Champions of Justice

In much the same way that many Western audiences have a problem accepting the musical numbers in Bollywood films, North American audiences have always had an issue accepting the central concept behind the Mexican luchador movies: that a bunch of masked wrestlers clad in full wrestling gear would tool around Mexico solving crimes, fighting monsters, and judging beauty contests. The inability on the part of many non-Mexican viewers to accept this as anything other than patently absurd has a lot to do with the way we think of professional wrestlers — in that, we think of them as professional wrestlers. In Mexico, by contrast, these luchadores have less in common with Macho Man Randy Savage and more in common with the likes of Batman Green Arrow, or any of the masked pulp heroes of the early third of the 20th century. They are comic book superheroes. North American audiences that often balk at the idea of crusading luchadores rarely have any issue with comic book superheroes, who dress just as outlandishly and often have superhuman powers to boot.

The disconnect comes because the men who play the luchadores on-screen inhabit the same characters in the ring for live performances. Thus, we tend to think of them less as superheroes or comic book characters and more as, well, pro wrestlers or athletes, leading us to regard the entire concept of the luchador movie as the equivalent of Shaquille O’Neill strutting around town and playing basketball while still dressed in his Steel costume, or Superman still holding his job at the Daily Planet but going to work every day just dressed as Superman instead of masquerading as Clark Kent. Luchadores simply take comic book heroics to the next level, performing on stage (or in the ring, if you will), making public appearances, and generally expanding the persona to a full-on multi-media blitz. Mexico gets Blue Demon vs. El Santo for the heavyweight championship belt The United States gets Spider-Man: The Broadway Musical.

With luchadores thus established as being more analogous to superheroes than to North American pro wrestlers, the concept behind the somewhat threadbare Champions of Justice is easier to recognize as a Mexican Justice League. By 1971, the luchador film was getting long in the tooth. Most of the stars who had built the genre during the 1950s and 1960s were getting old and packing on a few extra old man pounds. The golden age of Mexican cinema had passed, and audiences weren’t turning out for the increasingly cheap movies comprising the luchador genre, especially since much of the “action” in the later era movies consisted of things like watching El Santo, wearing a leisure suit and his trademark silver mask, sort the day’s mail then head down to the DMV to renew his driver’s license.

With the genre flagging, producer Rogelio Agrasanchez Jr. — (in)famous among fans as a man willing to squeeze every last possible penny of a cinematic concept so long as he could put midgets in it — decided that if one couldn’t (or, more likely, wasn’t willing to) provide audiences with quality, then one could make up for it with quantity. If people weren’t going to pay to see one wheezing old luchador punch a werewolf, then maybe they’d be more likely to pay to watch like seven or eight luchadores punch an army of werewolves (preferably midget werewolves). The resulting era of movies eschewed any attempts at the Gothic classiness or psychedelic weirdness that permeated the best of the earlier production and simply went for goofball comic book action. Think of it as the luchadores’ Jun Fukuda years, and if we accept that, then Champions of Justice is the Godzilla vs. Megalon of Mexican wrestler movies. Given the all-star line-up you might think that Destroy All Monsters is the more accurate comparison, but the problem there is that Destroy All Monsters still maintains some vestige of classiness.

Agrasanchez decided for this star-studded Justice League of masked wrestlers he would not use the genre’s most iconic figure, El Santo. The man in the silver mask would do plenty of work for Agrasanchez, but schedules just couldn’t be aligned in time for El Santo to appear in Champions of Justice. With Santo out of the picture, Agrasanchez turned to the genre’s other giant, Blue Demon, and cast him as the leader of this colorful team of crusading wrestlers. For fans of Blue Demon, of which there were (and are) many, this was fantastic. Blue Demon and El Santo were (not always) friendly rivals both in the ring and during movie productions. Producers loved to team the two up, and when that happened, Blue Demon was always stuck playing second banana to the more influential (and, arguably, more popular) El Santo. This often resulted in Blue Demon getting hypnotized or mind controlled at some point and becoming the villain until such time as El Santo could rescue him.

