Sunday, March 31, 2024

Zorro Television Watch: Zorro (2024)

As much as I like to nod to the idea of superheroes as modern myths or carrying on the tradition of the Greek heroes or other mythologies of various geographic locales, it's an awkward fit.  The actual myths around, say, Hercules, are weird and brutal by modern standards.  ie: Murdering one's own family is not just another mishap adventure along the way for, say, The Flash.*  There's something a bit more of the swashbuckler and criminal doing right in an unjust world that was at the core of the first wave of superheroes.

Even before Superman leaped his first tall building, Batman punched his first mentally ill person, or Wonder Woman lasso'd her first Holliday Girl, pulp and popular fiction was cooking up some interesting personas.  One of the first superheroes I tend to think of is The Scarlet Pimpernel, who appeared in a novel in 1905 (written by a woman, no less, so take that, comics-gaters) and who would appear in a movie by 1934.  The Shadow existed as a radio and magazine character around 1931, Flash Gordon was around by 1934, The Phantom appeared in a comic strip by 1936.

But, Zorro..!  Zorro appeared in 1919 in print and by 1920 as a film.  

man, look at that art!

you gotta like the joie de vivre

If the notion of a rich land-owner putting on a cape and mask and pretending to be a fop in his civilian identity while righting wrongs under a nom de guerre is sounding familiar, you may be on to something.  Heck, he even has sort of a servant doubling as an assistant, a cave beneath his mansion, an array of weaponry and black-colored transportation (Zorro's horse, Tornado!).  There's also usually a girl who rolls her eyes at Don de la Vega while getting wobbly for Zorro.

I came to Zorro first as a cartoon back around 1980, which I remember as great, and therefore I can never watch it again, as it is likely quite bad if you're not 5 years old.  Circa 1990, I became a fan of the television show on basic cable starring Duncan Regehr as Zorro, and, ever since, I've never quite shaken the idea of Zorro being very, very cool. 

The basic ingredients for Zorro require Don Diego de la Vega as a landed gentlemen in a pre-US California, and for the government to be run by thugs oppressing the people.  As Zorro, de la Vega rights the wrongs of "authority" and criminals in equal measure, and inspires the people to push back on the thuggish governor/ alcalde/ whatever.  Also, there must be a pretty girl who likes Zorro and tolerates de la Vega.

I tend to think the look is intensely important - who doesn't like a black mask, a cape and a rapier?  Throw in that gentlemanly styling, a sombrero cordob├ęs, some derring-do, acrobatics and a hearty laugh as our hero rides off once again, and I'm a fan (I'd never be a brooding superhero.  That's for chumps.).  There ARE female versions of Zorro, but I am not familiar beyond a comic cover or three (it seems to be a chance to draw women in hats and deep cut blouses).

There's actually a lot of Zorro out there, and sometimes I'll pick up a comic book, which always seem to be in print.   But there have been cartoons and shows I've just completely missed along the way. I've never seen any of the novellas on a shelf, I don't think.  I've seen bits of the OG 1920 film, Zorro the Gay Blade, the two Banderas/ Zeta-Jones films, and other bits of Zorro (I rec The Mark of Zorro starring Tyrone Power).  And I've seen a couple of stray episodes of the Disney show, which is good, btw.  

The actual copyright question of Zorro is interesting, and maybe best served by considering how Mickey Mouse is a Trademark, but Steamboat Willie is now in public domain.  Anyway - another time!  But, yeah, the original book by Johnston McCulley should be available for public domain reprints.

This week an all-new show was announced, which seems to be produced in France, which will be an action-comedy airing on Paramount+.  But that's not what this is about (we will certainly be checking out the Paramount+ show).

I've now completed all 10 episodes of Zorro (2024) on Amazon, and I was pleasantly surprised.  

The new show is a little confusing as, when you put it on, as it's not clear who made this thing.  There are no recognizable actors, it seems to be recorded in Spanish and dubbed into English, but also didn't appear to be a Mexican program on first blush, which - in my Texas brain - made the most sense.

But, no, it's a joint production of Spain, Portugal and others - shot in the Canary Islands, starring a mixed bag of European, Latin American, US, and Asian talent.  That set must have been wild.

It's also just interesting that Europe had an interest in the character and his setting.  Zorro (2024) exists in a post-revolution Mexico - specifically in a pre-Mexican-American War Los Angeles, California.  He feels very New World to me.  But you never know, and I tip my hat to our friends across the Atlantic for carrying the torch on this one.

Like a lot of pulp heroes, there's no real definitive version of Zorro.  Everyone who has picked up the character has made changes (which is why I dwelled upon what makes a basic Zorro story above). The changes made here are a mix of interesting and, I think, well-considered.  

Zorro still returns from Spain where he's been training in a military academy to California to find things have changed for the worse, but in this case, his father was murdered - he believes the the outlaw "Zorro".  "Zorro" in this show is a mantle taken up by one of the local natives to act as an avenger of wrongs - but that person must be selected by a CGI fox-spirit.  So, yeah, it's super weird when the fox-spirit selects the blue-eyed, blonde Spaniard.

Our (big maybe) love interest is probably very reflective of our modern era as we find ways to not make female characters damsels in distress, but having agency.  She may not have Zorro's same skill with a blade, but her life on her ranch has made her a crack shot and a bit tomboyish (played by Mexican-born Renata Notni).  

The Los Angeles of the film is possibly more reflective of even early Los Angeles, but overshoots how early California saw a real influx of Chinese immigrants (which occurred with the 1840's gold rushes, and the show is in the 1830's).  But I genuinely don't know when the first Chinese person stepped off a boat to see if they could make it over there (then they can make it anywhere!).  There are also indigenous people hanging out near and in town, which seems right.  They're there to trade and because they've always lived in the area and - unlike other versions of Zorro - not just around, but central to our story.  And, there's some shady Russians hanging around.

Because this isn't a US produced show, there's only a handful of American characters, and they aren't exactly portrayed as good people, but killers and tyrannical tycoons.  Which, fair enough.  There's also some California nationalists - the true owners of this land!, which the show doesn't get a chance to go into the irony of as the First People are hanging out just over the hill.  

In addition to Lolita, the show has our corrupt governor, pivots to make the Captain an actually good guy, adds in Mei, a Chinese immigrant as a third person in the de la Vega household and keeper of Zorro's secret, and - my favorite, has the sister (Dalia Xiuhcoatl) of the dead former Zorro (played by Ted Lasso's Cristo Fernandez) who really is pissed she doesn't get to be Zorro.

The show is serialized, with each chapter building, while also trying for a bit of identity of its own as our Diego takes on the mantle.  He doesn't particularly want it, but he does want to find out who killed his father and why - and he learns quickly "actually, Zorro didn't do it."

There's plenty of intrigue, drama, and some decent action!  But, I will be honest, the actress playing the would-be Zorro is clearly the best athlete on the show, and you will spend your time kind of thinking "yes, this Don Diego stuff is all good, but what's SHE up to?"

I also could have done with a bit more in the way of the crazy action stunts I associate with Zorro.  Swinging from chandeliers, jumping from windows onto Tornado...  that kind of stuff.  And maybe that's the limitation of shooting in the Canary Islands with non-American stunt people?  I can't say.  But if the show picks up again, it would be great to see Zorro do more of the flippity-di-dippity (as I wind up calling all stunts at this house).  

Frankly, I was expecting to be a little disappointed by the show.  I've seen some pretty lazy TV adaptations of good stuff, and it was clear from moment one that this was not the Banderas vehicle that we all remember and loved (and if you haven't seen that first movie in a while, do yourself a favor).  What shocked me was how *good* the writing was, and that no one really comes off as a two-dimensional cut out if you ponder their motivations.  Everyone kind of has a point, but that doesn't mean people aren't doing wrong, and Zorro isn't needed.  And the show does manage to ask "so why this guy for Zorro?"

Initially, I wasn't terribly sold on Miguel Bernardeau as Diego de la Vega, but as the series went along, I got why he'd been cast, and was totally sold pretty quickly.  This is a maybe more complex Zorro than we usually get, and I think he did a good job as an actor - maybe stunted a but by the English voice over.  I'll leave it to other folks to debate the history of California, of the complexities of racial identity then and now, and what may have made the most interesting choice and why vis-a-vis casting.  I do have to remember this is not a US-produced show, and so things are going to have different considerations.

Anyway, I kind of hope this does well enough that there's a second season.  There's plenty of places for this to go, and a huge plot line was just getting started.  And, if nothing else, the last shot of the series promises at least an episode or two to remind everyone who the OG superhero really was.  

*no matter what comics in 00's would have told you, Dan Didio


Steven said...

Really in-depth take on a show I didn't know anything about. Sounds very promising.

The League said...

Give it a chance. It may take an episode or three before it starts kind of unfolding a bit.

The League said...

Also, I just like Zorro, so YMMV