One of the key plot points of the TV show about how some of these old vaults were made out of the same steel that comprised ships like the Titanic, so the villain froze the vault to get in. “What if it were really vulnerable to ice?”. As if in response to that rhetorical question, a shoulder blaster appeared, slowly rising from the suit, and in unison, fired an ice blast at the first layer. The door came crashing down and shattered at his feet.
Now, for the 2 other layers. Neil slowly exhaled in disbelief and despair. In contrast to the sturdy old-fashioned nature of the first door, this new door looked incredibly modern. Neil scanned the exterior. Made out of stainless titanium, the door seemed impenetrable and impossible to break. A tiny passcode adorned the exterior, so small Neil almost didn’t even see it was there. Neil was in a dilemma, part of him was screaming at him to fly back and force someone to open the door for him. But something held him back. He knew the people in there were innocent, and weren’t part of this. Almost like a reflex, Neil’s fingers typed at the speed of lightning, the suit’s internal computer making complex calculations on the probability of the code being correct. Within 3 minutes, the screen flashed green, and the door swung open. Facing the last door, Neil slowly licked his lips, and activated the proton cannon. The air started to shimmer and particles stopped as the cannon drew from the powers of the infinitesimal particles surrounding us. Light started to grow, and the cannon fired, shattering the safe door. Neil rushed forward and shot a tractor beam towards the contents of the safe, holding them suspended in the air.
Sirens started to blare. Oh no, the cops were coming! Why are they coming for him, he’s not a criminal, he’s merely an actor, he thought. Neil was feeling so worried all of a sudden, what am I doing, he thought to himself. This isn’t me. But there was no time now, a voice in his head told him that he needed somewhere to go, he needed somewhere safe. He needed a lair.
To his surprise, he promptly knew what to do. Neil started walking toward a fire hydrant, and as he did so, he twisted the cap off, and it came off easily, sliding like butter. Neil then slid down the impossible small gap, and went down in a tube that transported him somewhere so fast it took his breath away. When he got his breath back, Neil walked out into a giant underground cavern featuring technological marvels and weapons he could only dream of. He saw plasma cannons, laser swords, technological suits capable of immeasurable power, spaceships, rocket ships, and even a time machine, but that looked to be defunct. With this kind of power, forget a bank. Neil could take on the U.S. army itself.
Ughhhhhhhh. Neil woke up in a ball, with worn clothes, half shaven in a corner of the lair. 5 months ago, he found this place, and now, it’s like he lives there. As time passed, he started to get horrible mental blackouts, forgetting where he was and what he was doing. He glanced at the display case proudly housing his mastermind suit. Or was it his? Why was it so powerful, a mere film prop. Maybe it wasn’t, maybe he was just dreaming or hallucinating everything that just happened. That would be a relief, Neil thought, as his life was literally spiraling. He barely knew what the hell was going on, or where he even was. He would randomly turn on the TV and see terrible footage of orphanages burning down or ransacked police stations, then turn around and notice scorch marks and bullet marks on his sleeves. He tried calling mental health lines, old friends, family, mentors, but an invisible hand always held him back. Other days he would gaze triumphantly at the news, calling up random radio stations to make ridiculous demands or boast about the Mastermind coming back, only to call them back and apologize. Reports came in that The League of Heroes recognized him as a credible threat, and that they were authorized to use deadly force, scaring Neil greatly.
Up seemed down, down seemed up, and he wasn’t sure what the hell was going on. He would randomly either get furious phone calls from set telling him he was going to be fired, that he was a disgrace to his profession, or ones praising him for a great shoot, almost like the outcome of a cosmic coin flipped by an angry god. Viewing clips of his own performances, he scared himself. Strangely, throughout all this, Matt Kasbith stuck by him, saving his job many times. Matt had the talent of saying just the right thing to the right person and smoothing things over. Matt explained that great performers, including himself, go through this, as true acting is putting on a new identity, and there’s naturally going to be some resistance, but things always set in.
One day, Neil arrived on set, but to his surprise, he saw another man wearing a replica Mastermind suit. The director looked incredibly busy, coordinating a giant crane falling, as the other Mastermind started laughing viciously. “What is going on!”, Neil blustered. He strode confidently towards the shoot, and to his surprise, he saw everyone winced at his appearance. “Why did you replace me?”, he asked the director. The director took a while to respond, and seemed to mentally stumble over his words. Neil could tell that he was barely containing his rage. Finally, the director couldn’t hold it in any longer. “Do you know what the meaning of responsibility is! You are an unknown actor, and the entire success of the movie depends on you. You have an obligation to fulfill, and by not fulfilling this obligation, you’re jeopardizing the success of the picture. This was your only shot, and you blew it! Now, get out!”. Matt slowly walked away, dejectedly, and as he left the set, he thought he saw Matt wink.
“Thank god they didn’t ask for the suit back”, Neil thought. Nanotech crawled all over the Mastermind’s suit, replacing and repairing the A-grade steel, with otherworldly alien tech on his gauntlets. Neil was sitting alone in his lair, which, after being fired, permanently became his new home. For the first time in a long while, his mind was finally clear. All that mental wrestling, and hesitation over what was supposedly right was finally over. Neil knew that his purpose in life was a higher calling, something far greater than merely acting. Otherwise, why would the suit have chosen him? Filled with calm and cold certainty, Neil began laughing, quiet at first, but fueled by some sort of Hamletian Madness, began resounding throughout the dark cave.
