Earlier than superhero films took flight on the field workplace, swashbucklers unsheathed their rapiers to the delight of early twentieth century moviegoers.
However the dashing heroes imagined by writers like Alexandre Dumas and Rafael Sabatini have a shocking quantity in frequent with the creations of Jack Kirby and Stan Lee. Just like the Avengers, these valiant swordsmen had been idealistic heroes who fought oppression and wooed honest maidens.
As swashbucklers dominated the early multiplex with epics like 1929’s The Iron Masks and 1935’s Captain Blood, comedian books had been solely simply discovering an viewers. Motion Comics #1, which noticed the debut of Superman, was revealed on April 18, 1938, a month earlier than The Adventures of Robin Hood introduced the Robin Hood story, together with Errol Flynn, into the mainstream.
About 20 years in the past, swashbucklers disappeared from Hollywood, quickly to be succeeded by Marvel and DC’s spandex-clad superheroes. A notable exception, Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean, blew up round this time, creating a brand new franchise constructed on legendary blades and high-seas bravado.
However one swashbuckler image, launched in 1998, deserves specific recognition as a hidden gem that not solely survives by itself deserves — together with grounded filmmaking that favored sensible results over hokey CGI — however foreshadows our fashionable obsession with origin reboots.
I’m speaking, after all, about The Masks of Zorro. Right here’s why it’s worthwhile to revisit this missed swashbuckler/proto-superhero traditional earlier than it leaves HBO Max on June 30.
From its very first scenes, The Masks of Zorro resembles a superhero origin story. In a plot maneuver that evokes The Darkish Knight Returns, the legendary Zorro — a personality first created by Johnston McCulley in 1919 as a debonair man of motion — is reimagined because the older, damaged, embittered Don Diego de la Vega (Anthony Hopkins). However when Don Diego meets a drunken thief, Alejandro (Antonio Banderas), he trains the youthful man as a “new” Zorro, aiming to avoid wasting California and his daughter Elena (Catherine Zeta-Jones) from the clutches of the nefarious Don Rafael Montero (Stuart Wilson).
The Masks of Zorro is on this means Don Diego’s final experience and Alejandro’s first. Whereas the movie maintains the sort of plot construction later employed by 2002’s Spider-Man and 2005’s Batman Begins, as Alejandro trains to develop into the titular Zorro and finally tackle a nemesis, its themes resemble more moderen movies like 2015’s Ant-Man and 2017’s Logan, which mirror its premise of a hardened retiree passing their experience right down to the subsequent technology.
What’s most outstanding about Masks of Zorro is the way it by no means loses the swashbuckler style’s grandly romantic sense of journey. What may have been a turgid, darkish, and gritty interpretation of a personality finest identified within the ‘90s as a Disney sing-along is as an alternative a hovering, rollicking romp.
All through Alejandro’s journey, the character by no means comes off as morose or grim, largely due to Banderas’ mischievous efficiency. Although looking for revenge for his brother’s homicide, Alejandro stays charming and wide-eyed in regards to the mantle he’s inherited. He’s additionally clumsy and tough across the edges, a real underdog you’ll be able to root for. These jagged qualities make it simple to narrate to Alejandro as he grows into the legend he’s destined to develop into.
All of this solely serves to counterpoint Alejandro’s story. Particularly in early battle scenes the place he wears a makeshift masks (one other superhero reboot touchstone, aped later by Spider-Man and Netflix’s Daredevil, amongst others), Alejandro escapes pile-ups like a wily Looney Tune, at one level utilizing his wits to blow open an escape route with a cannon. 20 years of superhero films adopted The Masks of Zorro, however the style can nonetheless stand to take notes from its profitable grounding of a larger-than-life determine into true grassroots heroism.
It helps that the filmmakers took a tactile strategy to Masks of Zorro. Whereas Hollywood within the late ‘90s was rising obsessive about quickly advancing computer-generated results — 1998, in spite of everything, was the identical 12 months folks went ga-ga over Misplaced In House — a lot of Zorro’s motion was achieved virtually. The late, nice Roger Ebert felt this in his bones when he reviewed Masks of Zorro, writing:
“[The Mask of Zorro is] a reminder of the time when stunts and particular results had been built-in into tales, slightly than the opposite means round. And in giving full weight to the supporting characters and casting them with robust actors, The Masks of Zorro is involving in addition to entertaining.”
Director Martin Campbell is aware of a factor or two about motion. After Zorro, the New Zealand-based filmmaker reinvented James Bond (2006’s On line casino Royale) and directed Jackie Chan in 2017’s The Foreigner. And although Campbell doesn’t have a flawless monitor report — except for lesser sequel The Legend of Zorro, launched in 2005, he was additionally behind 2011’s superhero bomb Inexperienced Lantern — the filmmaker acknowledges that audiences can usually tune out as soon as issues begin to blow up.
“When the motion is absurd, folks realize it’s particular results or visible results, they usually simply swap off,” Campbell advised Vulture in an interview earlier this 12 months. “It’s simply bullshit while you see that. Folks can’t drop 50 toes and land on their toes, or they’ll’t drive a automobile off a constructing, drop 100 toes, after which maintain going.”
Whereas The Masks of Zorro breezes by means of its story in a means that feels easy, its manufacturing course of was something however. After administrators shuffled out and in (first Steven Spielberg, then Robert Rodriguez), Campbell got here aboard and oversaw a shoot throughout which Mexican customs held Zorro’s sword and different props hostage for 9 days.
Regardless of these troubles, The Masks of Zorro exists in hindsight as an actual Hollywood miracle. A love letter to cinema previous and a portent of its superheroic future, it’s aged like advantageous wine from a predictive standpoint. The unique 1920 Zorro was credited by movie students as kick-starting Hollywood’s swashbuckler mania.
It was additionally, after all, the movie Bruce Wayne watched together with his dad and mom earlier than their deaths throughout a theft. So it’s solely proper that its remake, 1998’s The Masks of Zorro, feels timeless in its imaginative and prescient of idealistic, romantic heroism.
The Masks of Zorro is streaming now on HBO Max till June 30.