The reaction to The Amazing Spiderman 2 has started an intense critical dialogue about superhero films, foremost in this Criticwire survey. I particularly recommend reading Glenn Kenny and Richard Brody’s responses – they represent very different types of reactions to the question ‘Are there too many superhero movies?’ (both of which are reactions I sympathize with). Many of the critics offer some variation of the old ‘The superhero genre is like the western, it’ll eventually get good if you get it time!’ argument.
Comparing Superhero films to Westerns has become a cliché, a bit of received wisdom that has thus far been passed without much skepticism or examination. It has become a truism among the faithful that comic book films will become the next great chapter in American genre art, if only we have a little patience. While it’s hard to not see some superficial similarities between the two genres (they’re both largely action oriented, both involve elements of myth and morality play, and both began as adolescent entertainment), I think it’s clear that the western genre was (and is) varied and adaptable in a way that superhero films haven’t been.
Matt Zoller Seitz offers an excellent critique of the “sameness” of superhero films. The Atlantic’s Tim Wainwright argues in response that what we need are more superhero films, not fewer. I can understand what he’s saying, but I’m not sure more films will yield the result he expects. The number of times something is made is much less important than how it is made, and what inherent values the object being made has.
In this respect, I think superhero films face a great number of limitations that the western didn’t. That isn’t to say that there can’t be a handful of serious, and potentially even great, superhero films produced – only that there are significant reasons (having nothing to do with the genre’s age and experience) that will most likely keep it from developing into a wellspring of creativity, inspiration, and just plain good art to rival the western in it’s glory days.
Reason #1: Superhero films are brand-oriented rather than form-oriented
The first, and potentially most fatal, hurdle the genre faces is that no one really goes to see “a superhero film” as much as they go to see Batman, Spiderman, X-Men, Iron Man, Superman, and Avengers films. The whole reason these properties are so attractive to Hollywood is that they have an established audience that will – come hell or highwater – line up on opening weekend to see whatever movie follows the exploits of their favorite heroes.
Even franchise flops are a safe bet to be profitable for this reason – and in the event that a film does flop, a studio only has to listen to fans and promise to better meet their expectations in the next reboot. What you don’t see much of are studios (or screenwriters) rushing to create their own superheroes - perhaps because there isn’t anything particularly resonant about the genre in and of itself. Random guy in a cape just isn’t as exciting as Batman (for reasons we’ll get to later). What interests audiences are the individual heroes they know and love. The public might give a chance to a lesser known property from a brand they trust, like Marvel or D.C., but that’s about as far as it goes.
The western was a different circumstance. Western fans went to see westerns, regardless of their degree of familiarity with the individual characters in any given film. It was the form that held a special resonance with audiences, more than any particular person that populated it. This distinction may not seem all that important at first, but it’s enormous in its implications for a variety of reasons we’ll get to.
Imagine what the history of the western might have been if the studios only produced films about those few western icons that everyone was already familiar with – Wyatt Earp, Jesse James, Billy The Kid, Wild Bill Hickok, Black Bart, and The Wild Bunch. Already you’d eliminate the vast majority of great westerns ever made – but you’d still have a handful. Imagine further that each of these famous western heroes is an exclusive copyrighted property that can only be handled by a single, licensed parent studio – that only Fox could have created Wyatt Earp films in the same way that only Warner Brothers can make Batman films. This brings us to my next point…
Reason #2: The economics of the Western favored innovation; the economics of Superhero films favor formula
One of the things that made the western such a productive genre (especially for independent producers) was that its movies could be made very cheaply. A western didn’t need much in the way of special effects, or big-name stars, or established commercial properties. It was anybody’s ball game, or an open range if you will.
In fact, small-scale westerns were so reliably profitable in the 50s and 60s that established stars would often defer their salaries in exchange for a percentage of the film, making them even easier to produce. Western icons like Randolph Scott and James Stewart made a lot of money that way. And because the films were relatively cheap to make and reliably profitable box office attractions, producers — both independent and those at major studios — essentially didn’t care what the creative team did so long as they delivered a film in time and under budget.
This gave filmmakers a lot of freedom to experiment and create films that reflected a personal vision. In addition to the great A-westerns major studios were making, B-westerns were a gold mine of inspired filmmaking. Consider Joseph H. Lewis’s Terror In A Texas Town - it’s a modest, black & white western made on a shoestring budget (with no stars), but it’s also an incredibly stylish, thoughtful anti-capitalist political allegory that features an unforgettable gun vs. harpoon duel at the end. Under a good director (like Budd Boetticher, Joseph Lewis or Andre de Toth), a cheap B-western could match or surpass the quality of some of the more expensive studio A-westerns. The breadth of creativity and variation within the western genre is remarkable – thanks in no small part to the creative freedom allowed by it’s small-scale economics.
Superhero films have also proven themselves to be reliably profitable, but they’re very expensive to produce. The sets, costumes and CGI are a large enough expense by themselves, and star power and licensing only make the situation exponentially more costly. The amount of money it takes to produce a superhero film essentially shuts everyone but the major studios out of the game, and makes the studios investing these big bucks extremely cautious.
Let’s face it, even the act of licensing an established, recognizable property (with the accompanying large fan base) is a form of playing it safe – so when it comes to investing the millions of dollars it takes to realize said property, the studios are going to want to be involved in every step of the process to try to maximize the return on their investment. The priority will be in attempting to repeat previous successes until audiences lose interest.
If a franchise finally reaches the point of disinterest, all a studio has to do is add (x) ingredients demanded by fans and start the process over again. As Seitz points out in the article linked above, the amount of variation within the superhero genre is very, very minor.
There’s a reason for that, and it’s only partially due to the money involved…