The first real film based on a Marvel/DC character was 1966's Batman: The Movie, starring Adam West’s campy version of the Caped Crusader. In the ‘40s and ‘50s, Batman, Superman, Captain Marvel (now known as Shazam), and Captain America all had weekly, live-action serials shown in cinemas, while the first Zorro movie premiered in 1920. But the first movie superhero came out even before that, in 1916 — in an almost-forgotten serial film starring an equally forgotten hero: Judex.
Louis Feuillade was already a successful French filmmaker when he made Judex; his serials Fantômas (1913) and Les Vampires (1915) both featured mysterious, ruthless, crafty all-but-superpowered criminals. Feuillade was criticized for glorifying evil-doers, so he decided to create a similar film with a more heroic protagonist. The result was Judex—Latin for “judge.”
Judex didn’t have powers, but see if this sounds familiar: He was a vigilante who defended the innocent while keeping his identity secret by wearing a dark cloak and broad-brimmed hat. He used high-tech (for 1916) gadgets to fight bad guys, and his secret hideout was located in the caverns underneath a castle. He was practically Batman, 23 years before Batman was created.
He was played by the strikingly craggy René Cresté. The character’s first serial film (it was 12 chapters, but they were shown together, rather than separately) was his origin story, which should also sound familiar. Judex’s real name was Jacques de Tremeuse, and his family was destroyed by the nefarious banker Favraux (Louis Leubas). His father committed suicide, and his mother made Jacques and his brother Roger swear on their father’s grave to avenge him.
After announcing publicly that Favraux will die at a specific time, Judex disguises himself as Favraux’s secretary to poison him on schedule. Favraux appears to have been murdered, but instead, he’s only been put into a death-like stupor, allowing Judex to spirit Favraux away and imprison him for life in his secret lair. Judex also falls in love with the evil banker’s daughter, Jacqueline (Yvette Andréyor), whom he has to save from the plots of the deliciously evil Diana Monti (Musidora). There’s even an unexpected superheroine at the end—a circus acrobat who loves to swim in frigid water. She rescues Judex when he gets tied up on a boat, and the two join together (the first filmed superhero team-up!) to pummel Diana Monti’s henchmen and save the day.
Chris Gavaler, an English professor at Washington and Lee University and the author of On the Origin of Superheroes, says Judex was an important link between earlier pulp revenge plots and superhero stories. “It’s not clear that Judex is a good guy at first,” Gavaler explains, comparing Judex to the Count of Monte Cristo, who is motivated to take revenge on those who harmed him. Over the course of the serial, though, Judex’s motives become more pure; inspired by love, he essentially learns how to be a hero while you watch.
An important reason to see Judex as the first superhero on screen is that he appears to have had a direct influence on many other, better-known superheroes who followed. We know that the first Judex film was fairly popular, as it did well enough that Feuillade made a sequel in 1918, Judex’s New Mission, which is now lost (Gavaler told me he’d never even seen a still from it). There was also a largely lost 1934 French remake, followed by another in 1963, the latter starring an American magician named Channing Pollock as the hero. In terms of cinematic reboot attempts, that puts Judex on par with Spider-Man.
It’s tough to say with absolute certainty, but Judex’s physical appearance—thin, black-robed, with a broad hat—was likely a strong influence on pulp hero the Shadow, especially given that the first chapter of Judex was released in America in 1917 as Judex: Prologue and the Mysterious Shadow. Additionally, Batman co-creator and writer Bill Finger was famous for his encyclopedic knowledge of the pulps, and Gavaler believes Judex had a direct influence on the creation of the Dark Knight, too, based on the characters’ similarities.
Additionally, in the Joker’s very first appearance in 1940's Batman #1, the Joker publicly announces that he’ll kill the millionaire Henry Claridge at a specified time; despite Claridge and the police knowing in advance, Claridge is poisoned and dies at the exact time, with a horrible grin on his face. It’s the same thing Judex does to Favraux in the film—and in the English adaptation of the movie’s novelisation, when the villain also succumbs to Judex’s poison, he also bears a horrible rictus smile when he appears to die. If Judex wasn’t one of the inspirations for the character’s debut, it’s quite the coincidence.
This all raises a question: If Judex was so important to the development of the superhero, why has he disappeared? One reason may be that Judex is French. The superhero genre shifted quickly to the Anglophone world, and there it has mostly remained. Gavaler also says that Judex may have simply been too generic to survive; even at the time there were other proto-superhero type films. Zorro was created in 1919 and his first film was an enormous hit a year later. Before that there was the American serial The Iron Claw, also released in 1916, which features a masked vigilante with an iron claw for one hand (naturally), an affectation that arguably makes him more superhero-like than Judex. But Judex was actually filmed in 1914, and its release was delayed because of the advent of the first World War, so it technically got there first.
Still, more and more proto-superheroes followed, a parade of black-clad figures with duel identities, revenge motives, and secret hideouts. “In the ‘20s there are just dozens of characters like that, and even more in the 1930s,” Gavaler says. “Judex just got buried under similar narratives.”
When you have the Shadow and Superman and Batman and dozens of knock-offs, there’s not much reason to revive a cloaked French guy who ran around for a little bit in the early 20th century. But given how prevalent superhero movies have become—each one bigger and louder and more spectacular (and featuring more characters) than the last—it’s worth noting that a hundred years ago, the superhero film didn’t start with a bang but with a quiet “bonjour.”
Noah Berlatsky is the author of Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics.