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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

Rumor has it there’s a new Zorro film in development. Not another Banderas and Zeta-Jones sequel, but something based on Isabel Allende’s recent rewrite of the legend.

Though “rewrite” might not be the right word. Allende claims she gave no thought to her character’s previous incarnations and invented at will. And yet her final product, an extended coming-of-age secret origin tale, painstakingly adheres not only to the original 1919 Johnston McCulley novel but a multitude of its short story, film and TV adaptations and sequels.

This is a good thing. It stages a literary treasure hunt for fans-in-the-know (which, okay, I guess that includes me), while giving new readers an unfettered romp through a world of pirates, Gypsies, secret societies, and the Spanish Inquisition.

So on one hand, we have a respectful prequel, not a reboot at all. Ms. Allende just fills in the blanks. And I don’t mean the sex scenes. Her narrator (also conveniently named Isabel) offers a quick striptease and moonlit tussle with Light-in-the-Night, but otherwise reports that “spicy pages” and “carnal love” are aspects “of Zorro’s legend that he has not authorized me to divulge.” This despite an allusion to numerous women with otherwise “virtuous reputations” inviting “him to climb their balcony at questionable hours of the night.”

So, no, this is not a bodice ripper. And neither is McCulley’s novel. All that virile red blood he keeps thumping through his hero’s body finds action in his rapier not his, well, rapier. Though his story maintains a barely masked panic about masculinity and the horror of effeminate men.

McCulley is equally obsessed with blue blood. The Mark of Zorro (renamed after the Douglas Fairbanks film) is an entertainingly incompetent argument for the supremacy of European bloodlines. It was written from the bowels of the eugenics movement, an all but forgotten (AKA suppressed) era of American culture.

It was once common knowledge, from Presidents to pulp writers, that “well born” blood had to be protected from mixing with the unfit. The future of civilization was at stake. The unfit included Indians (those victims of oppression Zorro both protects and paradoxically reviles), Asians, Blacks, Eastern Europeans, Jews, the poor, the promiscuous, criminals, invalids, and the feeble-minded.

The list is actually quite longer, but you get the idea. In the first quarter of the 20th century, even social manners were an inheritable trait, and Zorro and his aristocratic pals held a monopoly.

Allende will have none of this. Her Zorro, while an apparent clone of his McCulley parent, reverses his core DNA. Rather than protecting his fellow aristocrats (particularly the family of the senorita he seeks to procreate with), Allende’s Zorro recognizes the fundamental injustice of the class system and vows to right it.

Or at least he starts to. He’s no Robin Hood, but he’s also no pure blood prince. Allende thoroughly mixes his blood, turning the “mestizo” stigma into the source of his superpowers. The novel is a sequence of romping, episodic adventures, each tossing a new trinket into the melting pot of his character. A Gypsy sword, a pirate’s wardrobe, a Jewish fencing mentor, a cross-dressing Indian mother, they all coalesce in the aggressively anti-eugenics swashbuckling amalgam of a 21st century Zorro.

I’d love to see Allende’s novel adapted into a TV series. But I’ll settle for a film. Or possibly two, since both Sony and Fox are working on reboots. The Fox version, Zorro Reborn, would be set in a post-apocalyptic future, some sort of Zorro on The Road. Which, okay, I guess that’s one direction to go. And not even the strangest. I also hear there’s a musical hoofing its way toward Broadway.

One way or another, McCulley’s descendants will continue to spread his bloodline.

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