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Hollywood’s new cowboys: How superhero movies became the 21st Century Western

July 8, 2012

This is more an outpouring of thought than an analysis with anything so cumbersome as documented evidence, but here is my central contention – that comic book movies have become to post-millennial Hollywood what the Western was for the studio-era industry.

The Western always had a distinct place among the other easily categorisable types of film produced by the American industry. Most genres represent divisions of tone – comedies, thrillers, romances. It’s unusual for a particular setting or style to become so common that it becomes a genre of itself. War films. Gangster pictures, maybe. Westerns for sure. And now comic books.

Obviously there were a smattering of superhero films before the recent deluge. Richard Donner’s Superman in 1978 was a terrific success, and Tim Burton’s Batman in 1989 another. But they were remarkably mounted one-offs, rather than entries into a continuing cycle – they and their sequels were the superhero output of Hollywood for the best part of two decades until around 2000, with the odd Toxic Avenger and Darkman thrown in.

So in what sense do I mean that comic books are the new Western? Well, in two ways – the first a practical, industrial reason that might actually be fairly compelling, and the second a more grasping, “ideas about America” suggestion that’ll probably make me sound like Don DeLillo if he drank too much squash.

Firstly, then: the reasons for one movie getting made in Hollywood while another lingers forever an intangible might-be are murky, mysterious, and almost always to do with money. But at base it’s true to say that it comes down to a combination of things people want to watch, and things Hollywood is willing and able to make.

Westerns (and in less dominant shapes, gangster films and musicals) were perfectly suited to how films were made in studio-era Hollywood. The studios, vertically structured, were more possessive beasts – they owned the lots, the sets, the costumes, even the contracts of stars and directors, all of which were put to work again and again making variations on the same themes, standoffs and saloons.

The material arrangement of the old studios, in other words, was designed to make a constant rotation of similar films. And, for as long as people were paying to watch them, that’s what they did.

From memory I’ve always put the start of the latest cycle of comic book movies as X-Men in 2000 (I remember its arrival, and me having no real knowledge of comic books past a vague awareness of Marvel and DC – how things have changed). Looking at a list of releases, you could argue it actually started with Blade in 1998 (or if you’re being pedantic, The Matrix in 1999). Whatever – after this the superhero form established itself as regular enough to qualify as a genre in its own right, rather than an occasional tight-trousered variation on the action blockbuster.

There are been around 30 big-budget summer tentpoles since, which translates into something like three a year. We’re regularly introduced to less familiar superheroes (Elektra, Daredevil, Iron Man), and reintroduced to familiar ones when their creativity or box-office is flagging (which is why we’ve seen three different actors play Hulk in just nine years, why we’re about to meet a new Superman, and why Andrew Garfield is now playing Spider-Man despite Tobey Maguire’s latest turn making nearly a billion dollars).

There’s something fairly extraordinary going on here. In what other circumstances would we be happy to consume the same stories in such a short space of time? And why hasn’t this continual repetition of ideas and iconography resulted in a disastrous marketing meltdown? Instead Marvel has become a Hollywood studio in its own right, and, this year more than any other, comic books films are mounting the podium of the international box-office and doing lunges in their tight costumes even though they know everyone’s watching.

To answer let’s go back to that authoritative-sounding thing I said earlier – that Hollywood’s output comes down to what people want to see (and continuing revenues tick this box with a marker pen the size of the moon) and, something we’ll explore now, what Hollywood is capable of making.

While Westerns relied on sets and costumes and Jimmy Stewart, superhero films, almost by definition, rely on large numbers of intricate special effects. And the reason that X-Men’s release in 2000 becomes important in this context is that I’d argue it was around this time that we reached a sort of digital effects singularity – the point at which they became convincing enough to render dudes having claws and firing uncontrollable Freudian mind-lasers at one another without demanding of the audience a spectacular suspension of disbelief (notably the earlier Superman and Batman films were conservative with their need to visualise Complex Impossible Things).

So what I’m saying is that the comic book film became a natural fit with an industry which was increasingly geared towards special effects anyway (the rise of George Lucas’ ILM, James Cameron’s Digital Domain, Peter Jackson’s Weta, standalone computer animation). It put the industry’s most abundant talents to work, in the same way as the Westerns had decades earlier.

Which just leaves the question – why are people watching? We know that they are, as the figures speak for themselves (“I AM MASSIVE,” they mostly say “SERIOUSLY, BRO, LOOK AT ME, I’M FUCKING HUGE”). But where does this appetite for watching people with mutant powers, atomic hearts and chainsaw voices come from?

This is the crux of it, really (“it” being the meandering path of thought I wandered down recently after thinking “Ooh, The Avengers is a bit like The Magnificent Seven”). Comic book films have replaced Westerns as the medium through which America thinks about itself. For the longest time the founding myths and expansive ideals (not to mention genocidal imperialism!) of the Western have been part-propagandist pamphlet, part-national behavioural handbook for the United States. Not that I’m saying everyone watched them and felt that way, but they were a constant, cycled reminder of how the nation was born, and the principles of integrity and opportunism upon which it was based.

And without too much imagination it’s easy to see superhero films doing a similar job now – continually exploring what it means to be the most powerful force in a world of fractured, stateless enemies. It’d be too glib to connect the dots between X-Men beginning the cycle in 2000 and what happened in New York a year later. But it’s less of a stretch to say that 9/11 was a symptom of a changing world of conflict and diplomacy that these films were beginning to respond to anyway.

There’s also a case to be made that comic books – or at least the ones Hollywood is mining for material now – are just as bound up with the history of America during its coming-of-age century as the often real-life stories and characters of the West which Hollywood used and re-used back in the day (the railroad, Wyatt Earp, Billy The Kid, sweet, merciful Jimmy Stewart). Since his inception in 1938, Superman’s most interesting storylines have been all-but manifest looks at what it means to be a military superpower (and Iron Man, when he arrived in the 1960s, did a similar job for the atomic age). Captain America was born in the Second World War and remains frozen there, a reminder of the nation’s finest hour. Batman stands as a grand example of compassionate capitalism – how it’s possible to earn billions, care about the little man, and break arms all at the same time.

This year is a particularly good one to reflect on all this. The Avengers has made a ludicrous amount of money, and told us all a story about co-operation and companionship in the face of insidious enemies while reminding me of nothing more than How The West Was Won in its juggling of established genre stars (the Cinerama monster starred John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Gregory Peck and, of course, Jimmy Stewart). The Amazing Spider-Man is set to prove that audiences really don’t care that they just saw how Peter Parker became en-spidered already, at least no more than they used to care that they’d already seen John Wayne swaggering about on a horse and grabbing women quite roughly by the shoulders. And The Dark Knight Rises brings to a close a trilogy of films that rival the likes of The Searchers in terms of outstanding filmmaking, and staggering ideas about America and the world which also make you feel quite sad (too much to compare John Wayne silhouetted in the door frame with Batman crouched purposefully atop a gargoyle, both doomed to isolation in broken devotion to the place they belong? Probably).

I’ll leave you with the critic Tom Shone saying it best, as he so often does. On twitter recently he put the whole thing in perspective:

Does anyone honestly think that when America is dust, the artifacts they’ll pore over won’t be The Amazing Spiderman and The Dark Knight?

Quite right too.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. July 9, 2012 8:19 am

    “In what other circumstances would we be happy to consume the same stories in such a short space of time?”

    Superhero comic book readers (as opposed to Comic film viewers) are entirely familiar with this concept. Ideas are continually reused. Origin stories are tweaked to suit the new status quo every 5-10 years. Reboots are the norm. It’s exceptionally rare for any newly introduced character to be able to sustain their own book. In short, we are uncomfortable change and hanker after stories and characters we are already entirely familiar with.

    Fans of the various film franchises are only just starting to experience this.

    • July 9, 2012 9:07 am

      True – though by circumstances I meant within cinema-going, rather than stretching out to other forms of entertainment.

      I don’t think it’s as easy as ‘This happens in comic books, so it makes sense that it happens in comic book films.’ Creatively that might be a reason why, but the cost of launching and relaunching these characters in the movies is far greater, and the levels of awareness once they exist far higher (making it therefore riskier to make changes and updates).

      What I was really driving at was that this is a cycle of repetitive production not really seen since the factory-style studio era.

  2. Alec permalink
    July 9, 2012 10:15 am

    (There is a mild spoiler related to Sam Raimi’s first Spider-man contained herein)

    I had a more rudimentary thought along the same lines as you (that is, the post-9/11 lines) when I saw the Avengers trailer: that New York skyscrapers get knocked down ALL THE TIME in films these days (granted, I still don’t know whether the film was set in NYC, not having seen it yet). I’m no psychologist, and I have absolutely no idea why audiences who were afraid of building’s being blown up would feel so compelled to go out and watch buildings get blown up, but it seems significant that the big tall-buildings smash-up is such a regularly used set-piece.

    Incidentally (here’s the Spider-man bit) the first pop culture ‘response’ to 9-11 I ever saw that really touched me, rather than making me wish my country was less jingoistic, was the moment when all the New Yorkers show up on the bridge throwing rubbish at the Green Goblin and shouting ‘You mess with one of us, you mess with all of us!’

    Obviously it’s a bit simplistic to call that a ‘response’ to 9-11, and at this point, it feels like a far-fetched connection, but remember that Spider-man came out so soon after 9-11 that the initial ‘teaser’ preview focused on an (intact) World Trade Center. So I’m pretty confident that I wasn’t the only one in the audience who found that scene more powerful than your average final super-villain showdown.

  3. July 9, 2012 12:27 pm

    As I commented on Twitter, surely this article can\’t be completed without a mention of Jonah Hex?

    The premise that studios churned out varations on the Western theme and now do the same with comic book properties is something which was somewhat inevitable. When you consider the budget increases associated with star power in an attempt to counter risks when \’no-one knows anything\’, the fact that you can bank on a black cowl (Keaton, Bale, maybe not Clooney), or a Spider mask means that you can own the brand and put \’almost\’ anyone in to make a decent return.

    The problem comes with the lesser-known characters unless you have someone wildly inventive – we\’ve pretty much covered the big names in traditional comics (Superman, Batman, The Avengers, The X-Men, Fantastic 4, Daredevil), so beyond constantly reworking their stories, you\’re then going to end up with an Ant-Man film, or a once-mooted Green Arrow film (Which remains one of my favourite characters, but hard to pitch a film about a sarcastic liberal bloke who is just good with a bow and arrow).

    But you don\’t go far wrong with the \’Boys Own\’ tales of a flawed hero. Peter Parker the heroic nerd, Bruce Banner unable to control his rage, Reed Richards the genius who doomed his friends etc. No different to the heroic journeys of any flawed hero from samurai epics to the Wild West to Star Wars. (And for the antihero you get Billy The Kid and Wolverine etc).

    Plus the Cowboy pic only resurfaces occasionally (The Unforgiven, 3:10 etc) because you doubt many teens want to daydream about swapping their problems for a horse and a six-shooter. The Fast & Furious franchise has done something similar if you like imported cars, but superheroes remain a universal fantasy that can easily mold to the times – aliens, billionaires and gods will still be fairly unusual in 20 or 50 years time.


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