The First 10 Superhero Films Ever Made
1. The Mark of Zorro (1920)
The masked vigilante Zorro first appeared in the serialized novella The Curse of Capistrano (1919) by author Johnston McCulley. Since then, this character has been in films, TV shows, stage productions, comic books, and even video games. He was cited as one of the inspirations for the DC Comics hero Batman.
Zorro first appeared on screen in The Mark of Zorro (1920), where he was played by Douglas Fairbanks. This marked a turning point in Fairbanks’s career, as the film’s success established him as a swashbuckling action hero. He later starred in The Three Musketeers (1921), Robin Hood (1922), The Thief of Bagdad (1924), and The Black Pirate (1926).
Film historian Jeffrey Vance has claimed, “The Mark of Zorro is a landmark, not only in the career of Douglas Fairbanks, but also in the development of the action-adventure film… Beyond reenergizing his career and redefining a genre, Fairbanks’s The Mark of Zorro helped popularize one of the enduring creations of twentieth-century American fiction, a character who was the prototype for comic book heroes such as Batman.”
This film was remade in 1940, with Tyrone Power in the lead role, and again in 1974, with Frank Langella.
2. Don Q, Son of Zorro (1925)
Following his successful role in The Mark of Zorro (1920), Douglas Fairbanks returned for its sequel, Don Q, Son of Zorro (1925). This time he played Zorro’s son, who follows in his father’s footsteps to become a masked vigilante. Zorro himself appears toward the end of the film, which allowed Fairbanks to play a dual role.
While the original film took place in California, Don Q takes place in Spain, where Zorro’s son, Cesar, is going to school. Cesar is framed for murder by a romantic rival, so he fakes his death and goes into hiding, wearing a mask to conceal his identity.
Unlike the first film, Don Q was not adapted from any of the original novellas or short stories. In fact, this film originally had nothing to do with Zorro or his son. It was an adaptation of a novel entitled Don Q’s Love Story, written by mother-son duo Kate and Hesketh Pritchard. But the project was taken over by United Artist Studios, who reworked it into a sequel to The Mark of Zorro.
Considering the success of this film, it appears that the studio made the right choice.
3. The Bold Caballero (1936)
While the first two Zorro films were silent, The Bold Caballero (1936) was the first talking picture that featured the character, and the first shot in color. This time Zorro was played by Robert Livingston, who made a career playing cowboys in both movies and TV shows.
The Bold Caballero was Republic Pictures Corporation’s first color film, though the studio still used black-and-white prints for the promotional material. Due to budget concerns, Republic would not produce another color film until 1949.
In this film, Zorro is given a love interest named Lady Isabella Palma, played by Heather Angel, who attempts to help clear his name when he's accused of murdering her father, the governor of California. In The Mark of Zorro (1920)—just like in the original stories—his love interest was Lolita Pulido, played by Marguerite De La Motte.
Future Zorro adaptations would continue to take liberties with the characters and romantic subplots. In the Walt Disney TV series Zorro (1957-1959), his love interest is Ana María Verduzco, played by Jolene Brand. In the film The Mask of Zorro (1998) and its sequel, The Legend of Zorro (2005), his love interest is Elena Montero, played by Catherine Zeta-Jones.
4. Flash Gordon (1936)
The comic strip Flash Gordon, which first appeared in 1934, originally chronicled the titular hero’s adventures on the planet Mongo, where he battled the evil ruler, Ming the Merciless. In the 1950s, Flash finally defeated Ming and returned to Earth, then became an astronaut and traveled to other planets. The series—which has been adapted into both film and television—is now considered one of the most influential American comic strips of all time.
When the film serial Flash Gordon (1936) came out, it was the second-highest-grossing film that year. It was shown in thirteen chapters, starting with The Planet of Peril, in which Flash travels to Mongo, and ending with Rocketing to Earth, in which he returns home.
The lead actor, Buster Crabbe, was an Olympic swimmer before he became an actor. In addition to playing Flash Gordon, he also played the title roles in the serials Tarzan the Fearless (1933) and Buck Rogers (1939). These three characters were the top syndicated comic strip heroes of the 1930s. Later in his career, Crabbe become known for his roles in western films.
5. Zorro Rides Again (1937)
Zorro Rides Again (1937) was a twelve-chapter serial released by Republic Pictures to capitalize on the popularity of both the character Zorro and of B-western films at the time. The plot is standard for the genre, with a greedy villain leading a group of terrorists in an attempt to seize control of the California-Yucatan Railroad.
While the original novels and short stories took place in California during the Spanish colonial period (1769-1821), this serial took place in the 1930s, and focused on the original Zorro’s descendants. In the beginning, Zorro’s grandson, James Vega, hopes that his nephew, Manuel, will become the new Zorro. But when Manuel turns out to be an ineffectual fop, James takes up the mantle instead.
The previous Zorro films depicted him most often using a sword. In this one, the new Zorro prefers using twin pistols and a whip. But the film does pay homage to the originals, with a painting of Douglas Fairbanks, the original Zorro, appearing in James’s cave hideout.
6. Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars (1938)
The actors from the original Flash Gordon serial all reprised their roles for the fifteen-chapter sequel, Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars (1938). This was evidently a lower-budget film, as it contained some stock footage from the original, and the recycled background music was originally used in The Invisible Man (1933) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935).
This film was originally titled Flash Gordon and the Witch Queen of Mongo, as it was going to take place on the planet Mongo. The location was changed to Mars for two reasons: to save money on shooting locations, and to coincide with the now-infamous radio production of the science-fiction novel, War of the Worlds (1898), directed and narrated by famed actor Orson Welles.
While Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars was a box-office success, the radio show caused mass panic among listeners who didn’t realize it was fictional. Though Welles publicly apologized for making the public believe an alien attack was occurring, Universal Pictures capitalized on the controversy by releasing a feature film-length version of the serial entitled Mars Attacks the World (1936).
7. The Spider's Web (1938)
The Spider was a pulp-magazine superhero of the 1930s and 40s, a millionaire playboy named Richard Wentworth with his own violent brand of vigilante justice. He took on the criminal underworld of New York City, leaving a drop of red ink on the foreheads of those he killed.
The Spider’s Web (1938) was the first film serial to be adapted from a pulp series. The violence of the original stories was toned down for the screen, and The Spider’s costume was altered. Early in the series, The Spider wore a black mask, hat, and cape, but later took on more elaborate disguises, such as vampire fangs and a facemask with grizzled hair. In the serial, the costume featured a spider-web design.
One thing that remained the same was that the stories often ended with the villain being unmasked, and the last chapter of the serial was entitled The Octopus Unmasked, the Octopus being one of The Spider’s nemeses.
The serial was highly successful among critics and audiences. Legendary comic book writer Stan Lee even cited it as the inspiration for the superhero Spider-Man, as well as the villain Dr. Octopus.
8. The Lone Ranger (1938)
The Lone Ranger started off as the hero of a popular radio show, which led to novels, comic books, movies, and a hit TV show that ran from 1949 to 1957. The character is a member of the Texas Ranger Division of the Old West, and the sole survivor of an ambush that killed his fellow Rangers. He’s rescued by a Native American man named Tonto, who becomes his sidekick when he dons a mask to fight outlaws on his own.
As a general rule, the Lone Ranger is never seen without his mask. But the first film serial, The Lone Ranger (1938), broke that rule, much to the displeasure of the radio series creators.
In the serial, a Confederate Army captain leads a band of deserters in an attempt to conquer the state of Texas and rule it as a dictatorship. Five men on horseback fight back against them, and it’s suspected that one of them is the fabled Lone Ranger. His identity is kept secret until the final chapter, when he reveals his face to the people he’s rescued.
Oddly, though the radio and TV show give the Lone Ranger’s last name as Reid (no first name was ever mentioned), his name in the serial was Allen King. In a later serial, The Lone Ranger Rides Again (1939), he identifies himself as Bill Andrews.
9. Zorro's Fighting Legion (1939)
This twelve-chapter Zorro serial takes some liberties with the usual setting and time period. While the original stories—along with previous film adaptations—took place in California during the Spanish colonial period, Zorro’s Fighting Legion (1939) takes place in Mexico in 1824, three years after California stopped being a Spanish colony. Not only that, Zorro wears a masquerade mask instead of his usual bandana.
In this serial, Zorro, played by Reed Hadley, is called to Mexico to apprehend a villain who calls himself Don Del Oro, or “Lord of Gold.” This man is leading an indigenous uprising to steal shipments of gold, and Zorro takes over a local fighting legion to guard the local gold mines.
This was the first film serial to portray the original Zorro, Don Diego. The previous serial, Zorro Rides Again (1937) portrayed Diego’s descendant taking up the title of Zorro, and he used guns rather than the original Zorro’s preferred swords. In this one, he’s back to using swords, and using a flaming letter Z as a signal like he did in The Bold Caballero (1936).
These twelve chapters also contain some of Zorro’s most famous action sequences, such as Zorro leaping off a wall and onto his horse, Zorro swinging from a chandelier, and Zorro cutting a man’s suspenders so that his pants fall down.
10. Buck Rogers (1939)
The character Buck Rogers first appeared in the novella Armageddon 2419 A.D. by Phillip Francis Nowlan in 1928. Then came the Buck Rogers comic strip, followed by a radio show, then films, and then a TV show. The franchise has been credited for popularizing the idea of space exploration in media, which led to the later success of films like Star Wars (1977).
In the novella, Rogers is a World War I veteran, working for the American Radioactive Gas Corporation. While he’s investigating an abandoned coal mine, the mine collapses, and radioactive gas puts him in a state of suspended animation. He wakes up in the year 2419 and finds the world is at war again, this time with advanced weapons and spaceships.
Buck Rogers (1939), a serial told in twelve chapters, took some liberties with the plot, due to the screenwriters not being able to obtain the rights to the comic strip. Buck Rogers is a crew member on an airship flying over the North Pole. When the airship is buried in an avalanche, the crew releases an experimental gas that puts them in suspended animation. They wake up 500 years later to a world ruled by a dictator called Killer Kane. Buck and his friend join the resistance and board a spaceship to Saturn to seek allies.