Ask Chris #314: Does Batman Carry The Mark of Zorro?
A: Strictly speaking, I don't think it's necessary. For one thing, while I'm actually not sure where it was introduced, the idea that young Bruce Wayne was watching The Mark of Zorro on the night his parents were murdered was at least canonized in stone in the opening pages of The Dark Knight Returns, which means that there were almost 50 years where Batman got along just fine without that element. On top of that, there have been plenty of Batman stories that go in a different direction, and it doesn't really hurt the mythology behind the character to make it something else.
But that said, The Mark of Zorro being the last thing Bruce Wayne sees before his world ends and he makes the choice to become Batman certainly makes it a whole lot better.
To be honest, I think the actual movie that they're seeing is less important than the idea that they're just seeing a movie as a family. There's always going to be a barrier there when you're telling the story of a wealthy heir who is otherwise very difficult for the average reader to relate to. He's a billionaire, he's handsome, he has the body of an athlete and the brilliant mind of an inventor, capped off with an eidetic memory. He has a natural talent for criminology and karate, a manservant who just happens to be a former secret agent/Shakespearean actor with medical training, and a house that sits on the perfect anti-crime basement, as though the Earth itself was giving him all the advantages that his parents and their perfect (yet sadly not bulletproof) genes did not.
But by making the cornerstone of his origin story a night out to see a movie, Bill Finger gave him something that virtually everyone in the country could relate to. It's a common experience that forms a foundation and makes everything else a little easier to take, and helps all of that other stuff --- the money, the brains, the rocket car --- seem aspirational rather than unobtainable.
It's one of the reasons that the origin story in Batman Begins is so weird. It's not necessarily bad, but the idea of taking away that relatable experience and replacing it with its most ridiculously bourgeoisie equivalent --- seeing a live production of Faust, the opera --- detracts from that foundation without adding much to the story other than some Cirque du Soleil dudes performing as spoooooky bats. It is, I suppose, a good reminder that Li'l Bruce is a skittish child who's afraid of bats and must Conquer His Fear, but we kind of already knew that.
Making it Faust changes the narrative. Rather than being about a child who decides to make himself into a hero for the downtrodden, it puts the emphasis on Bruce making his own vaguely Faustian deal with the devil --- allying with and ultimately betraying Ra's al-Ghul. Which, you know, is all well and good for a movie that only has to get through 140 minutes rather than forming the basis of 77 years (and counting) of ongoing sequential stories. Still, as much thematic resonance as it might have in the context of that single movie, I do think there's a way to get at that idea without making it something that feels like the exclusive domain of the one percent.
Needless to say, Batman: The Animated Series did it better.
Like Begins, BTAS removed Zorro from the equation --- which I suspect has at least a little bit to do with the difficulty in getting clearance to throw a cameo from another licensed character into your superhero origin. Apparently this is something that's never really applied to an offhand reference in the comics, which is especially weird when you see a direct reference to Zorro inspiring Batman on the cover to Batman #459 in 1991, when Zorro was being published by Marvel.
Licensing trivia aside, though, "Beware the Grey Ghost" does a pretty amazing job of getting to the heart of Batman's influences, but one of the things it does really well is keep Batman tied to popular media. Li'l Bruce watching The Grey Ghost on television doesn't really tie directly into his origin story in the way that going to the movies does, but it does keep that relatable aspect in the most obvious and direct way possible. I mean, if you were a kid watching that episode, you were literally watching Batman as a kid watching a TV show about his favorite superhero. It's not subtle, and it works really well.
But there's something else that "Beware the Grey Ghost" does that Faust doesn't --- and it's one of the things that that taking the Waynes to see Zorro does as well. It ties Batman directly to the history of his influences and the heroic tradition of which he is now the standard-bearer.
"The Grey Ghost" actually pulls double duty in this regard. The voice acting from Adam West ties BTAS's Batman back into his own pop cultural history, while the character is, of course, a stand-in for the Shadow, who was the pretty direct and obvious inspiration for Batman.
Which is, in turn, the best thing that tying Batman's origin to The Mark of Zorro does.
I've written before about how one of the more interesting parts of Batman's origin is that swearing to spend your life waging war on all criminals isn't something an adult would ever do. It's a child's idea, the response to tragedy from someone who's not old enough to realize how futile that is. And that moment, an impossible decision made by someone who does not realize how impossible it is, is the first moment where Batman removes a limitation and surpasses what's possible for regular, non-fictional people.
The thing is, that idea doesn't just come out of nowhere, even in the DC Universe.
Finger and Bob Kane (and Moldoff, and Sprang, and Haney, and Aparo, and O'Neil, and Adams, and Dozier, and Semple, and Brennert, and Giordano, and Miller, and Mazzucchelli, and Barr, and Breyfogle, and Grant, and Moench, and Jones, and Snyder, and Capullo, and so on down the line) are all working in a very specific heroic tradition. They're on a road that runs through Sherlock Holmes, the Shadow, Baroness Emma Orczy's Scarlet Pimpernel, and, of course, Zorro himself.
Even if the Shadow is the direct analogue, and even if those Golden Age stories were not at all shy about lifting directly from his adventures, there's a lot that comes down straight from from Don Diego de la Vega, too. You know, the rich guy who masquerades as a disinterested playboy while secretly fighting crime and corruption from a cave underneath his house, leaving an ominous calling card that strikes fear into the hearts of the wicked and then riding off on his super-fast, jet-black... well, a horse in Don Diego's case, but what is a rocket car but the horse of the 20th century?
Having Batman be inspired by Zorro within the text allows the character to acknowledge that he's carrying on a heroic tradition without diminishing his own part in it. Plus, depending on which version of The Mark of Zorro you throw in there --- Miller went with the 1940 Tyrone Power version, while Alan Grant and Norm Breyfogle opted for the 1920 Douglas Fairbanks original --- you can also get the added bonus of having Basil Rathbone as the villain. Li'l Bruce being super stoked about Zorro fighting a guy who would go on to be most famous for playing Sherlock Holmes is a pretty nice touch.
Then again, this does involve a problem of the sliding time scale. While it's perfectly understandable for a Bruce Wayne in his 50s in 1986 to have seen Tyrone Power in The Mark of Zorro in the theater as a child, it does get a little weirder as time goes on. It's one of the quirks of Batman being perpetually 30 years old, which, for those of you keeping track, currently means that Bruce Wayne was born in 1987, making him younger than The Dark Knight Returns.
There are ways around it, of course, whether it's the Waynes going to see a classic movie as a special presentation, or Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo's take in Zero Year of The Mark of Zorro being a movie Thomas Wayne likes that he's passing down to his son. Those work well, but there is a lack of simplicity that just going to the theater and watching a movie doesn't have -- especially since later interpretations of Zorro are inevitably filtered back through the lens of Batman.
Within a few years, though, I'm pretty sure we'll be at the point where Batman's canonical origin will involve Bruce Wayne watching the Antonio Banderas Zorro movie on Netflix. And that's weird, but it's better than the current option of eight year-old Batman being inspired to fight crime when his parents were murdered after a showing of 1994's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III.