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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

85th Academy Awards Nominations Announcement

I thought it was going to be 2012.

Remember all that Oscar hype Dark Knight Rises got back in July? Of course that was before it was actually released. If any DC fans were still holding out hopes, Spider-Man sweetheart Gwen Stacy (AKA Emma Stone) and toddler supervillain Stewie Griffin (AKA Seth MacFarlane) dashed them when they announced the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ official nomination list this month. I like to think Marvel fans are a little more reality-based, though I’m sure a few were holding out hopes for Joss Whedon’s The Avengers too.

Dark Knight RisesThe AvengersAmazing Spider-Man

Add The Amazing Spider-Man, and three of the top grossing films of 2012 were dressed in spandex. Together they cashed in more than the GDP of Jamaica or Iceland. And yet both the Oscars and the Golden Globes snub them? Co-hosts Amy Poehler and Tina Fey didn’t even make JOKES about this year’s superhero movies. (Daredevil, AKA Ben Affleck, wins best director, and he can’t even see?!)

Ben Affleck as Matt MurdockBen Affleck as Daredevil

Isn’t it time for some kind of Golden Superhero Oscar Globe Ceremony Banquet Thing? Why doesn’t anyone have a category for Best Superhero Film?

Well, because that would be silly. Not to mention demeaning and/or redundant. Did Heath Ledger win Best Supporting Actor in a Superhero Film in 2009?

Best Supporting Actor 2009 Award

And just look at last year’s winner. The would-be Best Superhero Film of 2011 also won Best Picture of the Year.

ThorCaptain AmericaGreen Lantern

Green HornetX-men First ClassGriff the Invisible

No, I don’t mean Thor or Captain America. Certainly not Green Lantern or Green Hornet. X-Men: First Class was fun but certainly no Oscar contender, and while Australia’s Griff the Invisible deserved lots and lots more attention, Best Picture would be a stretch.

I’m talking about The Russian Affair.

The Russian Affair

The 1927 classic? Never heard of it?

That’s because it’s the opening sequence of 2011’s The Artist, winner of the Least Watched Best Picture of All Time. I’d not even heard of it until after last year’s Awards ceremony, and it still took me months to rent.

Which was stupid of me. Because not only is The Artist a brilliant film, it’s also the perfect history lesson for a superhero movie buff.

The Artist

You probably think of the superhero as a relatively recent invader of the silver screen. The folks over at BoxOfficeMojo.com consider the 1978 Superman the Krypton-like explosion that spawned the genre.

Not so.

Captain American turned to celluloid back in 1944, Batman in 1943, Captain Marvel 1941.

Captain-america_serial_poster220px-Batman1943SerialPoster220px-Adventures_of_captain_marvelshadowstrikesposter2

But, you might argue, those were just serials. Dinky 10-minute installments that aired each week before the main attraction. Like, say, the 1937 The Shadow Strikes, one of the first superhero films of the sound era.

But not the Silent Age.

Unlike all those other upstart film genres, superheroes hit the big screen back when movies were still movies, not talkies. The Russian Affair (as well as glimpses of its equally pretend sequel, The German Affair) features its pretend star George Valentin in tuxedo, top hat, and domino mask—the quintessential costume of the pre-comicbook proto-superhero, the gentleman thief.

Lone Wolf, Gray Seal, Scarlet Pimpernel, they’re all Batman predecessors, all but forgotten. Except for one. Zorro. Which The Artist inserts into the Valentin’s filmography too, replacing the real life film star Douglas Fairbanks. Director Michel Hazanavicius even reshot the best action sequence, dressing The Artist’s Jean Dujardin in Fairbanks’ Zorro costume. When Fairbanks first pulled on that mask, the avenging bandit was an obscure hero from a pulp magazine serial. A year later, Zorro is an international icon. The Mark of Zorro didn’t win Best Picture in 1920 only because the Academy Awards wouldn’t start for another decade.

Zorro

But Fairbanks wasn’t the first masked movie star. He and his alter ego Dujardin/Valentin were just catching the wave started in 1916, the first year of the movie superhero.

Like 2012, 1916 saw three rounds of masked do-gooders. In The Iron Claw, Creighton Hale played a mild-mannered assistant by day, the mysterious Laughing Mask by night. By the end he’s wooed his boss’s daughter and thwarted the nefarious Iron Claw.

Laughingmask

Francis Ford joined Hale as the similarly clad Sphinx in The Purple Mask, only this time the masked hero has a masked anti-heroine to woo too, Grace Cunard’s lady thief Queen of the Apaches, arguably the first superheroine in celluloid. She leaves her purple mask as a calling card.

The Purple Mask

But Best Superhero Film of 1916 goes to Louis Feuillade’ classic Judex. The 1930’s Shadow would borrow his cloak and slouch hat, but the master-of-disguise Judex sought revenge against a corrupt banker, while falling in love with and so of course protecting his daughter from villains. I like to show my class the original unmasking scene, Yvette Andréyor creeping into the hero’s bedroom (think Batcave) and discovering his make-up kit. (Nowhere nearly as dramatic as the big Phantom of the Opera scene, but this was shot a decade earlier.)

Judez

So when Hazanavicius is ready to shoot a sequel, The Artist II: The First Affair, he’ll have plenty more material to plunder.

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