Hidden Agenda: The Masked Trail from Zorro to Watchmen

There have been whispers of a possible reboot of the Zorro franchise, that evergreen tale of the masked bandit who swoops in to save the day.

Zorro made his first appearance in Johnston McCully’s 1919 best-selling book, The Curse of Capistrano. He was a cinematic hit in 1920, starring Douglas Fairbanks in The Mark of Zorro.

Many masked-crusader tropes can be found in this character. Immense wealth and a secret identity (Zoro is really Don Diego de la Vega, the only son of a wealthy landowner). Costume, all black cape and mask. A mission to protect civilians in a corrupt state (in his case, California).

McCully went on to write a score of Zoro stories. The character appeared in 11 Hollywood movies over the course of a century, and numerous comic books and TV series.

The idea of ​​a masked renegade isn’t fantasy, of course. Robin Hood of England in the 15th century is rumored to have been one, or more, real men. In the 19th century, Nezumi Kojo of Japan used mice to drive wealthy people out of their homes. Zorro is believed to be modeled on real-life vigilante Joaquin Murita Carrillo, a 19th-century outlaw in California who became a symbol of Mexican resistance against Anglo-Saxon and Spanish colonialists.

As funny as the men can be, there are always shades of gray associated with this particular type of hero. In cinema, masks usually indicate not only a hidden identity, but a sense of danger. This separates Batman from all-American good guys like Superman and Captain America.

In recent decades, masks have taken on a new meaning. It’s worn by nutty ne’er-do-wells like Stanley Ipkiss (The Mask; 1994). By mind-twisters like Frank, the order-issuing giant rabbit in the psychological sci-fi thriller Donnie Darko (2001). and by villains in horror franchises ranging from Halloween (since 1978) to Friday the 13th (1980), Scream (1996) and Jigsaw (2017). Travel back in time, through the many facets of this storytelling device.


A symbol of protest

If the Guy Fawkes mask is familiar today, it is mainly because it was adopted by the hacker collective Anonymous in 2008. It returned in the film V for Vendetta (2005) due to Anonymous choosing it.

First, Boy Fox. He was a terrorist who attempted to bomb the House of Lords in 1605, wearing a plain white vaudeville mask. He and his co-conspirators hoped to depose the Protestant king and replace him with a Catholic queen. Guy Fawkes Day is celebrated every November 5 in the UK to commemorate the date the plot was foiled.

The mask may now belong to him or may not be very similar to what he wears. It was inspired by the Fawkes story, but was designed by David Lloyd for the film V for Vendetta (based on the 1980s Alan Moore graphic novels). The protagonist V is an anarchist who takes over a neo-fascist regime in a dystopian Britain. For a recent use of this mask in cinema, see the Mr. Robot series on Amazon Prime, starring Rami Malek as a cyber security engineer recruited by an anarchist.


object of fear

What’s a slasher movie without a good mask? The Friday the 13th franchise (1980-2009) included dozens of films, including spin-offs, that drew heavily from classics like Halloween (1978), but created an entirely new symbol of terror. Serial killer Jason Voorhees and his hockey mask were also mirrored in the real world, by a British serial killer named Peter Moore, who mutilated four men in 1995 wearing similar gear. A ghost-face mask inspired by Edvard Munch’s 19th-century painting. Between Jason and Scream, this has been the year of popular costumes for Halloween.


Excellent hero

The character of Westley, played by Cary Elwes in The Princess Bride (1987), is towering, as the righteous hero of a fantasy adventure that is deeply romantic, funny, and cinematically in a very high league.
The character of Westley, played by Cary Elwes in The Princess Bride (1987), is towering, as the righteous hero of a fantasy adventure that is deeply romantic, funny, and cinematically in a very high league.

In The Princess Bride (1987), a farmhand named Westley (Cary Elwes) is driven by a singular ambition to win back the love of his life, Buttercup (Robin Wright). He leaves the farm to seek his fortune, is attacked by pirates and left for dead; But they live to be warriors and scholars. He absorbs everything the world can teach him because it can prove useful in his quest. And when he returns to the fantasy land of Florin, he represents perfection wrapped in mystery, as no one sees his face.

Westley’s Man in Black is reminiscent of the masked men in classic literary fiction, particularly Alexandre Dumas’ d’Artagnan romances. The series began with The Three Musketeers (1844; a tale of mostly bumbling, sometimes swashbuckling heroes) and ended with the Vicomte de Braguelon, a grim and slow historical tale of a political prisoner in 17th-century France, now easily recognizable. As in The Man in the Iron Mask.

Both these stories have numerous cinematic retellings. The Zorro films are, in fact, written in the same vein as the very popular Three Musketeers.

Princess Bride is different. Westley’s character is tall, as the righteous hero of a fantasy adventure that is deeply romantic, funny and cinematically in a very high league. “It’s just that masks are so comfortable,” West says at one point, tongue-in-cheek. “I think everyone will wear it in the future.”


An agent of chaos

Jim Carrey as Stanley Ipkiss in The Mask.
Jim Carrey as Stanley Ipkiss in The Mask.

In The Mask (1994; starring Jim Carrey), Stanley Ipkiss leads a troubled existence as a bank teller, until he discovers a mask with the soul of the Norse god Loki inside the mask. Donning the mask transforms Ipkiss into a bold, green-headed trickster, a force of legendary proportions with a wicked sense of humor.

It also sets off a tug-of-war within him, as the meek man battles an alter-ego who delights in pursuing his rogue, seducing the glamorous woman of his dreams, robbing the bank where he works. It’s a fight that gradually changes the way he sees the world, and his place in it.

Based on the Dark Horse comic books by Doug Mahnke and John Arcudi, the film Storm is a layered story about what lies inside each person, and what a world of power without consequence looks like, amidst all the extraordinary drama. Like

Similar themes abound in the world of superheroes, particularly the DC universe. Christopher Nolan’s film On the Dark Knight (2005-12) does much justice to the way masks can consume people. Nolan turns billionaire playboy-vigilante Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) into a symbol of the shadowy nature of vigilantism, especially when fueled by a powerful combination of privilege and dysfunction. Gotham City becomes the increasingly dark setting of a war to reshape the world, fought alone, by a man who is slowly losing the battle between his fading conscience and his growing rage.


enemy territory

In Alan Moore's Watchmen graphic novels, the anti-hero Rorschach wears a moving ink blot mask.
In Alan Moore’s Watchmen graphic novels, the anti-hero Rorschach wears a moving ink blot mask.

Alan Moore’s Watchmen graphic novels (1986–87), and the 2009 Zack Snyder film of the same name, are rooted in an alternate 1985 America at the height of the Cold War. The era of the superhero is over; They are illegal because of their violent methods. Some continue to work undercover with the government. The story’s anti-hero, Rorschach, works outside the law. When a former comrade is killed, he sets out to investigate and warn others.

All the while, Rorschach wears a moving inkblot mask, a persona he created when he was still a young vigilante Walter Kovacs. Over the years, masks have taken over. A moving ink blot is how he sees himself, as he sees the world, providing an explanation of the absoluteness of justice.

In the 2019 HBO series, the story moves to an alternate 2019 in Tulsa, Oklahoma. White supremacists have misinterpreted Rorschach’s journal to fit their agenda, and are waging war on minorities and the police. After a particularly brutal massacre targeting the latter, the force must be rebuilt, and new instructions are issued: hide your occupation, cover your face when at work. Now everyone is aware.

Get a colorful deal with 70% off on HT Premium Annual Plans

Enjoy unlimited digital access with HT Premium


Leave a Comment