• Michael T. Christensen

Superhero Movie Learning Curve - Prologue - The Mark of Zorro (1920) full NYT review, 11/28/1920

100 years ago today, the very first superhero movie was released.


In fairness, the film pre-dates the creation of Superman and the word "superhero" by 18 years, but the film and the character have both been grandfathered into the genre. While Zorro is arguably more a "pulp" character than a hero, he is certainly more of a superhero than, say, the Shadow. While it's common knowledge that early Batman was "heavily inspired" by the Shadow, Zorro was another key influence early on... and it's no coincidence that as Zorro's influence grew, Batman moved closer to the character we know today.


I'm also fascinated by this review, because with very few exceptions, it could have been written about a superhero movie released in the modern day.


The Mark of Zorro (1920) full New York Times review, Nov. 28, 1920 (headline: THE SCREEN)



Douglas Fairbanks’s latest motion picture, “The Mark of Zorro,” is at the Capitol this week. The program says that it is “from” a story by Johnston McCulley, called “The Curse of Capistrano,” but one who has not read Mr. McCulley’s story imagines that it is pretty far from it. There’s too much Fairbanks in it for anyone to have written it without the athletic comedian definitely in mind. What is on screen is probably “The Curse of Capistrano” spiced and speeded up to suit the taste of Douglas Fairbanks and the many who enjoy his gay and lively style of playing. This means that whatever plausibility there was in the original has been sacrificed for headlong action, that whatever consistency there was has given place to intermittent fun and thrills, that whatever of sentiment there was has become romantic nonsense. All of which may mean that “The Mark of Zorro” is more enjoyable than “The Curse of Capistrano” could ever hope to be.



Certainly there are moments in the motion picture which must delight anyone, no matter how preposterous they are. There is a duel scene, for example, which is something distinctly original in the history of mortal combat on the stage or screen, and there are spirited races and pursuits, sudden appearances, quick changes, and flashes of tempestuous love-making that are typically, and entertainingly, Fairbanksian.


But “The Mark of Zorro” is also different in some respects from the usual Fairbanks picture. It is somewhat tamer, for one thing, the scenery especially having more of the quality of inertia. There are no mountain slides or floods in it and the hero himself actually appears sometimes as a constitutionally languid individual, wearied by the exertions of a carriage ride.



He is one Don Diego Vega, an aristocrat of Spanish California, who seems content to loaf through life in fancy clothes and rich surroundings, but is really so moved by the tyranny of his country’s rulers that he originates for himself another role, that of Señor Zorro, an alert and mysterious avenger of the people’s wrongs, who appears suddenly when least expected by the authorities, and disappears as suddenly when most desired by them, always in black mask and costume, with a sure sword, a swift horse and a sense of humor.


There may be those who will find “The Mark of Zorro” a little tedious in places because Fairbanks is not frolicking through every scene of it, and, as he never creates a character and will not confine himself to any possible plot or plan, his pictures must depend almost entirely upon his own athletics and absurdities, supplemented by those of scenery and cast. So, whenever “The Mark of Zorro” calms down, something seems to be missing.



The settings of the picture are picturesquely, and some of them magnificently, Spanish, and they often contract amusingly with the emphatically non-Spanish appearance of some of the players, including, of course, Fairbanks himself. Still, the cast does what is expected of it, and, as no one cares whether the story is consistently Spanish or just outlandish, there’s no fault to find. Those who do the principal work are Noah Berry, Marguerite De La Motte and Robert McKin. The production was well-directed by Fred Niblo.


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