As a fictional character, Zorro is the original superhero. He inspired Batman, The Shadow, and the like, a masked man with a dark persona who uses his wits and wily cunning to win battles in a world where evil men rule. Zorro is a man whose entire origin resembles Bruce Wayne, The Batman. An aristocrat by day, Don Diego is a playboy who lives in the period era of California who hobnobs with yuppies of his ilk and authorities. By night he’s a masked man with a faithful servant who wields swords and weaponry alike to fight crime and take on bandits and warlords of all kinds.
Around 1998, TriStar pegged Martin Campbell to help revive the property in what is one of the most sprawling and sterling debuts of the character, “The Mask of Zorro.” A reboot and tribute to the lore of the character, Campbell’s 1998 all star action film is a bonafide superhero love letter that continues the story of its primary character Don Diego while introducing the mantle of The Fox to a new generation of movie goers. As a Hispanic man and lover of all things superhero related, I’m one who can attest to the fact that minority superheroes are in fact a small commodity rarely filled by studios and or companies. Often times the big money lies in the blonde blue eyed individuals where the brown skinned lower class are left in the wayside. So as such Zorro became one of my favorite pulp characters of all time, a true dark knight whose own sense of morality and humor became his trademark in a world of cynical pop culture figures and the like.
Even with juggernauts like The Phantom and The Shadow lurking, Zorro stood out as a graceful warrior in a time where men were learning to shoot off clumsy weapons to extinguish their foes. For “The Mask of Zorro,” TriStar took on a different direction by not relying solely on one tale, but two different tales that relied on the classic theme of revenge and vengeance. Martin Campbell’s simplistic but sprawling action film this time relies on the passing of the mantle where old audiences could appreciate the revival of the masked swordsman while new audiences could get to know and connect with a new individual who’d realize that the mask of Zorro is a grave legacy and a gift to earn through hard work and wounds. The time that’s chronicled in “The Mask of Zorro” is a new period where young men rule and new weapons are being introduced, thus Don Diego is instantly out of his league.
Zorro’s form of combat is something remotely foreign to both villains as he seeks to battle with his blade and wits that keep him one step ahead of his enemies who want to bypass that destroy him without a second thought. The fight sequences are filled with swift and exciting choreography that never once poses Zorro as a superhuman, but a man with extraordinary fencing skills. Whether it’s Don Diego or Alejandro, the fighting is always performed through the blade that allows them to conduct themselves as gentlemen and director Campbell uses these scenes to invoke the films of Tyrone Powers and Fairbanks where Zorro has a chuckle or two while ending his foes. The one caveat among the excellence of the material is Captain Love who pales in comparison to the portrayal by Stuart Wilson as Don Rafael. Thankfully it doesn’t bog down the premise.
Like many of the pulp figures from the early twentieth century “The Mask of Zorro” gets excluded from the big superhero cinema boom of the late nineties to millennium, which is a shame. Likely because it was followed up by a very poor sequel later on that included Zorro’s son, and reduced both Alejandro and Elena to bickering simpletons. As a modest production, “The Mask of Zorro” performed respectively at the box office earning a little under its original budget, but worldwide grossed over two hundred million dollars. Critically however, the film was well received, and in spite of a much hyped sequel never quite transformed in to a franchise for its small but loyal fan base. Which is a shame, because as superhero cinema it accomplishes what many of the modern films attempt to do: Pave a riveting marvelous new legacy while paying respect to the established fan base with a classic story of swords, masked avengers and damsels in distress.