Trouble is afoot in sunny Acapulco. Someone is snatching the town’s mighty wrestlers, the beloved luchadores. They turn up dead, with a rare gland removed. Nobody knows how, or why, this is happening. But the police trust only one person with a case this serious: the Batwoman.
That’s the premise of, you guessed it, “The Batwoman,” a Mexican caper from 1968 starring Maura Monti as the masked (and swimsuited) heroine. Popular cinema of this sort in Mexico hasn’t typically received the same respect as classics of the industry’s Golden Age in the 1940s and 1950s. But recent critical attention and new restorations have shone a new spotlight on these movies. “The Batwoman” (now in the collection of the Academy Film Archive) stands out as a delightful, warmhearted entertainment with a handmade quality, featuring a star with effortless charm (and a story of her own).
Luchador films, like those featuring the wrestling star El Santo, were a staple of Mexican cinemas, with wrestlers leading double lives as superheroes vanquishing monsters and mad scientists. But “The Batwoman” adds a few twists to the genre. Monti’s character, Gloria, has several pursuits: She fights crime as the Batwoman, she wrestles in the ring and gives classes at a gym, but ordinarily, she seems to be a wealthy woman with worldly hobbies. She does exactly what she wants, which in this case means fighting a mad scientist obsessed with creating a fish-man hybrid.
“In Mexican cinema you see women playing sumisa” — submissive — “like they don’t deserve anything,” said Viviana García Besné, who spearheaded the restoration of “The Batwoman” and other Mexican titles through her company Permanencia Voluntaria. “I love the fact that this is a woman who is a hero!”
García Besné hails from a family of (male) producers; her grandfather helped pioneer the luchador movies. But she credits her grandmother for suggesting that they try luchadoras (women wrestlers) as characters. That led to a run of films culminating with the hybrid comic-book hero of “The Batwoman.”
Monti cuts a breezy figure as la Mujer Murciélago, arriving to meet police by parachuting onto a beach, then nonchalantly clambering into their car. That’s a huge part of the film’s charm: the stylish but matter-of-fact way she goes about her business, and the sweet rapport she has with her investigator pals, Mario and Tony. Though the popular American TV series “Batman” of the 1960s was a likely inspiration, there isn’t a hint of camp here. The action — underwater fights, kung fu chops and a groaning, floppy-handed fish-man named Pisces — has a likable, casual groove (as does the snazzy score).
There’s a glamour to Monti’s ease, a sense of independence that feels true to an era of change in the nation. “The luchadora movies come out at a time in Mexico when you have the transformation of feminist movements and the creation of la chica moderna, the modern young woman,” Vinodh Venkatesh, a professor at Virginia Tech who wrote a study of Latin American superheroes, told me. Monti even did her own stunts, except for the brief wrestling match sequences. These she left to actual luchadoras in a gesture of solidarity, because female wrestlers were barred from public arenas at the time.
“The Batwoman” was the high-water mark in Monti’s 40-plus-film career, which included movies starring Cantinflas, El Santo and Boris Karloff. She “flew under the radar,” according to Olivia Cosentino, a scholar at Tulane who coedited a collection about Mexico’s “lost cinema” (productions after the Golden Age but before the industry’s renaissance in the 1990s).
“Someone like El Santo has gotten a ton of coverage and become more and more famous over time,” she said, “but it seems to me that the women have not really been studied as much as male figures in the industry.”
Monti’s life could be a biopic in and of itself. Born in Genoa, Italy, Monti went to Mexico with her mother, and according to García Besné, right away had a cinematic stroke of luck: a winning lottery ticket. She started modeling, then acted in a string of genre films (first role: Maria Magdalena). Handpicked by the director René Cardona for “The Batwoman,” she reveled in the role, staying in her bikini-and-boots costume to stroll around town. But despite the star turn, her film career petered out. García Besné attributed the fade-out to her marriage to a producer — “producers from the era did not want their women to be working,” she said — while Venkatesh speculated that Monti wasn’t interested in the nude-leaning roles that became more popular in the 1970s.
Whatever the case, Monti stepped into a new professional identity — journalist — and didn’t look back. She wrote for magazines and co-hosted an arts program for television, with guests like the novelists Mario Vargas Llosa and Carlos Fuentes, the actress Maria Felix and the directors Emilio Fernández and Roberto Gavaldón. Then, with a boldness worthy of a screen heroine, she took another leap in the early 1990s. She began teaching in San Cristobal, which became a stronghold of the leftist Zapatista movement that seized Mexican territory in 1994, and settled down with her second husband, the poet and educator José Antonio Reyes Matamoros. (“Imagine! It was incredible,” García Besné said.)
Or as Monti herself put it to me: “I radically changed my life from a bourgeois environment to start in a nothingness full of misery to train students.” Fielding a few questions over WhatsApp from her home in Mexico, the 81-year-old artist cheerfully confirmed assorted facts about her film career. But, long retired from acting, she said she had been devoted to her painting, writing and teaching. “That is the most impressive and core work of my life,” she wrote.
The audience for Monti in “The Batwoman” seems likely to grow, however, thanks to its easy availability on streaming (it’s on several platforms). Next year will bring the first Blu-ray edition of the restoration, which García Besné made sure was faithful to the brighter colors the original film aspired to.
“My family would say it was shot in Mexicolor — they would just invent words,” she remembered of her producer relatives. “But I said, ‘How would Mexicolor look like?’” The results: rich blues for the Batwoman’s outfits, and an ominous red for her nemesis, the fish-man Pisces (who might remind some viewers of the creature in Guillermo del Toro’s “The Shape of Water”).
Today, the unpretentious fun of “The Batwoman” feels all the more precious in comparison with many of today’s lumbering superhero franchises. It’s easy to wonder what Hollywood might think of the 1968 film’s blithe use of a character that seems out of DC Comics. García Besné responded with a chuckle: “My uncle always said, How come these gringos come to us and tell us that we cannot use the name ‘La Mujer Murciélago’? First of all, lucha libre culture in Mexico is older than their comics. And besides that, in the Mayan culture, there is already a Mujer Murciélago!”
To coin a phrase, the Batwoman is forever.