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Antonio Banderas, Superhero

On Friday, the longtime actor kicks off an Oscar campaign with the release of Pedro Almodóvar’s ‘Pain & Glory.’ Now’s the perfect time to look back on how he changed an industry in the late ’90s.

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If you were to Google “Latino superheroes in movies,” you’d find that just about every list has two things in common: They’re relatively short on entries, and they mostly feature one actor. When Antonio Banderas made the leap to English-speaking film in the ’90s, he became a part of a cultural moment that seemed to celebrate all things Hispanic, a wave that gave us Jennifer Lopez, Mark Anthony, and Ricky Martin in the music world; Mario Lopez on TV; and John Leguizamo on the stage and screen. Banderas became a part of the Latin Wave in 1995, as the gun-toting star of Robert Rodriguez’s Desperado. In his case, the fervent interest in a modest-budget film like Desperado proved that audiences wanted to cheer for a Latino hero, which prompted Hollywood to invest in a remake based on one of the first Latino superheroes, Zorro. In the course of just three years, Banderas had helped create a memorable, unprecedented set of Mexican American characters—ones who defied stereotypes and were the leading men in their own stories. Now, as Banderas stars in Pedro Almodóvar’s latest semiautobiographical film, Pain & Glory—to potential Oscar-worthy results—it’s worth looking back on his long, unlikely career to see how much his presence changed an industry.

At first look, Banderas was not a likely candidate to become an action star. When the actor was a rising star in the ’80s, most action heroes fell somewhere in between Tom Cruise’s overconfident hot head in Top Gun and Sylvester Stallone’s jacked assassin in Rambo. The only actor in the genre who sported a noticeable accent in a leading role was Arnold Schwarzenegger. Meanwhile, Banderas was neither the good ol’ American heartthrob or the macho muscle man. To that point, his most notable characters were ones from Almodóvar‘s films—sensitive types with one kinky hangup or another. More generally, Banderas had been cast as the Latin lover in movies like Miami Rhapsody, Two Much, and Never Talk to Strangers.

The type of action star Banderas would become was a callback to old Hollywood. He carried the swashbuckling physical energy of Douglas Fairbanks, the bravado of Errol Flynn, the mysterious sex appeal of Rudolph Valentino, a bit of Marlon Brando’s moody vulnerability, and more than a dash of Cary Grant’s effortless charm and comedic timing. He was both a new kind of star and one already familiar to audiences.

After Almodóvar, who plucked Banderas out of a crowd and told him he should be in the movies, Robert Rodriguez was the next director to realize Banderas’s potential beyond stock Latin lover roles and garden-variety villains. For Desperado, Rodriguez’s 1995 sequel to his shoestring project El Mariachi, Banderas assumed the title role of a brooding assassin out for revenge against Bucho (Joaquim de Almeida), the man who murdered his girlfriend and injured his guitar-playing hand. The character is a mysterious loner with few words, reluctantly on the verge of a killing spree. Banderas plays El Mariachi as a wounded man, often bending his head down to lead with his brow, letting his long hair obscure his eyes. His shoulders are held square and confident as he carries a guitar case that holds a small arsenal. But the tough guy has his weaknesses too. He’s petulant when thwarted, yet still emotional enough to back down when he spots a familiar face on the opposing side.

Joining him on his deadly mission is the owner of a bookstore and cafe, Carolina (Salma Hayek), who’s also been terrorized by the same villain. Because El Mariachi is still mourning the loss of his girlfriend, it’s Carolina who makes the first flirtatious moves—which is not often the case for many of Banderas’s characters. Without too much convincing, he quickly falls for her. This sets up one of the most memorable scenes of the movie, when the two newly minted lovers escape Bucho’s surprise attack and slowly walk away from an explosive wall of fire with cool, unfazed expressions, their hair blowing in the wind. It’s an awesome image that positions the two mysterious characters as undeniable action heroes, inviting the audience to cheer for them as they fight a drug lord to bring peace to a dusty small town. With its simple plot and focus on action, Desperado felt like a Blaxploitation movie for Latinos like myself, a chance to see good guys who sound and look like some of us while also tackling real-life concerns of cartels and the drug trade. The movie, with its revelatory subject matter and cast, was a success, so much so that Banderas’s El Mariachi would return years later for an even more profitable sequel, Once Upon a Time in Mexico.