“Calling all units, calling all units” garbled the police scanner stashed away in a corner of the lair that Neil had nabbed a couple of days ago. “C-15 code red. Armed robbers are infiltrating the West Central Bank on 31 Fold Street.” Neil smiled as he heard the sounds of sirens zooming past his lair. Perfect. Neil put on the Mastermind’s suit, and prepared to head out.
Thirty minutes later, Neil stood outside the police station, amidst the thunder and the rain. Based on his calculations, the diversion he set up would give him 2.5 hours, 1 hour for the police to get to the bank, and 1 hour to come back. He noted the thunderous outpouring of rain, sure that it would hamper their progress. The door slowly creaked open, revealing an array of cells filled with prisoners.
“Gentlemen, my name is the Mastermind! You may have heard of me, that I supposedly disappeared 10 years ago. But the truth is, I’m back. I’m inspired to take back what is rightfully mine. I need an army, and I want to extend an offer to you to join me, in my quest for glory”.
The prisoners looked around at each other, stunned at first, but then they grinned broadly. They slowly got up and began to clap as one. The clapping continued, but then was overshadowed by a loud rumbling outside. The skylight at the top of the prison opened, and colorful bright figures streamed in. The League of Heroes stood tall and proud, their naming belying their power and status. Neil’s eyes began to water as he recognized each one. Megaman, whose fists could punch through solid concrete, Morpheus, the god of sleep, Golden Dash, the man who outran death, and Super Knight, whose sword was sharper than the edge of obsidian. The computer system inside Neil’s suit began making furious calculations, assessing threat levels of each individual superhero, processing motion trajectories, and preparing counter measures. Good thing too, because before he could blink, they came at him on all sides. Neil released a column of flame, which the golden dash narrowly dodged, and then he shot lasers from his twin gauntlet blasters. It was no time to be scared, he thought, this was a time for action. Neil froze the floor around him, and as the golden dash returned around, he sharply skidded across the frozen floor, and crashed into the opposite wall, right into Morpheus, who was raising his hands to cast an incantation. Neil shook off the drowsiness and surged forward. But Mega Knight grabbed him, allowing for Super Knight to swing his powerful obsidian blade. As Neil saw the blade approaching, he activated his rocket boots, dodging the blade, and shooting himself and Megaman high into the air. Neil then took advantage of Megaman’s disoriented state to grab him, throwing him towards Mega Knight. Almost like time stopped, all of the heroes remained eerily still on the ground. Strange, Neil thought, he expected them to put up more of a fight. And weren’t there more heroes? He only spotted 4, Super Knight, the Golden Dash, Morpheus, and Megaman. Suddenly he thought of the wind curtain that inexplicably appeared earlier, and just like that realized he was trapped. A space opened, in thin air directly behind Neil, and the Sidestepper came out and grabbed the mayor, then vanishing to a safer location. Before he knew it, the league came at him with renewed force, and captured him. The menace of the Mastermind was over.
2 months later, Neil was languishing away in a solitary cell. He was surrounded by laser grids, and armed robots constantly scanning his mind for resistance but he had none. There was nothing left, his dreams were crushed, and everything was in ruins. Neil was so confused. He didn’t understand how method acting could lead to such a horrible outcome. It just didn’t add up. Where did all that specialized machinery come from, where did the actual Mastermind suit come from, why was he thinking he was the Mastermind and how did he discover the Mastermind’s lair, a secret kept from even the likes of the Steward. It was I, said Matt Kasbith, as he slowly walked in. “How are you able to hear my thoughts? '' said Neil, in surprise and shock. “Because I am the Mastermind. The truth is, 14 years ago, I disappeared because during the battle between me and the Steward, I hypersped us to Mars, and the shock of the interdimensional travel killed the Steward. You see, I was in control the whole time, and I knew that I could assume power whenever I wanted to. I disappeared after killing the Steward, because although the Steward was gone, I couldn’t possibly deal with an angered and grieved League of Heroes as well as the U.S. military with them. I had to make a new identity for myself, so I became Matt Kasbith. I toiled away for 8 years, with the sole purpose of finding a successor, someone who could take up the mantle for me, and revive the legacy of the Mastermind. The problem was that all of my previous associates shunned me. They wanted no part of the Mastermind. Despite the amount of money I put into it, and time, no one was willing. I grew older and older, and I realized how amazing being an actor was, but I couldn’t simply let the Mastermind die out. I needed someone foolish, yet impossibly determined, to take up the mantle. When I met you, I realized that you were the right person. So I hatched a plan. I hypnotized you, and slowly led you down the path of finding the equipment, of being desperate enough to become a criminal, all to lead up to this moment. I have succeeded beyond my wildest dreams, for you are now truly the Mastermind.”
With these ominous words, Matt slowly reached into his suit pocket, unseen by the guard’s eyes, handing Neil a mysterious remote, before opening a warp portal, and departing.