The first superhero movie

We’re all excited about the opening of Marvel’s “The Avengers” today. The reviews have been impressive, at times glowing. It promises to be a blockbuster.

Then at the beginning of July, we get “The Amazing Spider-Man.” A reintroduction of the masked web-slinger, though we had a pretty good introduction to him in 2002 with “Spider-Man.”

And in late July, “The Dark Knight Rises.” It will likely be the best of the costumed-crime-fighter offerings this year, but I honestly can’t imagine it coming anywhere near the magnificence of “The Dark Knight.” Heath Ledger‘s Joker was the greatest interpretation of any comic book character, and he was the villain. But that movie was so amazing that people fail to recognize that Aaron Eckhart‘s Harvey Dent/Two Face was also an outstanding character interpretation. The Joker showed a true psychopath. Two Face was a decent man driven to insanity. Both actors were magnificent in their roles. And Christian Bale was pretty good, too, as the Batman.

So we’re going to wallow in comic book, superhero Nirvana this year. But let’s simplify things for a moment and figure out where this all began.

It sure didn’t start with Marvel, which brought us Spider-Man, Iron Man or the Hulk in the ’60s. Captain America first appeared in 1941 in Marvel’s predecessor, Timely Comics. I don’t even think it started with DC comics, which brought us Superman in 1932 and Batman in 1939. And that goes pretty far back.

If you want to look at the original masked avenger, who battled crime and injustice but hid his secret identity behind a milquetoast of a man, you have to go 1920.


That’s the silent classic “The Mark of Zorro,” with Douglas Fairbanks, who should be remembered as the first action hero. If you saw the latest Academy Award winning best picture, you’ve seen a clip from this. In “The Artist,” silent movie star George Valentin is down on his luck, living in a dive apartment and watching movies from his glory days. One of the movies shows a masked man zipping across the screen in an acrobatic chase scene.

If you are a true movie fanatic, you immediately said to yourself (or to the person sitting by you), “Hey! That’s “The Mark of Zorro!” That wasn’t the most recent Best Actor winner Jean Dujardin running across the movie within the movie. That was Douglas Fairbanks, no special effects, performing his own stunts.

Every movie masked avenger … every superhero … from Batman to Spiderman to Rohschach in “Watchmen” to Hit Girl in “Kick Ass” is the progeny of Zorro.

This movie above is in the public domain, which is why you can see it in full on YouTube. It is more than 90 years old! You are, in effect, entering a time machine.

When I first saw it in college almost 40 years ago, the soundtrack was different (and much better). But if you’re a true comic book movie fan, it’s worth your while to put aside the next hour and 15 minutes and watch the first superhero movie.