Sony Pictures Releasing

A few years after Desperado, Banderas would grace screens again as another Mexican American hero in The Mask of Zorro. The remake follows the transformation of a scruffy outlaw (Banderas) into a dashing hero under the tutelage of the last man to wear the mask (Anthony Hopkins). Zorro means fox in Spanish, and in turn, Banderas plays him like a sly trickster, slipping through the clutches of all who come after him with acrobatic moves and an impish smile. He’s a bit like Bruce Lee, but with a blade instead of fists—light on his feet, quick to recover his footing, confident in his fighting skills, and capable of taking on more combatants than realistically possible. With his character’s billowing cape, Banderas looks like a matador facing off against corrupt officials or his love interest in this movie, Elena (Catherine Zeta-Jones). In a surprising move for a studio action movie, The Mask of Zorro depicts the cruelty of Americans to Mexicans and Mexican Americans living in these contested regions, which was not as widely known at the time—yet it still feels remarkable that a blond-haired, blue-eyed U.S. military captain is one of the movie’s most dastardly villains.

By the turn of the century, Banderas had shown that Latino heroes could be tough, clever, and big enough to win at the box office. For his next appearance, he would show that a superhero could also be a caring parent. Reuniting with Rodriguez for his 2001 movie Spy Kids, Banderas displayed more of his comedy chops than in many of his previous roles in U.S. movies. Banderas plays Gregorio Cortez, a loving patriarch and debonair spy whose wife, Ingrid (Carla Gugino), and two kids, Carmen (Alex Vega) and Juni (Daryl Sabara), mean everything to him. Unable to leave the spy world entirely, Gregorio accidentally sets off the chain of events that lead his kids to find out that their uncool mom and dad are actually secret agents. Banderas’s performance runs the gamut from sultry spy who charms the woman on a mission to assassinate him to concerned dad who tries to defend his kids from school bullies.

Spy Kids may be a kids movie, but it’s no less momentous because of that. Although not Mexican or Mexican American himself, Banderas’s unforgettable performances brought Mexican American characters to the forefront. Even the name of Gregorio Cortez is a reference to a real-life Mexican American folk hero. Banderas’s Cortez is kind to his family but no less tough; fearless in the face of danger but vulnerable enough to worry about his kids. As with his characters in Desperado and The Mask of Zorro, it’s not superpowers that make them great but their strength in facing impossible situations, resourcefulness to always find a way out of danger, and an emotional core that makes them human and accessible.

The fact that Banderas, one of the most important figures in advancing Mexican American representation in film in the ’90s, actually hails from Spain speaks to Hollywood’s prejudices at the time, how little faith the industry had in nonwhite actors, and how little sensitivity was applied to casting. Banderas looked a bit more like a traditional Hollywood leading man—tall, dark-haired with only a faint tan. He offered a hint of otherness without being “threatening,” and as such, became an uncontroversial, pan-Hispanic choice for a risk-averse industry. This was who Hollywood felt had the best shot at breaking out beyond specialized markets and into the mainstream.

Sony Pictures Releasing

Still, Banderas’s roles made an impact on the future of movies. The man with the sweeping long hair and the tattered mariachi outfit could be a badass hero. The masked avenger riding to the rescue could have a Spanish accent. The worried Latino dad could also be a super spy trying to protect his family. “When I got to America, at the beginning, they said to me on the set of The Mambo Kings, ‘Oh, you’re going to stay in America, get ready to play the villain,’” Banderas told GQ this week. “‘The villains here are black and Hispanics. Those are the villains.’ And then like three, four, five years later, I got a mask and a hat and my horse. I was a hero in a movie, and the bad guy was blond, he got blue eyes, and he spoke perfect English. … It’s very interesting because it made things change. You send messages that go to the back of your brain—and in this case the back of kids’ brains—for diversity and understanding, that there are no good people and bad people depending on their race or their religion or their social status.” It’s a lesson that Hollywood has barely learned—look at the latest Rambo and Sicario sequels to see how harmful Latino stereotypes still exist in movies. But Banderas, whether on purpose or purely by being Hollywood’s chosen stand-in, is partly responsible for much of the progress that’s been made in terms of representation. Superheroes can be Latino—and that short list will grow longer—largely because Banderas was El Mariachi; because Banderas was Zorro; because Banderas was Gregorio Cortez.

Monica Castillo is a New York City–based writer and film critic.