The Mask of Zorro / The Legend of Zorro – What A Waste of Potential

[Updated on June 24th: See what happens when I don’t do my own research? Catherine Zeta-Jones, as commenter Tessa helpfully noted, is Welsh. Oh well, I guess it was too good to be true.]

Finally, I’m reviewing action movies where most of the main characters are people of color! Antonio Banderas plays Alejandro Murrieta, the new Zorro. Catherine Zeta-Jones plays Elena Montero. Anthony Hopkins plays Don Diego, the old Zorro. That’s two out of three. (If you count the bad guys as main characters, the numbers don’t look as good, but they seem like second tier characters to me.) In fact, I am almost giddy that I won’t have to write “and there was only one person of color” at the end of this review.

The Mask of Zorro is a story about fighting for people who are getting stomped on by wealth and power. Specifically, it’s about a revolution against the Spanish colonial power controlling California, a revolution initially aided and abetted by one of the colonizers (Don Diego) and carried further by one of the colonized (Murrieta). Don Diego is accused of betraying his class for fighting on behalf of the Californians, and he does get points for being on the right side for the right reasons – though the viewer will note he’s not shown giving up any of his class comforts or wealth. Murrieta initially wants to learn Zorro’s skills for a matter of personal revenge. When his eyes are opened to the abuses of power, though, he commits to fighting for others instead of himself. So far, so good.

So what about the woman?

Elena is our heroine, and her story begins when she is just a baby. The first two things the viewer learns about Elena are that she loves adventure stories, and she’s strong. When we meet her again as an adult, she is criticized by her adoptive father for being too headstrong, too brazen, too opinionated. So we like her immediately.

Elena’s rebellious side responds more and more to Murietta-as-Zorro as they meet again and again. She isn’t afraid of him, and he is fascinated by her. The mutual attraction is also evident when Murietta is masquerading as a nobleman to infiltrate Elena’s father’s political circle. Although Murietta stays in character by putting Elena down for her political opinions, the viewer can tell that he’s secretly enjoying it. He likes her real personality, not the demure one that her father would prefer, and not an empty shell that can serve as beautiful window dressing.

The film does strays into dangerous territory when Murietta-as-Zorro and Elena face off in a barn, and he uses his sword to slice up her clothes. It edged into the age-old “she says she doesn’t like it, but really she does” pattern, with Murietta taking advantage of his skill to put Elena in an awkward position.

Overall, though, I thought Elena was a decent heroine. She doesn’t keep her mouth shut when other people want her to, she makes her own decisions, and she wields a blade like she was born to it. The film could have given her a bit more to do at the end while the men are Saving the World, but I would have given it 3 stars.

Except… the final moments of the film worried me. Murietta is recounting an adventure story to a child, and Elena is standing by cautioning safety, as her mother had when her father told her adventure stories. Who is this Elena? The Elena we’ve met so far takes chances, and she liked Murietta because he’s a daredevil.

So, I decided to watch the second film before I made up my mind. The Legend of Zorro continues the story of California’s self-determination, now focused on the election wherein the people of California will decide whether to join the United States. The people of California are portrayed as less downtrodden in this film, and slightly less like victims waiting to be rescued by Zorro. (In another three or four sequels, perhaps we would get to the point where a variety of community leaders are recognized and not just the swashbuckling hero!) These folks are not afraid to stick up for themselves, men and women both, even if their hero Zorro also has to get involved.

Elena doesn’t fare so well. She has been transformed into the stereotype of the bitchy, nagging wife. Don’t go out and save the world, stop fighting, it’s too dangerous, you told me you wouldn’t do that anymore, why don’t you pay more attention to your family? Murietta asks “What happened to the woman who used to fight by my side?” Elena responds “I had a son.”

As I kept watching, I hoped the film’s creators were bringing back the old Elena. When the bad guys try to kidnap her, she beats the hell out of them with a handy shovel until one of them pulls a gun. She takes on a dangerous spy mission and ends up fighting side by side with Murietta as the Evil Plot is uncovered. In the climactic fight scene at the end, she actually has the better fight – against the much scarier bad guy – and then she saves Murietta’s butt!

Then they took it all away again. Zorro is summoned to protect California, and Murietta looks to Elena for permission. She agrees that he should go, saying “It’s who we are.” So he goes, and she stays behind. I’m sorry, I’ve missed something. Explain to me who the “we” is in “It’s who we are?” We are a family where the man goes out to fight and the woman stays at home? Isn’t that how we got into trouble the first time around?

I give the movies 2 stars because together they are the perfect example of the phrase So Close. So close to getting it right. If they hadn’t sold her out, Elena would be a true heroine. Instead, she ends up at home making doilies* or something while the man saves the day. It’s such a shame.

* No offense to doily-makers intended.

This post was originally published on Heroine Content, a feminist and anti-racist movie blog that ran from July 2006 to May 2012.

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