Before superhero movies took flight at the box office, swashbucklers unsheathed their rapiers to the delight of early 20th century moviegoers.
But the dashing heroes imagined by writers like Alexandre Dumas and Rafael Sabatini have a surprising amount in common with the creations of Jack Kirby and Stan Lee. Like the Avengers, these valiant swordsmen were idealistic heroes who fought oppression and wooed fair maidens.
As swashbucklers ruled the early multiplex with epics like 1929’s The Iron Mask and 1935’s Captain Blood, comic books were only just finding an audience. Action Comics #1, which saw the debut of Superman, was published on April 18, 1938, a month before The Adventures of Robin Hood brought the Robin Hood story, along with Errol Flynn, into the mainstream.
About 20 years ago, swashbucklers disappeared from Hollywood, soon to be succeeded by Marvel and DC’s spandex-clad superheroes. A notable exception, Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean, blew up around this time, creating a new franchise built on legendary blades and high-seas bravado.
But one swashbuckler picture, released in 1998, deserves particular recognition as a hidden gem that not only survives on its own merits — including grounded filmmaking that favored practical effects over hokey CGI — but foreshadows our modern obsession with origin reboots.
I’m talking, of course, about The Mask of Zorro. Here’s why you need to revisit this overlooked swashbuckler/proto-superhero classic before it leaves HBO Max on June 30.
From its very first scenes, The Mask of Zorro resembles a superhero origin story. In a plot maneuver that evokes The Dark Knight Returns, the legendary Zorro — a character first created by Johnston McCulley in 1919 as a debonair man of action — is reimagined as the older, broken, embittered Don Diego de la Vega (Anthony Hopkins). But when Don Diego meets a drunken thief, Alejandro (Antonio Banderas), he trains the younger man as a “new” Zorro, aiming to save California and his daughter Elena (Catherine Zeta-Jones) from the clutches of the nefarious Don Rafael Montero (Stuart Wilson).
The Mask of Zorro is in this way Don Diego’s last ride and Alejandro’s first. While the film maintains the kind of plot structure later employed by 2002’s Spider-Man and 2005’s Batman Begins, as Alejandro trains to become the titular Zorro and eventually take on a nemesis, its themes resemble more recent films like 2015’s Ant-Man and 2017’s Logan, which mirror its premise of a hardened retiree passing their expertise down to the next generation.
What’s most remarkable about Mask of Zorro is how it never loses the swashbuckler genre’s grandly romantic sense of adventure. What could have been a turgid, dark, and gritty interpretation of a character best known in the ‘90s as a Disney sing-along is instead a soaring, rollicking romp.
Throughout Alejandro’s journey, the character never comes off as morose or grim, in large part thanks to Banderas’ mischievous performance. Though seeking revenge for his brother’s murder, Alejandro remains charming and wide-eyed about the mantle he’s inherited. He’s also clumsy and rough around the edges, a true underdog you can root for. These jagged qualities make it easy to relate to Alejandro as he grows into the legend he’s destined to become.
All of this only serves to enrich Alejandro’s story. Especially in early fight scenes where he wears a makeshift mask (another superhero reboot touchstone, aped later by Spider-Man and Netflix’s Daredevil, among others), Alejandro escapes pile-ups like a wily Looney Tune, at one point using his wits to blow open an escape route with a cannon. 20 years of superhero movies followed The Mask of Zorro, but the genre can still stand to take notes from its successful grounding of a larger-than-life figure into true grassroots heroism.
It helps that the filmmakers took a tactile approach to Mask of Zorro. While Hollywood in the late ‘90s was growing obsessed with rapidly advancing computer-generated effects — 1998, after all, was the same year people went ga-ga over Lost In Space — much of Zorro’s action was achieved practically. The late, great Roger Ebert felt this in his bones when he reviewed Mask of Zorro, writing:
“[The Mask of Zorro is] a reminder of the time when stunts and special effects were integrated into stories, rather than the other way around. And in giving full weight to the supporting characters and casting them with strong actors, The Mask of Zorro is involving as well as entertaining.”
Director Martin Campbell knows a thing or two about action. After Zorro, the New Zealand-based filmmaker reinvented James Bond (2006’s Casino Royale) and directed Jackie Chan in 2017’s The Foreigner. And though Campbell doesn’t have a flawless track record — aside from lesser sequel The Legend of Zorro, released in 2005, he was also behind 2011’s superhero bomb Green Lantern — the filmmaker recognizes that audiences can often tune out once things start to blow up.
“When the action is absurd, people know it’s special effects or visual effects, and they just switch off,” Campbell told Vulture in an interview earlier this year. “It’s just bullshit when you see that. People can’t drop 50 feet and land on their feet, or they can’t drive a car off a building, drop a hundred feet, and then keep going.”
While The Mask of Zorro breezes through its story in a way that feels effortless, its production process was anything but. After directors shuffled in and out (first Steven Spielberg, then Robert Rodriguez), Campbell came aboard and oversaw a shoot during which Mexican customs held Zorro’s sword and other props hostage for nine days.
Despite these troubles, The Mask of Zorro exists in hindsight as a real Hollywood miracle. A love letter to cinema past and a portent of its superheroic future, it’s aged like fine wine from a predictive standpoint. The original 1920 Zorro was credited by film scholars as kick-starting Hollywood’s swashbuckler mania.
It was also, of course, the film Bruce Wayne watched with his parents before their deaths during a robbery. So it’s only right that its remake, 1998’s The Mask of Zorro, feels timeless in its vision of idealistic, romantic heroism.
The Mask of Zorro is streaming now on HBO Max until June 30.