In the future envisioned in Elysium, when the gap between rich and poor has literally divided them into different worlds, proletariat Matt Damon straps on technology cobbled together from the scraps discarded by the ruling elite on the junkyard that has become Earth, and takes on the aristocracy living on high (literally, orbiting the world on a luxury space station) alone. He’s one man taking on the system simply to get his share of justice in a world in inequity.
It’s a story as old as time — you can trace it back to mythology and Prometheus, who defies the gods to give fire to mankind — and while the movies have embraced the lone hero and the one-man army, only a few films raise their heroes to the level of the defiant liberator, taking on tyrannical governments, corrupt oligarchies and other oppressive systems. That is the stuff of revolution, or at the very least upheaval. They’re not just rebels, mind you, and often reluctant heroes, which makes them all the more admirable. They don’t fight out of ideology or fanatical devotion to some cause. It’s about survival, fairness, human dignity in the face of oppression.
Damon is only the latest iteration of the single leader who takes the class struggle directly to the oppressors. Here are his ancestors: those individuals who, by intention, outrage or reluctant necessity, fight the power.
The Mark of Zorro (1921)
Douglas Fairbanks changed the movies forever when he stepped out of the spirited modern romantic comedies that made his fame, donned a black mask, and leapt into history as Zorro. He was the first big screen action hero, the rich man with a double life as a masked hero, keeping his true identity hidden behind foppish façade while taking on the tyranny of the Spanish colonial governor and his corrupt soldiers. Sound familiar? Yes, Fairbanks was the original caped crusader and a primary inspiration for Bob Kane’s Batman (right down to the secret cave under his mansion!). But he was also an American revolutionary, single-handedly fighting the last of the European powers in the name of American freedom with little more than a sword and a smile. And he did it with a style and verve that no one has matched since, fighting injustice with jaunty energy, acrobatic physicality and a zest for life. Playing superhero has never been so much fun.