The most insulting of these incidents occurs in 1972’s Mummies of Guanajuato, also produced by Rogelio Agrasanchez and directed by Federico Curiel. That movies was, like Champions of Justice, meant to be a starring vehicle for Blue Demon, with Mil Mascaras as his teammate. The two of them spend the entire movie struggling with the titular mummy adversaries, only to have El Santo show up in the final few minutes and dispatch the mummies in under a minute, leaving Blue and Mil looking weak and comical. That Agrasanchez shoved El Santo into the movie at the last second to undermine Blue Demon’s reputation was a point of contention between the two wrestlers for the rest of their lives — or rather, it was one more point of contention added to the heap of ill will already existing between Santo and Blue Demon.

But here, at least, Blue Demon is the man in charge, joined by his right hand man Mil Mascaras. The team-ups between Blue Demon and Mil Mascaras are always more fun for me than Blue’s work with El Santo, simply because while Blue is undeniably in charge, he’s not made the star at the expense of Mil Mascaras, as was so often done to Blue Demon (and Mil Mascaras) by El Santo. Mil and Blue are on much more equal ground (the job of being the mind-controlled patsy in this movie is thrust upon La Sombra Vengadora). Although getting on in years, (he was pushing 50 when he appeared in this movie), Blue Demon still looks to be in pretty good shape, even when standing next to younger, fitter men like Tinieblas and Mil Mascaras, even when he takes his shirt off. The team is rounded out by La Sombra Vengadora and El Medico Asesino, though he is not portrayed by the man who originated the character in the ring.

Champions of Justice wastes no time getting to the action. After a credit sequence that focuses on the quintet of heroes tooling around on motorcycles, we jump right into the film’s only in-ring wrestling match — which is quickly interrupted when a mustachioed dwarf in a red satin cape and bodysuit emblazoned with an “M” skulks into the rafters and starts taking potshots at Blue Demon, Mil Mascaras, and El Medico Asesino. Mil Mascaras is wounded, but the wrestlers are otherwise unharmed as the pint-sized assassin makes his escape. We learn shortly that this dastardly killer is in fact part of a team of dwarf assassins (as well as three “regular” sized guys and evil masked luchador Black Shadow) employed by the villainous Dr. Marius Zarkoff, aka Mano Negra (aka actor David Silva), who was once brought to justice by the Champions of Justice and has dedicated his life to destroying them. For some reason, this requires him to hire a crack team of killer dwarves and dress them up in gaudy comic book super villain outfits, complete with capes and masks — except for the ersatz leader of the dwarves, who gets to strut around without a mask, presumably because he’s got a sweet mustache.

When a second assassination attempt fails, Mano Negra hatches a ridiculously complex revenge scheme. See, each of the Champions has a god-daughter (Marisela Mateos, Martha Angelica, Betty Velazquez, Maribel Hernandez, and Yolanda Rigel) competing in a beauty contest (because no lauchador movie is complete unless the hero(es) gets involved in a beauty contest). Mano Negra’s henchmen of varying heights will kidnap the women, thus forcing the Champions to show up at various random locations alongside country roads so that they can be attacked by the dwarves, who incidentally, step into a SCIENCE! machine that gives them superhuman strength. This leads to a couple hilarious fight scenes in which the little guys wail on Mil Mascaras, Blue Demon, and the rest of the gang, tossing them about and beating the crap out of them until such time as Mano Negra’s super power modifications wear off. That’s when it’s time for Blue and Mil to start tossing around dwarves (or at least, tossing around their suits stuffed with rags).

The action continues when the villains — or rudos in the parlance of lucha libre — get super power bracelets in hopes that they will be more reliable sources of super strength. For some reason, Mano Negra only gives these superpowers to the dwarves. I mean, I understand that they might need it more, but it doesn’t seem like he’s limited in the number of super power bracelets he can make. Why not give them to your six-foot tall henchmen as well? In the end, though, it doesn’t much matter because Mano Negra is sort of a shitty mad scientist, because the bracelets are no more reliable than the transmogrification machine. That means we get another fight scene where the dwarves beat the unholy hell out of the good guys (this time, all five of the Champions) until the bracelets malfunction, which means the good guys once again get to toss the little guys around with reckless, vengeful glee. Somehow, though, the dwarves always manage to survive and escape to fight another day.

