Twentieth Century Fox
It’s easy and it’s strange for Steven Spielberg to complain about mega-budget Hollywood blockbusters. More than anyone aside from his friend George Lucas, he is responsible for pushing the industry in this direction. And not just with his early sci-fi and action classics, the profits of which afforded him the luxury to later work on serious fare like Schindler’s List and this fall’s Bridge of Spies. Let’s not forget he’s also partly responsible for the terribly bombastic Transformers movies as well as this year’s enormously successful yet wretchedly soulless Jurassic World. Now he’s specifically critical of a kind of blockbuster he hasn’t yet touched, sort of: the superhero movie.
“We were around when the Western died and there will be a time when the superhero movie goes the way of the Western,” Spielberg told the Associated Press in a new interview. “It doesn’t mean there won’t be another occasion where the Western comes back and the superhero movie someday returns. Of course, right now the superhero movie is alive and thriving. I’m only saying that these cycles have a finite time in popular culture. There will come a day when the mythological stories are supplanted by some other genre that possibly some young filmmaker is just thinking about discovering for all of us.”
He could be right to some degree. Superhero movies are likely to decline in popularity at some point. But if we’re to liken their rise and eventual fall with that of the Western genre, then we can look forward to at least a few more decades of a lot of caped crusaders. Westerns have been around since the early days of cinema (let’s call 1903’s The Great Train Robbery the first true example), peaked in the 1950s when there were more than a hundred of them a year (plus a ton of TV series) and finally all but faded out completely in the late 1970s. Comparably, superhero movies as we know them began in the late 1970s (with Superman, which Spielberg was offered to direct) and are therefore now only approaching their equivalent of the 1940s. So, look forward to even more of these things in the 2020s (can you imagine a hundred a year?) before things start to go downward.
Of course, culture moves a lot faster now than it did 60–70 years ago. The years don’t have to line up or even come close. Avengers: Age of Ultron is not the superhero genre’s Stagecoach, even though it shares a cavalry moment at its climax. Whether we like it or not, The Dark Knight may have already been the closest thing to The Searchers for the comic book crowd. Then Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is A Fistful of Dollars, Suicide Squad is The Wild Bunch and Hugh Jackman’s final Wolverine movie will be Rooster Cogburn (let’s pray Jackman doesn’t die soon after). Hopefully Doctor Strange is at least kind of the superhero El Topo.
As much as we can force analogical pairings between genres, though, and as much as there are definite similarities to draw between the Western and the superhero movie (the screenwriters of Captain America: Civil War recently acknowledged it’s the same “black hat, white hat myth-making”), there’s a big difference that factors into why audiences aren’t as into Westerns today but are into superheroes: setting. Westerns, for the most part, have to be set during a certain time period, meaning they’re seen as more akin to period pieces than superhero movies. Sure, so should much of the fantasy genre with its medieval-style costuming, but it’s different because Westerns have to be grounded in reality, and therefore they’re more like a history lesson than escapist entertainment, even when fictional.
Westerns have also tended to reflect their times (as Quentin Tarantino recently recognized in his notable Vulture interview), particularly as representative of American culture and tone, spanning a number of eras. Superhero movies have had relevance now and then, but they’re collectively less characteristically mirrors of the contemporary world. As part of the faster movement of culture these days, the superhero genre as a whole is not as comfortable with longterm uniformity, even if a lot of the big ones do look very much alike. While it took the Western many decades to go through its various stages, down a path toward revisionism, the superhero film has been playing with all the potential variations and subversions that filmmakers can imagine over the same period as it’s been its most conventional. Perhaps its demise will indeed come quicker, too.
Then again, it only took two years for Edwin S. Porter to deliver a parody of his own pioneering Western, The Great Train Robbery with 1905’s The Little Train Robbery, while in a longer, reverse situation, James Gunn made one of the best superhero movies (if we can call Guardians of the Galaxy one, and since it’s part of the MCU we ought to) 14 years after writing a superhero movie spoof (The Specials) and having done a dark revisionist superhero movie (Super) in between. Nowadays, though, the superhero hits at the box office also get immediate parodical deconstruction via Saturday Night Live sketches and other comedy outlets, usually with at least one person from the target property involved in the spoof, too.
Anyway, it’s not as if the decline of the Western was the end of the Western, and likewise we’re not going to see Hollywood suddenly stop making superhero movies, even if Marvel/Disney or DC/Warner Bros. winds up with a bomb comparable to this summer’s Fantastic Four disaster with one of their cinematic-universe installments. Maybe they’ll just be smaller for a while. The beautiful benefit for superhero movies over Westerns, though, is that unlike the latter’s case with such flops as Wild Wild West and Cowboys and Aliens, the former already goes hand in hand with science fiction, a genre which will always otherwise and regardless be popular.
It should be finally noted, just as a side bit of trivia, that long before the Superman-led group, the first movies to now be considered part of the superhero genre are Zorro films, which are also considered to be part of the Western genre, too. And the closest thing Spielberg has gotten to producing a superhero movie, so long as we don’t include Transformers or Men in Black, are the two relatively recent Zorro features starring Antonio Banderas.