Why Superhero Movies Aren’t Like Westerns (and Probably Won’t be the Next Great Chapter in Genre Filmmaking)
by John Heath
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…
Reason #3: Great characters only have a handful of truly interesting stories (and usually just one)
I think it’s safe to say that in the greatest works of art – in literature, theater, film, and mythology – that characters and their particular circumstances within stories are so intimately linked as to be indivisible. Do we really care what Jay Gatsby does when he’s not tragically chasing the unattainable dream represented by Daisy? Would anyone really be interested in a prequel to “Macbeth” or “Romeo & Juliet”?
This goes all the way back to the archetypal Greek myths (that both superhero films and westerns draw heavily from). This archetypal resonance is what makes super-human beings relatable, and it’s derived from the example of Greek mythology, but it also limits the number of interesting stories you can tell with one of these characters. We all know that Prometheus stole fire from the Gods and brought it to the masses. We love him for it. It makes him a democratizing spark that lights the fire of innovation. Bringing fire to the masses is what makes him Prometheus. Do we care what Prometheus was doing when he wasn’t stealing and giving fire? Hell No! Because then he isn’t Prometheus anymore. The story – and what it represents – gives the character resonance.
There are dozens of western films about Jesse James, many of them good, but the most satisfying are variations of the same story, approached with different emphases. Jesse is a poor farm boy who rises up against capitalist railroads (who are backed by a corrupt government). Jesse and his gang shake up business as usual, before he’s eventually shot and killed by a trusted friend, Robert Ford (who’s also backed the same corrupt government). These elements (particularly Jesse’s ritualized assassination) have to be in place, or it isn’t a real Jesse James movie.
However, through variations in emphasis, this story has been offered as a populist New Deal rabble-rouser (Henry King’s 1939 film Jesse James), an allegorical meditation on McCarthyist betrayal (Samuel Fuller’s 1949 film I Shot Jesse James), and an exploration of the fetishization of celebrity (Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford).
There’s a reason superhero franchises usually get dull and repetitive once they move beyond origin stories: those stories are the interesting ones, the ones that resonate. Batman might be the greatest of superheroes because he was conceived as tragic myth. He loses his parents, his world, to crime at an early age – the concepts of crime and identity are so tangled within him, so central to his being, that fighting criminals becomes a futile attempt to reclaim his lost past. And in trying to reclaim a past that is irrevocably gone, he forfeits the future that might have come out of it. This inner conflict is what makes Batman, Batman. Further, the number of successful sequels to any Batman series depends entirely on how many interesting wrinkles can be put into the same story.
For example, in Batman Begins we examine the tangled web of crime fighting and identity that defines Batman through his origin story; in The Dark Knight we examine it through his battles with two criminals who serve as reflections of his internal crisis; and in The Dark Knight Rises we examine it through his attraction to two women who (like the two criminals in the previous film) reflect his own internal crisis. Lather, rinse and repeat. Without this unifying story at the center of the film, Batman becomes meaningless and generic, the film a random series of battle scenes.
So, if the superhero genre is to develop, attempts to “get away from origin stories” with sequels probably always yield diminishing returns after a certain point. Westerns were inhospitable to sequels (very few were attempted, almost none were good), but they did have something that functioned in approximately the same way, which brings us to this…
Reason #4. The actors were the icons of the Western genre, Superheroes are the icons in Superhero films
This is related to reason #1, but not entirely the same.
While the western wasn’t really hospitable to sequels, they did have iconic performers who developed recognizable personas that remained somewhat constant from film to film. In a certain sense, any John Wayne, James Stewart, or Clint Eastwood western sort of functions as a sequel to the last one – if you liked one film with a certain star in it, it’s probable that you’ll like a good many of them.
The beauty of this is that the icon isn’t bound to a single character or origin story, and these personas proved to be surprisingly adaptable. John Ford essentially created Wayne’s heroic image in Stagecoach, emphasized its rigid and inflexible side in Fort Apache, brought out the loss and regret in it by making him an old man in She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, completely subverted the image in The Searchers, and said a poignant goodbye to it in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Sergio Leone appropriated Henry Fonda’s all-American hero image to give the audience a shock when he kills a family in cold blood in Once Upon A Time In The West. The icons of the western film are as adaptable as the genre itself.
A good actor can certainly make a superhero a better realized, more enjoyable character (like Mark Ruffalo as Hulk), but they aren’t the essential ingredient in (or a guarantee of) a film’s success. Let’s say two movies opened the same day. The first is about an unknown superhero portrayed by Christian Bale. The second is the newest Batman franchise film starring an unknown actor. Which do you think will draw a bigger crowd? My bet would be on Batman every time.
Since the superheroes themselves are the draw, it limits the amount of re-imagination or appropriation around the genre’s icons. There exists a degree of potential for this in Elseworld-style alternate story lines, but whether or not the studios spending the big bucks are willing to get that experimental with things remains to be seen – especially when they don’t have to. Which brings me to my final point…
Reason #5. Fans almost guarantee that the superhero genre will never mature
We all know the story. Whenever Some Film Critic dares to criticize the latest superhero blockbuster, a sizable portion of that hero’s fanbase LOUDLY, INSISTENTLY and IN ALL CAPS declares that said film is a misunderstood masterpiece, and said critic is (a) stuck in the past and just doesn’t get it, (b) a condescending snob who can’t have fun, or ( c) a troll. And sometimes all of this is accompanied with death threats through Twitter (an offer you can’t refuse in 140 characters or less). All of this “triumphalist baying” (as Glenn Kenny calls it) is a form of playing the ref, and has led critics to soften their standards and grade superhero films on a curve. Again, Seitz:
“The audience seems to have no interest in demanding better films, much less excellent ones. It settles for OK and better-than-OK. As long as the films aren’t unbearably bad or unnervingly personal, they’re content.
That’s great news for the studios and their accounting departments but terrible news for popular art. As long as viewers ask little of superhero films, there’s no impetus for studios to encourage an auteurist vision. That’s how they like it. Real artistry terrifies them. It’s too volatile and uncertain. They’d rather have a mediocre sure thing than encourage filmmakers to try something truly new. Personal expression on this scale is high-stakes gambling with someone else’s fortune.”
So long as the same old, tried-and-true formula pays dividends – that’s all you can expect to get.
Editor’s Note: This essay originally appeared on Reddit and was reprinted here with the author’s permission. Speaking of which, here’s a nifty bio of said author:
Instead of going to film school, John Heath went to art school, but wound up mostly skipping class in order to better familiarize himself with the school library’s selection of Criterion DVDs – and their dusty old copy of Andrew Sarris’ “The American Cinema.” He’s a moderator at Reddit’s TrueFilm, a fan of b-movies and genre films, and most appreciates directors who wore eyepatches (John Ford, Raoul Walsh, Fritz Lang, Nick Ray, and Andre de Toth). He’s written about movies and music for the past 10 years (co-authoring “Memphis Recording Service: The Beginning of Elvis Presley – The Birth of Rock N’ Roll” in 2004), sometimes for money, sometimes for the hell of it.