Blue Demon and Mil Mascaras decide to do a bit of sleuthing in hopes of tracking down the kidnapped beauty queens. La Sombra Vengadora, meanwhile, wastes time romancing Champions of Justice groupie Elsa (luchador film staple Elsa Cardenas) before getting one of those phone calls where the bad guy somehow sends a puff of mind control dust through the telephone. This entire scene is played out by La Sombra Vengadora in his mask and a pair of suburban dad pajamas. Meanwhile, Tinieblas and El Medico Asesino seem to spend most of their time lounging around the pool at the Champions version of the Hall of Justice (a well-appointed villa). They take Elsa water skiing while Blue and Mil track the villains to a makeshift airstrip, where they find the girls and discover that La Sombra Vengadora has been enslaved by Mano Negra.

This sequence results in a prolonged action setpiece in which Blue and Mil Mascaras get to beat up a pilot (bad idea, considering the piloting is in the middle of, you know, piloting) and do some skydiving while, down on the lake, we get a chick in a bikini, an exploding speedboat, and a bunch of luchadores beating up frogmen in an underwater fight scene that actually manages to be fun rather than boring, owing to the fact that it only lasts a minute and is a scene full of masked men in a large aquarium beating up frogmen. The four Champions discover the location of Mano Negra’s secret mad scientist lair, which means it’s time to knock over some beakers of multi-colored liquid (SCIENCE!), blow up some computer banks covered in random blinking lights (SCIENCE!), toss around some more little people in red satin jammies and capes (SCIENCE!), and maybe rescue La Sombra Vengadora. Also, since this movie hasn’t had ray guns in it yet, we might as well trot those out for the finale as well.

Champions of Justice tends to split cult film fans down the middle, and even more specifically, it splits fans of masked Mexican wrestler movies. Some people bemoan how far the genre had fallen by the time Rogelio Agrasanchez was its steward, transforming the films from ambitious blends of Gothic menace and serial thrills into cheap, goofball action films. Other feel that Champions of Justice has all the pieces for a good time but never successfully puts them together. Ehh, I guess I can see that, but I don’t feel the same way. People say the same thing about the Godzilla movies. Predictably, I love the corny, cartoony Godzilla films of the 1970s, and I love Champions of Justice. Rogelio Agrasanchez is that rare exploitation producer whose desire to squeeze every dime out of a trend also happens to coincide with giving the audiences exactly what they want in a movie, at least that’s the case if I’m the audience. Champions of Justice is a colorful, ridiculous psychotronic spectacle completely willing to fly against all notions of sanity and logic if it means putting something awesome on-screen.

And awesome is what we get. The Champions themselves are a colorful cavalcade who all work well together. Blue Demon makes an excellent leader, and Mil Mascararas makes an equal able right hand man. Having five luchadores on-screen together, often flailing about with brightly clad little people, makes for a near psychedelic experience — especially since one of those luchadores is Mil Mascaras, a man whose taste in clothing required the known universe to invent a multitude of never before seen new colors just for him. Unhindered by the long shadow of El Santo, Mil Mascaras and Blue Demon drum up a fair amount of macho chemistry and get to cut loose. They make a great team. Both men have an abundance of charisma as well, even in scenes when they’re not trying all that hard.

Mil Mascaras’ outfits — he was the Man of a Thousand Masks, after all, and had nearly as many jackets as well — are practically a character all their own. By far the best is the puffy-sleeved leopard print deal. It’s not his most outlandish outfit, but he breaks it out shortly after a scene where Elsa Cardenas wears basically the same outfit. It’s like he saw it and felt inspired to outdo her. Or maybe he just borrows her clothes, because later he shows up in a motley colored rainbow mask that seems patterned after an equally phantasmagorical bikini Elsa dons while water skiing.

Fleshing out the team are three luchadores who are less familiar to non-Mexican audiences but never the less are worthy additions to the team. Tinieblas, sometimes with El Gigante attached to his name owing to his towering size, is the most memorable thanks to his bizarre mask. Most masked wrestlers go with the mask that has eye, mouth, and nostril holes. Tinieblas, however, opts for a striking black and yellow mask that completely obscures his features, which has the ironic result of making his appearance especially memorable. The design of the mask probably has a lot to do with wanting to stand out from the crowd, which is no small feat to accomplish when your hanging around with Mil Mascaras and his bottomless bag o’ masks. But that’s real life, mind you, and the “official” reason for Tinieblas’ peculiar headdress, as related to audiences via his official bio, is far more in keeping with the spirit of Champions of Justice.

