Mask Up!

The Mask of Zorro

Considering all the capes and cowls running around in movie theaters at this point, spurned on by the success of the Marvel Cinematic UniverseWhen it first began in 2008 with a little film called Iron Man no one suspected the empire that would follow. Superhero movies in the past, especially those not featuring either Batman or Superman, were usually terrible. And yet, Iron Man would lead to a long series of successful films, launching the most successful cinema brand in history: the Marvel Cinematic Universe., it's easy to forget the roots of where these characters came from. Superheros didn't arrive out of a vacuum but built on the success of pulp heroes that came before, and one of the most famous for the time was Zorro. The dark figured, cloaked in shadows, who would appear and fight for the people of California (who, at the time, were under Spanish control), famously slashing a "Z" with his sword as his calling card.

The Mask of Zorro

Zorro was a hugely successful character who served as the inspiration for BatmanOne of the longest running, consistently in-print superheroes ever (matched only by Superman and Wonder Woman), Batman has been a force in entertainment for nearly as long as there's been an entertainment industry. It only makes sense, then that he is also the most regularly adapted, and consistently successful, superhero to grace the Silver Screen. (it's no coincidence that many o the versions of Batman's origin story have his parents getting gunned down outside a showing of a Zorro picture), and he had a long career on TV, in films, and beyond (well beyond when the original creator, Johnston McCulley, stopped writing the character in the 1950s (he died in 1958). And yet it does seem that the popularity of Zorro has substantially waned in recent decades. While there have been adaptations of the characters, video games and cartoons, another big-budget adventure for the masked avenger is nowhere to be seen despite how popular superheroes of all types are currently.

Although maybe some of the reason for that is that the last Zorro feature, 2005's The Legend of Zorro, fizzled with audiences and critics, putting a pin in the character for some time. Maybe Hollywood just doesn't trust that Mr. Z can support a big blockbuster. If that's the case they need only look at the first of the two Antonio Banderas Zorro flicks, 1998's Mask of Zorro (of which Legend was a sequel) to see just how a solid Zorro adventure can be done with current blockbuster standards.

We're introduced to Zorro, the original guy in the black mask, as he rescues prisoners from execution in the middle of a town square. This Zorro fights soldiers, causes quite the ruckus, and gets into a bit of a scuffle with the Governor of California, Don Rafael Montero. Injured in the fight, getting a nasty cut along his arm, Zorro still escapes, the prisoners freed and the townspeople happy. One child, who helped in his escape, gets a silver medallion, and then Zorro flees to parts unknown... or, well, the estate of Don Diego de la Vega (Anthony Hopkins). Diego is Zorro, and back at his home he changes into his normal clothes and goes to be with his wife as Esperanza (Julieta Rosen) and daughter Elena. However, Rafael, having suspected who Zorro just might have been, comes to the estate and arrests Diego, but not before Esperanza is injured in the scuffle, dying. As Diego heads to prison he watches a Rafael takes Elena to raise her as his own, a final bit of spite to Don Diego

Years later Diego, having escaped from prison, meets with down-on-his-luck criminal Alejandro Murrieta (Antonio Banderas). Alejandro was the brother of Joaquin who was the kid that ha gotten that silver medallion from Zorro. When Diego sees Alejandro with the medallion he decides to take the man under his wing. "You saved me, now let me save you." He trains Alejandro to be the next Zorro, to once more stand up for th people of California against Rafael and the rest of his corrupt government. And, in the process, if Diego gets to have his revenge against Rafael and get his daughter, Elena (now played by Cathrine Zeta-Jones) back, that's just icing on the cake.

There is, honestly, a lot of plot that this film has to get through. It has to introduce Don Diego, the people around him (good guys and bad), then introduce Alejandro, his people, get the two Zorro's together and then push the whole plot forward. It is a lot and a bad script would have buckled under all that pressure. Thankfully this film manages to put everything together, giving all the plot points due course so they can evolve and expand naturally. It's a very tight and cohesive script, one that feels like it moves along breezily, which is impressive since the film clocks in north of two hours. It's long but it doesn't feel long.

Much of that is due to the talents of the cast, mind you. The three leads -- Hopkins, Banderas, and Zeta-Jones -- have solid chemistry and are clearly having a ball with this whole film. Their energy, and vibrance, helps to carry a lot of the film. It does help that they all trained quite a lot for the fighting and action sequence the film required (Banderas reportedly spent over four months learning fencing for this role), but these were also great actors at the heights of their careers and it shows. The casting is top notch.

Along with that, the script has that right balance of action and comedy, the blend that would so later become the hallmark of the MCU. The heroes will fight, and then quip, and then go back to fighting, and it all works really well in the context. Honestly, this film perfectly suits that MCU formula despite coming out ten years before Marvel got started. It wouldn't surprise me if some of the people at Marvel watched this film, among many others, to get ideas for the right ways to do a superhero film.

The action is great, especially in the early going of the film. There are some solid sequences -- the opening action to start the film, with Diego freeing the prisoners, along with a mid-sequence fight between Banderas's Zorro against a whole group of goons while he tries to steal a horse, and then a late stage fight between Zorro, Rafael, and a U.S. military captain, Harrison Love (Matt Letscher) -- and they perfectly evoke that blend of fighting with style, and a little bit of comedy, that works so well.

That said, the final sequence of the film, a bombastic climax at a California gold mine (where many people of California were conscripted to work, and die, at the mine) doe get a little sloggy. The individual pieces of the fight are solid, but it does come after two hours of film already, with plenty of big action numbers, and aside from more explosions added into the mix this last fight doesn't really have anything new or creative to add to the mix. It, too, reminds me of the MCU where every film has to end with a bigger fight than what came before even if it loses sight of the characters and doesn't add that much more to the film. That's here too, once again mimicking the template to come.

Still, the film in general really does work. I was surprised because I'd remembered that this film was bad, an over-hyped spectacle that didn't deliver. Perhaps I was just thinking of its sequel, The Legends of Zorro, which basically killed the franchise. If you're like me and seem to recall that The Mask of Zorro was bad, give it another try. It's fun, filled with action and laughs, and it has just that right superhero tone. It's not the MCU but you'd be hard-pressed to think otherwise.