Running time: 80 mins
Director: Ferdico Curiel
Starring: Blue Demon, Santo, Mil Máscaras, El Médico Aseseino
Genre: Action, Mexiploitation, Superhero, Lucha Libre
In the summer of Superheroes there will be much debate over best, most realistic and whether each periled city gets the hero it needs or the hero it deserves. The central requirements in any Superhero are bravery and a degree of nobility. 1952 saw the first Superhero film in
Mexico to feature characters with an abundance of both as a Nations fascination with wrestling, and in particular the tradition of individually masked wrestlers or Lucha Libre brought heroes they knew they could count on.
Out of the darkness rides The Champions of Justice, headed by Blue Demon, Mil Máscaras (Thousand Masks) and El Médico Aseseino (The Killer Doctor) en route to a wrestling bout against The Death Brothers. Unknown to them a mad scientist by the name of Black Hand is making plans for world domination and as such requires our wrestling heroes out of the picture. Despatching a gang of masked midgets to assassinate The Champions is not enough but with a little genetic manipulation Black Hand is able to give them the power of ten athletes which allows them to kidnap three of the Champions’ nieces who are competing in the Miss Mexico pageant for Black Hand’s experiments.
What first comes to mind when watching The Champions of Justice is just how incredible the entire movement is. I’m a big fan of film, as you can probably tell, I’m also a big fan of wrestling and in the wrestling mad 60’s and 70’s of Mexico if you wanted to stand a chance of being a big name in the “squared circle” to coin an old phrase you had to be able to have a screen presence that was desirable in the Lucha Libre movement. Not only is the expectations remarkable but the fact that all the performers, with no acting training, are fascinating to watch.
Blue Demon, as the leader of this suplexing justice league, not only has a physicality that you would expect from a professional wrestler but also a presentational style that extremely pleasing cinematically. With the long take the longer it runs to more control over how it looks is given away. The Champions of Justice is populated with long takes, especially in the wrestling set pieces and it’s remarkable how Blue Demon is able to use not only his body but the body of his fellow competitors/performers to put together a physical struggle that’s as beautiful as anything you’ll see in dance (with the exception of Gene Kelly in An American in Paris – that shit is perfect). The all out Champions versus Super-powered Midgets battle in the middle of a field is nothing short of excellent. The professional wrestling ring is sprung in such a way that it allows for the performer to execute the dangerous looking manoeuvres with the softest possible landing. The fact that these men were able to throw themselves and each other around in a rural setting and make it look as polished and smooth as when in their natural, and professional, environment is a testament to the level of skill and trust each man has in one another. David Silva (as Dr. Marius Zarkoff aka Black Hand) is a craftsman. He’s able to match the theatricality of Blue Demon and The Killer Doctor without even donning a mask. I appreciate a theatrically evil doctor (as Wilton Graff’s performance in Bloodlust! will highlight) and appreciate even more when the performer is able to be dramatic without hogging the screen.
The most interesting character for me is Thousand Masks'. Mexican wrestling has a tradition of one mask (which showcases your character) for the duration of your career so for Thousand Masks to be able to switch between masks and therefore almost switch between personalities or fighting styles or attitudes is something that I find incredibly interesting, even if it goes unexplored.
The cinematography of The Champions of Justice is well constructed and perfectly balanced. The film comes at the height of the genres popularity so therefore has had plenty of time to evolve, mature and learn from previous mistakes but Curiel constructs an uncomplicated looking film. He has the presence of mind and understands that all the style and razzamataz will come from his performers and it’s his job to simply construct the film in such a way that it allows audiences to follow it. The fight sequences are not only wonderfully choreographed but also beautifully shot. From The Champions initial fight through their battle in rural
Mexico to the Revenging Angel’s fight in Black Hand’s base, Curiel cleverly uses not just the camera but the set and editing to construct a compelling scene. One would urge any film maker venturing into the physical realm to pay attention to this films construction to get a proper understanding with regards to how to film these scenes.
As storylines go The Champions of Justice has one of the more realistic you’re likely to find in Lucha Libre, there are no she-wolves here, no Dracula, no Frankenstein to raise the WTF-o-meter above the standard levels for a Superhero film. There are a handful of small touches that are distinctly Mexican, like the ‘Miss’ beauty pageant that’s seemingly there simply to showcase the affluence and status of each of the masked families within the country. Whether they’ll work for you will largely depend on whether you want them to. I particularly like the fact that, in general, Exploitation films that involve crime fighting seem to centre around Interpol. It’s something of a thrill to think that Franco Guerrero’s Agent Ramon (The One Armed Executioner), Weng Weng’s Agent 00 (For Y'ur Height Only, The Impossible Kid), Marie Lee’s Cleopatra Wong (They Called Her Cleopatra Wong) and Blue Demon all know each other. Maybe even been one another’s Secret Santa.
The film is scored continuously, rarely will you see a film that contains quite so much music and though full of character and entertaining there are moments in which it actually detracts from what’s occurring on screen (Blue Demon’s ski dive wrestling for example).
The most brilliant thing about The Champions of Justice and the Lucha Libre movement in general is how revolutionary it appears to the world outside of
Mexico. When you think of what it performers like Blue Demon and Black Shadow were doing and the way in which Vince McMahon's purchase of the then WWF from his father to start in America three decades later would lead to American wrestling stepping into line with an ethos to dramatise and the narrative focus of wrestling. It is this change in direction that has brought great financial rewards to the WWE and those who have made the transition from ring to screen though some could take a moment to learn some considerable lessons about wrestlers on film and where their boundaries should be (John Cena your films are terrible, either appear in a modern day Lucha Libre of just stop…please stop).
The Champions of Justice will not be to everyone’s tastes, much in the same way that Superhero films in general are not to everyone’s tastes but those who give it a chance will find themselves the latest members in an extravagant, colourful and thrilling world of cinema that will snap you into an ankle lock and never let you go.