Because, you see, Tinieblas is not a man at all. He is, in actuality, the sole survivor of an ancient race of space aliens who, before their extinction, dedicated themselves to harnessing the “zero energy” that permeates the universe, allowing them to transform themselves into mentally and physically advanced super-beings. Tinieblas’ mask protects him from the unfamiliar atmosphere of his adopted home planet of Earth, which allows certain crippling cosmic rays through that would, if they touched Tinieblas’ unexposed face, cause the imposing luchador from space to disintegrate.

Some other, far less interesting biography of Tinieblas claims that he was born Manuel Leal and developed an interest in bodybuilding, at which he excelled until he was discovered by two luchadores: the Jamaican born Dory Dixon and Tinieblas’ eventual Champions of Justice co-star Black Shadow. Tinieblas was designed to be a foil for Mil Mascaras. Although he never attained the rarefied levels occupied by El Santo, Blue Demon, and Mil Mascaras, Tinieblas still had an extremely successful career. If his origin story makes him sound like Martian Man Hunter or even Ultraman, the way in which he managed and diversified the Tinieblas “brand” saw him cast in the role of a true Clark Kent/Superman. He had, among other things, a long-running advice column in one of Mexico City’s newspapers. If you needed help with philosophical matters, the purpose of the universe, financial matters, or were just looking for some cooking tips, Tinieblas was there to answer your questions. He was also the subject of a popular superhero comic book, only the second luchador to get his own comic (the first being El Santo).

El Medico Asesino was actually one of the very first cinematic luchador heroes, though the man behind the mask in this movie is not the original (he passed away a few years earlier). Back in 1952, a number of producers were rushing to create what would arguably become the first luchador movie. Among these was El Enmascarado de Plata, a film to be directed by storied Mexploitation filmmaker Rene Cardona and, as the title suggests it was meant to star El Santo. Unfortunately, no one thought to check with El Santo before the script was finished. It turned out that El Santo wasn’t all that keen on starring in the movie. He didn’t really feel it would be a financial success or do that much to help his career. Though many may not realize it, when El Santo began his wrestling career, he was a rudo (a bad guy who flaunts the rules and wins via cheating and shenanigans), and the name El Santo was meant to be ironic. El Santo proved so popular with audiences however, than his eventual transformation into a good guy — or tecnico — became inevitable. The switch began in a comic book, where El Santo adhered to his (now) more familiar superhero image, even though he was still working as a bad guy in the ring.

The film El Enmascarado de Plata, written by the same guy who was writing the Santo comic books, was meant to be the next step in moving El Santo firmly into the good guy camp in all the media he inhabited. But Santo wasn’t into it. As the story goes, writer Jose Cruz was insulted by Santo’s refusal to take the job and so kept the masked man’s nickname as the title, rewriting it slightly so that it referred instead to one of the film’s villains — and one who dies halfway through the film, no less! El Enmascarado de Plata was one of three or four wrestling movies released that year, but unlike Haracan Ramiraz, which stuck pretty closely to the tropes of the sports melodrama, El Enmascarado de Plata was the first lucha movie to draw inspiration from the old serials. El Medico Asesino spends his time in the movie traversing the usual assortment of traps, engaging in fist fights, and trying to unmask his two enemies — the titular El Enmascarado de Plata and sinister El Tigre.

If Mil Mascaras’ outfits are the unofficial sixth member of the Champions of Justice, then El Medico Asesino’ boss dune buggy is the seventh. And it’s not some variation on a dune buggy — it’s the real thing, classic design with an awesome flecked paint job. It only shows up in a couple of scenes, but that’s all it takes. There may be better, more iconic images from the history of cinema, but “masked Mexican wrestler tears around in a sweet dune buggy” still has to be in like the top five or six.

As for La Sombra Vengadora,he was another luchador created specifically for the screen rather than originating in the ring, and here he gets to play the hypnotized chump part all too often assigned to Blue Demon when co-starring with El Santo. Like El Medico Asesino and Huracan Ramirez, La Sombra Vengadora’s debut as a film stars predates El Santo’s by several years. His first film, La Sombra Vengadora, came out in 1954, roughly four years before El Santo would show up as a supporting player in a movie. La Sombra Vengadora also stuck to the serials for inspiration, but did El Enmascarado de Plata one better by having sequels, thus becoming the first luchador series. Like Huracan Ramirez, the success of the character on-screen meant that someone eventually adopted the persona for real world in-ring action, though La Sombra Vengadora was never as popular in the ring as he was in the movies.

Rounding out the masked cast is Black Shadow as Mano Nera’s evil henchman. Black Shadow is most famous outside the movies for engaging in a series of legendary bouts with El Santo, culminating in a mask vs. mask championship, where the loser would be shamed before the audience by having his masked removed. Guess who won that one? Black Shadow had a decent film career, both as Black Shadow and as Alejandro Cruz, the actual man behind the mask and frequent stunt double for any movie where an evil scientist made a robot duplicate of Blue Demon (as was the case in Santo and Blue Demon vs. the Monsters).

David Silva, who here plays mad scientist Mano Negra with all the sneering craziness one hopes for from pulp entertainment mad scientists. is another old hand at Mexican genre film, having appeared in Hurricane Ramirez, one of the very first luchador movies, as well as countless others both in and out of the lucha ghetto. But Silva didn’t limit himself to genre work, and during the 1960s and 1970s appeared in a number of experimental, counter-cultural, and surrealist films, most notably Alejandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo and Holy Mountain, and Juan Lopez Moctezuma’s Mansion of Madness. Here, he gives off a distinctly Dr. Strangelove vibe.

Unfortunately, Mano Negra’s squad of dwarves get short shrift in the credit department, so I can’t say who is who. The unmasked guy with the mustache and the dapper white streak at the temples is pretty good, and you can really sense without him ever saying it that he’s kind of sick of getting chastised for failure when it’s the doctor’s own inventions that cause that failure. The rest of the guys don’t get to say much, but even under their shiny hoods, this is a bunch of guys who, regardless of their slight stature, have perfected the “I’m gonna fuck you up” glower. Maybe it comes easy to them after so many years of being marginalized by society.

At least the little people in Champions of Justice are adults. They act like grown up guys and hold down jobs (even if that job is “masked killer with superhuman strength”). Rogelio Agrasanchez’s much-written-about fascination with little people is obviously fuelled by the belief that they provide a certain novelty factor to the movies, even in a genre that seems composed almost entirely of novelty. That said, and even though they are usually villains, compare the guys in this movie to, say, the little people who frequently appeared in Italian peplum films during the 1960s. They were always written with the assumption that a man who was the size of a child would for some reason also act like a child, resulting in way too many shrieking, hysterical little men sitting on Hercules’ lap and acting like a member of the Little Rascals. All three of the Champions of Justice movies would feature villainous little people, but in what passes for respect in the exploitation film world, at least they act age appropriate and even graduate from henchmen to boss by the third and final film.

Many late era lucha movies suffer from a substantial amount of padding. To be honest, it never really bugged me, because I find scenes of outlandishly garbed luchadores engaging in mundane daily chores to be infinitely hilarious and entertaining. I call it “the turtle effect.” Say you’re at a zoo, or hell, out in the wild, and you’re looking at all these fantastic and exotic animals. Tapirs, zebras, hyraxes, lions…things you will never ever see in your daily life, collected from the farthest reaches of the globe. You can stroll through and endless procession of elephants and rhinos, but as soon as you get to one of those decorative ponds stocked with common box turtles, everyone stops and excitedly exclaims, “Turtles!” Similarly, a lucha movie can be full of go-go dancing space girls, ray guns, Draculas, and mad scientists, but I get all giddy and excited by things like, “Look Mil Mascaras is bringing in some groceries!”

