If you ask any American kid “who is your favorite superhero?” they might say someone like Batman, Superman, Iron Man, Black Panther, and so on. If you ask a contemporary Mexican kid the same question, the answers would be very similar. But if you could travel back in time to the 60s and 70s and ask a kid from Mexico City that very question, his answer would probably be El Santo.
“But wait!” you might say, “isn’t El Santo a luchador?” Well, it’s complicated.
Back in the 1950s, a unique genre of cinema emerged at Estudios Churubusco in Mexico City. It was called Lucha Libre films, or Luchador films, movies that starred some of the most famous luchadors of the day. But these weren’t biopics or sports movies, as the luchadors are portrayed as superheroes engaging in battles against spies, vampires, communists, Martians, and more, forging a unique bond with the audiences that transcends the boundaries of sports. Imagine Marvel movies with a fraction of the budget and twice the ingenuity and fun.
These movies were campy, often ridiculous, and extremely popular. At least 150 films were produced in those decades, while a few have also come out this millennium. And though the phenomenon is not as strong as it was in the 20th century, Lucha Libre films made a huge mark in the history of Mexican cinema.
The unlikely history of Lucha Libre films
The first film of this genre was 1952’s Huracán Ramírez. The film follows the story of Fernando Torres, a young man who decides to follow in his father’s footsteps as a luchador by donning the secret identity of Huracán Ramírez, despite his father’s wishes to the contrary. The luchador of the same name portrayed it.
Studios rushed to invest in these films once they became popular, and many luchadors were approached to star in them. El Santo, Blue Demon, Mil Máscaras, and others were immortalized on the silver screen. El Santo alone took the lead in 52 films.
One of the secrets to the success of these films was that those characters were portrayed by real luchadors who did not give up their career in the ring. That created a unique connection with the fans, who could aspire to see their favorite cinema stars perform live in the arenas. Could you imagine if we could see Chris Evans dressed as Captain America in our hometown on any given Saturday? Only this time there would be no concept of an actor–just the Captain America we’ve seen the entire time.
Unfortunately, the craze eventually wore off by 1977, and studios stopped funding the movies once they lost their popularity. But though they were down, Lucha Libre films still stayed relevant in modern cinema.
Mostly gone, but not forgotten
Some Lucha Libre films were released after the crash of the late 70s, most notably Mil Máscaras vs. the Aztec Mummy, followed by Academy of Doom, Aztec Revenge, and Matando Cabos 2. But far from the cultural phenomena they were in the 60s, recent Lucha Libre films have played more like nostalgia pieces.
But despite their quick rise and fall, there is no denying that these films helped define Lucha Libre as an integral part of Mexicanness. Have you ever seen a Mexican national team game without anyone wearing a lucha mask? Well, you can thank El Santo and other folk heroes for that, and not just for what they did in the ring, but for what they accomplished on the screen.