After a final makeup check and assembly of Nick’s double-edged light saber, it’s time to hit the floor. Patrons are already streaming into the main lobby; some of whom are clearly there for the Semper Force event; others whom are clearly not. An old man in a wheelchair and a camouflage hat halts his progress toward the Vietnam-era Huey helicopter and allows Nick to pass. The codger’s face contorts into a sneer that conveys both confusion and disgust, questioning whether the ultimate sacrifice his buddies made at the Battle of Xuan Loc was worth allowing a couple of dorks to play dress-up.
The first kid we see is 2 or 3 years old and in a stroller pushed by his mom, who wears a Star Wars t-shirt. Nick strikes a Mortal Kombat stance and bares his teeth, which are covered by a custom-molded mouthguard painted with brown and yellow flecks to simulate decay. The kid starts bawling.
“Yeah,” Nick says as the mom hustles to turn the stroller in the other direction. “That’s going to happen a lot today.”
He’s right — most of the kids who catch sight of him freeze in their tracks, unsure of how to react. Some parents, like the lady in the stroller, get the hell out of Dodge, but others try to nudge their kids toward Nick’s open arms. “He’s actually really nice, honey,” a mom says to a 5-year-old wearing a fuzzy Chewbacca hoodie. “He’s just dressed up.”
Surprisingly, it’s the adults who are the most interested. Many of them tell Nick how impressed they are with his makeup. “Wow,” says one dude in his mid-20s who asks for a photo. “That’s a really good costume.”
“You don’t know who the fan is going to be,” Nick tells me after a young pair of parents hand their phone to their 12-year-old daughter to get a picture. “Sometimes I go up to the kid and the parent goes fucking ballistic.”
Nick moves to the front of the atrium and strikes a pose with Rylo Ken. They beckon a set of three adults obviously unaware of the Semper Force event.
“Oh shit!” says one of the women. “Let’s get a picture!”
“I don’t even know who that is,” says the other.
“It’s Darth Vader. Don’t you want a picture with Darth Vader?”
It’s not worth trying to correct them, which disappoints me, because it’s the one time all day I know something about Star Wars a patron does not.
“Come on Larry, come get your pitcher with Darth Vader and us!” Woman Number One says to her husband(?), a ragged gentleman wearing a Marine Corps t-shirt and hat. (On a side note, I am impressed by the number of Marine-related clothing I see, because it rivals the amount of Star Wars gear at the event. Do these people always dress head-to-toe in Corps-related paraphernalia, or do they treat the Marine Corps Museum like attending a sporting event, where you’re expected to wear a jersey supporting the team you prefer? Another question for another time, I suppose.)
“Naw,” Larry responds, but then reconsiders at Nick’s malicious but somehow beckoning arm movement. “Well, awright, what the hell.”
I wonder with amusement how and when the resulting photo will be showcased. Displayed on the mantle at home? Passed around the beef&beer at the fire hall? Would the viewers of said photo have the balls to correct Larry’s wife and tell her it’s not Lord Vader she’s posing with, but Darth Maul and Rilo Ken (again, sic).
“Are you a Marine?” Larry asks Nick, and I wince. Having grown up with a father deeply interested in military culture (my brother and I once, as a punishment, were made to memorize The Rifleman’s Creed [“This is my rifle/There are many like it, but this one is mine” a la Full Metal Jacket]), I understand the implication here. Larry wants to know if Nick is part of the Jarhead brotherhood.
“I’m not, Nick says, but a few guys in the Garrison are. They’re wearing insignia patches on their costumes today.”
“Right on, Semper Fi,” Larry says, and he escorts his ladies toward the diorama depicting the beach assault on Tarawa.
“Wait,” I say to Nick. “There are Marines in the Legion?”
“Yeah we’ve got a bunch of vets.”
This gives me a little bit of an internal freakout, a shock to my understanding of how the world is arranged. I think about being little and pretending to be a Marine storming a beachhead or famous Marine Sniper Carlos Hathcock racking up almost 100 confirmed kills, and how these heroes of my childhood are now dressing pretending to be someone else. I think about Gunny Thomas Highway, portrayed by Clint Eastwood in the movie Heartbreak Ridge, how he would twist Nick’s plastic horns off his head and tell him to improvise, adapt, overcome and get his ass in formation. I think about R. Lee Ermey explaining to Nick there were only two things that came from Texas and he sure as hell didn’t appear to be of the bovine persuasion.
This line of thinking is too paradoxical for me at the moment, and I think Nick detects the little mushroom clouds blooming behind my eyes. “For a lot of them it’s a natural fit because of how regimented the uniforms are and the whole kind-of military feeling of it. A lot of guys who are military want to give back to the community, and this is how they give back.”
No time for further discussion, though, as Nick is back to swinging his light saber around and crouching for a pair of passing teens. Though it’s been some time since I’ve seen the movies containing Maul, even Nick’s poses seem to be movie accurate. The way he crooks the fingers of his outstretched hand, the angle of his tilted head, the sneer displaying his moss-covered teeth.
He confirms with me later he practiced a lot in the mirror to get the poses down, and even looked into taking bo staff training to make his light saber sweeps and jabs more authentic, though in the end the lessons proved to be too expensive.
This brings up a point of curiosity. How much does all this shit cost?
Despite my cutthroat training at the same university that gave birth to journalism legends Jayson Blair and Jack Kelley, I am hesitant to ask. I know Nick well enough to be polite, but not well enough to ask him about money.
Fortunately, Nick is forthcoming and honest about it, spouting price tags most of the day without prompting. The Maul makeup costs about $10 per application. His new, more screen-accurate horns (the ones over which he’ll potentially be “flamed online”) cost $60. His black motorcycle boots (which, apparently, aren’t the exact model in the film, but receive the CLR’s blessing) were around $80 used on eBay, a popular repository for kit-related items.
The only thing he asks me not to print is the cost of his lightsaber, which he claims would cause a minor domestic disruption if his wife found out. It’s not an eye-popping figure, the kind where you start calculating it against mortgage payments, but it’s a number I’d also hide from my wife if I invested that much in what is basically a toy.
On the whole, Nick tells me Maul is in the mid-range of cost for face characters. On the top end, a character like Lord Vader, for instance, requires a kit that can range anywhere from 2 to 5 thousand dollars.
The honor of most expensive costume belongs to golden cyborg C3PO, who, according to Nick, can fetch something around a year of tuition at an in-state university. A lot of it, he says, depends on accuracy. 3PO’s paint job alone must be done by a custom automotive painter, which Nick says garners a great deal of the outfit’s cost. He said he’s heard horror stories of 3PO players trying four or five different painters before finding one skilled enough to perform the task.
At the end of the day, though, he tells me most Legionnaires invest between 1 and 2 thousand in their kits. He says this with a sideways nudge that implies it wouldn’t be too difficult for me to get started. I respond with a nervous chuckle. “Good to know,” I say.