Champions doesn’t really have much time for the turtle effect, what with it starring five luchadores (six if you count the evil Black Shadow) and an army of super dwarves. There’s almost always something insane happening on-screen. The fights aren’t the most technically sound — luchador versus luchador geenrally yields far better results than luchador versus dwarf, unless that dwarf happens to be Mascarita Sagrada — but everyone goes about them with all the gusto and energy of a fist fight in an old serial. The big guys are more than willing to sell for the little guys, and since n important part of wrestling is being able to “sell” a move, the Champions succeed (somewhat) in making you believe these little red devils are possessed of the strength of Hercules (or least the strength of Hercules Hernandez). It’s not always convincing, mind you, but even when it’s not…well, that’s even better. Still, the turtle effect isn’t totally absent. After all, in a movie full of bikini girls, superhuman dwarves, mad scientists, and secret lairs, my favorite part is still the realization that La Sombra Vengadora wears plain ol’ JC Penny’s men’s pajamas to bed.

As much fun as this film is, there are certain hallmarks of the slapdash productions for which the producer was known, chief among them being the music. Although prolific Mexican genre film composer Gustavo Cesar Carrion is credited with writing the music for the movie, I seriously doubt that he actually wrote the music for the movie. It seems far more likely that Rogelio Agrasanchez had access to a library of music by Carrion and just picked an album at random then played the whole thing over and over again on top of his movie with total disregard for whether or not the music had anything at all to do with the action on the screen. Thus, you can get ominous jazz music for something as inoccuous as Blue Demon leaning back in his desk chair while slam-bang fight scenes are accompanied by a leisurely jazz lounge tune. I think it’s inspired me to go back and redub the trippy finale of Apocalypse Now, removing The Doors’ “The End” and replacing it with “Call Me” by The New Classic Singers.

Champions is nothing more and nothing less than pure Mexploitation. It gives audiences a dumb, sensational spectacle that operates like a threadbare carnival side show. But it’s also a whole hell of a lot of fun. Having this many famous luchadores is one movie is already a treat, to say nothing of the fact that it’s fun to see Blue and Mil in charge. As much fun as I might poke at El Santo, I really do love his movies, but I’m still glad he wasn’t available to show up in Champions of Justice. Blue Demon earned this leading role. Director Federico Curiel had been directing lucha movies since the beginning of the genre, and while there’s little of technical merit on display, this is a movie with contents so weird that the directon doesn’t need to get in the way. Just let the dwarves beat up Mil Mascaras in a poofy leopard print jacket, and the scene does the work itself.

Two additional Champions of Justice movies would be dashed off pretty quickly, and yes, both of them would star additional murderous little people in supervillain costumes. Somehow, Champions manages to not be the weirdest of the three, if yo can imagine a film with a plot like this being “not as weird as the others.” But it’s the first, in my opinion it’s the best, and it has the most historic assembly of luchadores. Membership in the Champions themsevles proved somewhat fluid, and not always for the better. The second film, Vuelven los Campeones Justicieros, still saw Blue and Mil leading he pack, but everyone else was replaced by different wrestlers with similar costumes (in fact, new member Scarlet Scorpion was actually played by Manuel Leal, aka Tinieblas). Still, a pretty sweet team. In the third film, unfortunately, though Blue was still hanging tough, Mil Mascaras was replaced by the dreadful Superzan. Though Superzan shared Mil Mascaras’ penchant for glittery costumes, there’s no denying that, well, Superzan was no Mil Mascaras. El Fantasma Blanco, who joined the team in the second film, is the third and final member of El Triunfu de los Campeones Justicieros decidely meager team. Still, though, it’s set in a circus and has more superhuman dwarves, so it’s not a total wash.

Release Year: 1971 | Country: Mexico | Starring: Blue Demon, Mil Mascaras, El Medico Asesino, Black Shadow, Tinieblas el Gigante, La Sombra Vengadora, David Silva, Elsa Cardenas, Jorge Pinguino, Margarito Alonso, Filiberto Estrella, Gregorio Ramirez, Juan Mendiola, Jesus Fernandez, Serafin Fernandez, Aurelio Perez, Jorge Hernandez, Golden Boy | Screenplay: Rafael Garcia Travesi | Director: Federico Curiel | Cinematography: Jose Ortiz Ramos | Music: Gustavo Cesar Carrion | Producer: Rogelio Agrasanchez | Original Title: Los campeones justicieros