Over here at Trash Talk! we’re going to take a look at pop-culture through an artistic lens, more specifically exploring the dichotomy between high-art and low-art in movies, TV, comics, and video games. What’s fine cinema, and what’s trash? Sometimes the line may be thinner than you think.
Our square-jawed hero arrives at the center of town. There he finds his nemesis, a (sometimes literally) mustache-twirling villain, who’s tormenting the peaceful citizenry. Our protagonist has leveled several faceless mooks to get to this moment. He has overcome personal and public adversity, and on top of it all he also has to worry about the woman he loves, who pursues him despite (or maybe because of) the danger his life entails. But there is no avoiding this moment. Hero versus villain, it’s all been building to this, and it doesn’t get any purer. It’s time for the final showdown.
Now if you read that and thought I was describing the plot of any given Western from decades past, you’re absolutely right. On the other hand, if you scanned that paragraph and thought I was detailing the latest superhero movie hitting the local Cineplex this summer (Spoiler Alert!), you too, are right. In many ways Westerns and superhero movies are exactly the same. Don’t believe me? Just look at all the times these genres have been mashed together (Jonah Hex, both Ghost Rider films, the recent Zorro films, and now the update of The Lone Ranger). But those (mostly abismal) movies barely scratch the surface of the similarities these two forms share. They’re both quintessentially American, they’re also not the most diverse genres, and because of that superhero movies will go the way of the dodo, just like Westerns. That is, unless they can learn from their forbearer. They also happen to be to of my absolute favorite genres.
In its heyday there were few genres more popular than the Western. That label could be affixed to a variety of classics such as Stagecoach, 3:10 to Yuma, The Magnificent Seven, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Rio Bravo, High Noon, Shane, True Grit, and my favorite of all, Once Upon a Time in the West. It’s not hard to understand why it was so popular either. The Western represented the great American myth. Strong, industrious pioneers set out to unknown lands and tame them through determination and the strength of the American spirit. The West represented a simpler time, when men were men, and justice was two-fisted and just a quick draw away. Through more contemporary eyes that American myth has taken a shellacking. Looking back now, that time is more representative of rampant lawlessness and violence, pock-marked with Civil War, slavery, and the complete decimation of an indigenous people. What once was a beacon to what we could achieve, became a testament of the terrible things we are capable of. It’s no wonder that the last Western to win big at the Oscars was twenty years ago with Clint Eastwood’s deconstruction of the genre, Unforgiven. Now we’ve moved on to the newer, shinier American myth. One where muscular demigods in tights can punch away adversity without any concern of hindsight, because they exist ever in the present. Many before me have compared superheroes to a kind of modern mythology, but that mythology is also uniquely American. Heroes like Batman and Iron Man represent capitalism at its finest. Superman not only fights for “Truth, Justice, and the American way,” but is the ultimate immigrant in a country comprised of them. That’s not to say that there aren’t great superhero creations from other countries, just as some amazing Westerns came out of Italy among others places, but that the archetypes as defined within the superhero genre are inexorably linked to Americana. For example Judge Dredd, one of the UK’s most prominent comic creations (though not strictly a “superhero”) is a commentary on the United States, and our social and political views (and also the subject of video blog by fellow State-Liner Ken Whiting, and myself). Michael Caine gave a great example of this when he said, “Superman is the way America sees itself, but Batman is the way the world sees America.” Superheroes represent everything the United States and its people want to represent; our hopes, our dreams, our ideals, and it also reflects our dark side that sometimes can only clearly be seen from outside the zeitgeist. “With great power comes great responsibility,” isn’t just a good mantra for superheroes, but the nation that spawned them.
Another corollary between Westerns and Superhero movies is that they are not the most diverse genres on the planet. You can look at movies like Alien and the original Star Wars and recognize both as being sci-fi films despite having very little in common. The genres we’re discussing here don’t have that “problem.” The Western is very precisely defined, with a certain locale (the West), time period, and various character archetypes. Different elements can be removed or added, but pieces always remain to define a work as part of the genre, and in a lot of ways they need to be there for it to be truly a Western. