The Superheroic Virtues: Justice

The Superheroic Virtues: Justice

The broken people of Alta California trudge dejected through the roads of the sleepy pueblo called Los Angeles. Two soldiers of the Alcalde march through the streets, one of them beating a relentless staccato rhythm on his drum.  Each tap of the drumstick, each fall of the foot serving to remind the peons of their status as a crushed people. The soldiers march through the dusty streets unafraid.  These people… These cattle have nothing left in them.  They exist from day to day only to be wrung drier with each groaning twist.

The peons can barely be bothered to look up to see what form of oppression will be placed upon them today. It is taxes this time.  The Alcalde is raising them yet again. What little curiosity they had is now satisfied. Why worry about taxes when you have nothing left to pay them with? Why worry about your future when you have none?  Starvation is barely kept at bay thanks to the rapacity of the government. And now it will take some more of them.

Soldiers uncaringly nail up a notice that will only put a few more centavos in the governor’s purse but will be a death sentence to the current crop of people who are at the bottom of the ladder this week.

Suddenly there is a clattering of hooves as a man dressed all in black, wearing a cape and head wrap as a mask, thunders through the streets.  In an instant, he is upon the now terrified soldiers, the cold steel of his sword keeping them at bay. He slashes the tax increase off the wall and has his own announcement to the government nailed up in its place. 

He routes the oppressors of the people sending them scurrying frantically back to the barracks.  Then the man in black vanishes in a gallop leaving behind him as the only mark of his passing, a jagged letter “Z.”

What is a hero?

What defines a hero? Why do we look up to him? What is his purpose to those around him?

More importantly why do we need him?   

Dirty little secret of the comic book industry.  

They didn’t invent superheroes.  It’s quite true, they didn’t.  

While comics invented a few tropes and archetypes such as having their protagonists wear their underwear on the outside.  They didn’t invent the genre itself.

I know there are a few of you who think I’m about to give credit to the pulps but I’m not.  There were a few characters like Sherlock Holmes and Tarzan that came pretty close, but they didn’t quite hit the mark. When all is said and done, superheroes require a visual medium.

The very first superhero first appeared in film, one hundred years ago.

The Mark of Zorro was released in 1920 starring Douglas Fairbanks.  And it’s Fairbanks who gets the credit for inventing the superhero.  He was the first one to hit all the marks that the genre requires.  

The Curse of Capistrano was a pulp written by Johnston McCulley, first appearing in five serialized installments in the (yes, it was a) pulp magazine, All Story Weekly.  In the book, Zorro was a masked bandit that fought for the peons of California. Basically, a Robin Hood figure with overtones borrowed from the legend of Joaquin Murrieta.*

But Fairbanks turned the trope of a Robin Hood figure into something more.   

Let’s take a look at the character behind the mask.  It has been noted frequently that there is no Bruce Wayne.  That he died as a little boy in the alley alongside his parents and that Bruce Wayne is simply a mask that Batman wears.

With Zorro it’s definitely the opposite, he is nothing without the man behind the mask.  

Don Diego de la Vega was a young man born to a life of privilege.  The gods lingered over his cradle and were generous with their gifts to him. He was naturally athletic, completely mastering swordsmanship at the age of twenty-four. A horseman born to the saddle. Quite acrobatic (depending on the actor). Yet, also extremely proficient at the more refined skills of courtly dancing, high fashion, and witty conversation.   And he was extraordinarily handsome in a culture that revered male beauty.  Diego was also commanding of demeanor; he was the kind of guy that you knew was in charge of things just by walking into the room.  On top of all this, the son of a bitch was born rich too.

Zorro falls into the archetype of the Trickster-hero. This was Fairbanks’s addition to the character and this trait more than anything else is what took Zorro to the next level as a hero. Embarrassing his enemies as a whole was almost more important than defeating them in battle.  He could take any of them, man to man, but he was ultimately only one man.  The only way he could break their hold over the peons was to give the peons hope.  And the easiest way to do that was to humiliate his enemies, and (more importantly), get away with it.

Diego had two different masks he was forced to wear.  The dangerous and deadly bandit, Zorro. And the harmless fop Vega, who was more concerned with the matching of delicate fabrics and lovely scents than he was the sweaty business of swordplay. The real man was known to very few within the story. 

And all of this was just window dressing.  The single trait and virtue that defined Diego Vega above all others was his sense of Justice.  

Quick review, the heroic virtues are:

Prudence: the ability to always discern which is the path, that is right to take.  Whether or not it will be the easiest is immaterial it is the Right thing or it isn’t. 

Temperance: the practice of self-control and moderation.  Self-restraint in all things from extremes in emotions to extremes in pride and grief.  This is critically important in those that have great power.

Justice:  Having a strong sense of fairness.

Courage: The strength to carry out the other virtues.  To able to confront fear, uncertainty and extreme opposition.  To follow those virtues regardless of the painful burdens of personal sacrifice they will entail.   The strength to keep going when all hope is lost.

These four virtues define heroism.

While Diego Vega possessed all of these virtues the one that he is most strongly associated with is Justice.

In order to see how he exemplifies this virtue, we need to take a look at his three antagonists.  The oppressors of the district. The corrupt Governor, the brutish Sergeant, and Zorro’s opposite number, the skilled and deadly Capitan.**

The names of these opponents changed from version to version, but the characters stayed the same.  And each one inflamed Diego Vega wrath by the methods they used to inflict injustice on the peons.  

The Sergeant most closely fits the comic book archetype of the Brawn.  “This guy is the muscle, and muscle is about all that he brings to the party. The Brawn is characterized by low intelligence and is very much a creature of the id.  He is driven by his baser desires.  And is as quick to anger as he is to drooling lust. He doesn’t eat, he gorges. He doesn’t drink, he gets drunk.  His typical weakness is that he has very little self-control.”

The Sergeant was a thug that enjoyed being a thug.  He reveled in his physical power over those who were too weak to oppose him and in truth were legally compelled to not raise a hand in their own defense.  The Sergeant loved bullying the weak and defenseless.  And nothing gave him more joy than the sound of his whip slashing against a peon’s back. He was the Capitan’s chief enforcer.

Diego loathed the man for his tastes in “fun.” But initially was willing to leave him on a back burner because the Sergeant was ultimately a pretty small fish compared to the real criminals that were gutting the district.  Zorro was only compelled to action by the severe injustice of the Sergeant whipping a priest.  While he could have killed him easily enough, that would not have been a Just action.  For all of his many faults and pointless cruelties, there were lines that the Sergeant had not crossed. He was neither a rapist nor a murderer. 

When he was finally bound to action by his own sense of Justice, Diego was also constrained by it.  Diego beat the Sergeant severely and then carved a Z on him to mark him as an object lesson for others that would follow his example. And thus, risk a similar fate at the hands of Zorro. But he did not kill him. Thus did Diego serve justice.

The Governor is closer to the archetype of the Brain. “Pretty much the mirror opposite of the Brawn.  Where the Brawn is compelled by the id the Brain is a creation of the super-ego.  He is all intellect. Unconcerned with the desires of the flesh, the Brain lives only to expand his mental prowess. His ambitions are as vast as his ego. He views other humans as less evolved organisms barely worthy of his contempt. His typical weakness is his ego.”

The Governor is the head of the serpent.  Utterly corrupt, greedy, and grasping.  He is however very intelligent and (depending on the iteration) is a man who with the help of the Capitan deposed Diego’s father as Alcalde.  Physically the least imposing of Zorro’s enemies, he is in some ways more dangerous than the Capitan due to his intellect.  Diego loathes him as a tyrant but needs access to him in order to foil his schemes.  While Diego feels that Governor is a very evil man, he is again restrained from murdering him by his sense of justice.  In his deepest heart, Diego wants the governor to be tried and convicted by the law and not removed by the actions of one lone vigilante.  (Depending on the version of the story, the Governor was allowed to go into exile provided he put Don Alejandro back in his proper place as Alcalde.)

And on a more pragmatic level, there is the problem of the Capitan immediately replacing the Governor with someone just as bad. In truth the Governor knows this too and secretly lives in fear of the Capitan.  

Which brings us neatly to Zorro’s true nemesis, the Capitan.  He has most of the same gifts as Diego, but the Capitan’s resentment and ambitions drive him far from the path of virtue.  The Capitan is above all things hag-ridden by his vaulting ambition. He is a product of what passes for Spain’s lower-middle-class in the early 1800s.  He was better than the men above him in every way and yet his ambitions were constantly thwarted all of his life due to the barriers of class.  He resents the hidalgos and grandees for the rewards they were given simply for successfully surviving birth.  The Capitan is without remorse for his actions, vain as a peacock and extremely Machiavellian. He ruthlessly pursues the wives of his betters and is delighted to cross steel with them in consequence, regardless of the price this comes with afterward. While he enjoys the feeling of power that leaving broken homes and grieving families in his wake, he eventually kills the wrong man. And has to flee Spain all the way to one of the furthest Spain’s possessions, Alta California.  

Rather than using this as a chance to start his life over, he ruthlessly seizes the opportunity to grab as much power as possible. By the time that Diego returned home from Spain, he controls the garrison, the Governor, and by extension, the rest of the surrounding country.  

For the Capitan, the taxes aren’t primarily a means of enrichment, (although it does do that), its real purpose is power over the population. Ultimately, power is his goal.

Unlike the Sargeant and the Governor, the Capitan was a killer and thus demanded a fuller measure of Justice from Zorro. However, Justice restrains Diego from challenging the Capitan. He must find a way to compel the Capitan to challenge him. Diego was reasonably certain the odds favored him by about sixty/forty.  An unfair advantage especially as the Capitan viewed Diego as a useless fop, whom he could polish off before breakfast.  However, if the Capitan challenged Diego, a man who he thought he could easily kill, then the Justice would be served if Diego killed him in such a duel. Which he did.

Still one of the best sword fights in movie history.

In summary, while the character of Don Diego de la Vega was primarily driven by the virtue of Justice, he was also motivated by the other three.  He demonstrated prudence in taking up arms against the oppressors of Los Angeles.  It was the right path to take, despite what it could cost him personally.  He showed Temperance in his restraint when meting out Justice.  And he obviously had the Courage to take the actions that were needed, no matter the risk to himself personally.  

But in the final analysis Zorro was embodiment of Justice when justice had failed.

Pretty much what you would expect from the first superhero.

See you on Monday. 

*Joaquin Murrieta, was about as real as Zorro.  There was a bandit that robbed and killed a few Chinese by that name but that is about it for real world historical references.  

** Technically, there was also a fourth antagonist.  The Love-Interest.  Again, her name changed with each iteration, but she was always the same character, I’ll just call her “Lolita.”  Diego was in love with Lolita, but she was driven by her anger at the injustice being inflicted on the people of Los Angeles. She loathed the foppish Don Diego for being an ill-mannered rich boor who cared nothing for the suffering of those around him and she was desperately in love with the noble and daring Zorro.  All of this, long before Lois Lane came along. “Lolita,” was the first superhero girlfriend.

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Comments (9)

  • John E. Boyle Reply

    Zorro was one of my favorites as a boy, perhaps I need to revisit him.

    That fight between Power and Rathbone is superb!

    January 23, 2021 at 12:20 am
    • The Dark Herald Reply

      That movie holds up.

      It’s a pity Tyronne Power and Basil Rathbone only ever faced off once.

      They were the two best swordsmen in Hollywood and everyone knew it.

      January 23, 2021 at 12:37 am
    • Silent Draco Reply

      The duel between Basil Rathbone and Errol Flynn (“Captain Blood”) comes close, but not the same intensity. It takes greater skill to engage in swordplay and neither party gets injured. Wonder how much whiskey the producers and execs went through, hoping to not lose a star?

      January 25, 2021 at 3:51 pm
  • furor kek tonicus Reply

    that IS a very good fencing scene. they still have a few “strikes at empty air” ( the worst crime of the Darth Maul dueling scenes ), the most egregious of which is probably at the 2:40 disengage but still, you don’t often observe technical swordplay like that on film.
    .
    there were multiple points where both actors had to have supreme trust in their partner. while i’m sure there was no edge on the blades, it would have been far too easy to run or the other through at various points in that fight.
    .
    i don’t know that Heidelberg scars have ever been a “thing” in Hollywood.

    January 23, 2021 at 3:32 am
    • Codex Reply

      Diego had two different masks he was forced to wear. The dangerous and deadly bandit, Zorro. And the harmless fop Vega, who was more concerned with the matching of delicate fabrics and lovely scents than he was the sweaty business of swordplay. The real man was known to very few within the story.

      And this trope was created 15 years earlier in The Scarlet Pimpernel!

      They seek him here, they seek him there:
      The Frenchies seek him everywhere
      Is he in Heaven or is he in Hell?
      That demned ellusive Pimpernel!

      You would think the ladies-rights people would’ve beaten the name Baroness Orzky into our collective brains, but alas. This trailblazer was a Christian, a monarchist, made commies look bad, and her heroine found fulfillment by finally submitting to her husband.

      Great book, if a bit of a slow-starter.

      February 4, 2021 at 3:29 pm
  • bvdemier Reply

    1)It is rather amusing to see how caracters become more sympathetic to the audience if they follow (or try to follow) these virtues.
    We even see it in the opening scene of the Godfather where Bonosera demands Corleone to kill the rapists of his daughter; In modern movies they wouldnt even allow that. They probably would set up a scene where the rapists would undergo a gruesome death by the daughter. But here we have Corleone saying flat-out:”This I can not do. That is not justice, your daughter is still alive.”
    He is still willing to break their legs though, but it does make us, the audience, like him more, and it sets up the downfall of his son, who wasnt able to have that sense of restraint.
    2)This is also something that is a difference between Eastern and Western heroes. The West loves its “Heroes against the Establisment”-stories. This is mostly because for you yanks your originstory is on and we in Europe have seen enough of our Establisment being completely amoral to know that Law isnt always Justice.
    It isnt a suprise that one of the longest anime-series “One Piece” involves a corrupt World-goverment and a lot of people in the military serving that goverment antagonising themselves almost endlessly on the question “Why do I serve this corrupt goverment in the name of Justice”.
    Whereas Western Heroes like Captain America needed only a couple of seconds to answer that question.

    January 23, 2021 at 7:53 am
  • furor kek tonicus Reply

    Lone Wolf and Cub is not a “Heroes against the Establisment”-story?

    January 23, 2021 at 4:08 pm
  • Dane Reply

    Well put, brother.

    January 23, 2021 at 9:40 pm
  • TroperA Reply

    Fantastic technical swordfight, although when it comes to spectacle, I prefer the swordfight from the Alain Delon Zorro (1975.) It’s a wonderful slice of Franco-Italian cheese that shakes up the origin story a little bit (Don Diego is a lawful good pacifist who gets assassinated early in the film and the friend who impersonates him and becomes Zorro has to take an oath not to kill anyone in the pursuit of justice. He breaks that oath at the very end, of course, because some people are just too evil to live and need killin’.) The ending fight happens all over a church and even involves swinging on ropes in the rafters. You’d be hard pressed to find a fight scene today where the heroes interact directly with the scenery. It’s all green screen and fake looking now.

    January 25, 2021 at 4:50 am

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