'Z' Marks the Spot

'Z' Marks the Spot

Maybe it's the way he handles a sword -- or the way he has with women -- but Zorro has never been dull to film and TV buffs.

As "The Legend of Zorro," starring Antonio Banderas, opens in theatres nationwide today, it is hard to believe the masked, Z-carving swashbuckler has captured the imagination of superhero enthusiasts for 86 years. As illustrated by the $94.1 million in domestic ticket sales for "The Mask of Zorro" in 1998 -- and the buzz surrounding its sequel -- Zorro still manages to carve out a place in people's hearts.

What is it about him? He has no superpowers. His physique is not particularly impressive. He prefers to rely more on finesse and his wits than brute force to defeat his foes.

Maybe that's it. With his black mask and cape and extraordinary sword-fighting skills, Zorro carries an outlaw's mystique: He's larger than life, mysterious and debonair. But his lack of superpowers, and penchant for helping the poor, makes him an Everyman. And he's a wise-ass -- someone who carves a "Z" into his beaten foes must have a wicked sense of humor.

Combined, these are the qualities of a hero with almost universal appeal.

"He has all the elements of a classic hero," said Terry Nantier, founder and president of NBM, a New York-based graphic novel company that is producing a series of Zorro graphic novels. "He champions the downtrodden. He's a version of Robin Hood. He's a romantic figure who's good with the women, suave. And he has a sense of humor, a fun element to go along with the good cause he is fighting for."

Born in Pulp Fiction

The Zorro character was born when pulp fiction writer Johnston McCulley's short story, "The Curse of Capistrano," was published in the magazine All-Story Weekly in 1919. McCulley's protagonist was a Spanish nobleman named Don Diego Vega who, as his alter-ego Zorro (Spanish for "fox"), fought for the rights of oppressed California peasants. "The Curse of Capistrano" caught the attention of actor Douglas Fairbanks, who bought the rights to the story and developed it into the 1920 silent film "The Mark of Zorro."

"The Mark of Zorro" was one of the decade's greatest box office successes. It launched a hero franchise that endures to this day which has included several movies, a 1950s Walt Disney TV series (Disney is the parent company of ABC News), comic strips, comic books, cartoons, toys and trading cards.

From Fairbanks to Guy Williams in Disney's "Zorro," to George Hamilton in the 1981 comedy "Zorro, the Gay Blade" and Banderas, multiple generations have been exposed to the masked "fox." The success of 1998's "The Mask of Zorro" -- which also starred Banderas -- is only part of the reason for Zorro's enduring appeal. The hero has had almost instant recognition for decades.

"When speaking to anybody on the street, everyone recognizes the 'zip, zip, zip' of Zorro," said John Gertz, president of Zorro Productions Inc., in reference to the sound of Zorro carving his initials into his enemies. "Everyone knows what you're talking about. Basically, you can't be American and not have Zorro percolate into your consciousness."

Uncle of Batman, Cousin to Spider-Man

Without Zorro, Batman may never have existed. Late Batman creator Bob Kane said he loved watching Fairbanks' "The Mark of Zorro." He paid tribute to both the actor and his screen persona in the story of Batman's origin, as "The Mark of Zorro" was on the marquee of the movie theater young Bruce Wayne's parents left before they were killed. It's no coincidence that Batman -- often referred to as "The Dark Knight" -- wears a dark costume and also lacks superpowers.

Other superheroes also have been influenced by Zorro. Marvel Comics' Spider-Man often trash-talks and makes wisecracks when battling his enemies. And sometimes he leaves his own "Z" on his fallen foes by either spider-webbing their mouths shut or leaving them snared in a web with a note that says, "Compliments of your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man."

In some ways, Zorro has been overshadowed by the superheroes who came after him. But he was the first to make it to the Big Screen.

"'The Mark of Zorro' ... really influenced the action genre in movies today," said Gertz. "Zorro was really the first superhero, but he didn't have any superpowers. Since he fought with a sword, he often found himself at a disadvantage when battling some enemies who had guns and cannons. He had to rely on outsmarting his opponents to achieve victory."

Will Zorro Make His Mark on Broadway?

New movie aside, the Zorro franchise is alive and well.

This summer, Papercutz, a division of NBM, began producing Japanese manga animation-style Zorro graphic novels directed toward children ages 8 to 14. NBM's Nantier said that Zorro is so well-known and wholesome that the company felt comfortable presenting him to a younger audience. In these stories, he said, Zorro is put in atypical situations and settings.

"Zorro really appeals to all ages," Nantier said. "There's nothing too racy about him. He's admirable with the boys and we're keeping some of the romantic elements for the girls."

In addition, a musical about Zorro, with a score written by the Gypsy Kings, is being developed in London. And a new novel by acclaimed author Isabel Allende, "Zorro," tells the complete story of Zorro's origin. Gertz says Zorro Productions is working on developing Allende's novel into the next Zorro movie.

Despite being an elder statesman, it looks like Zorro will continue to make his mark for years to come.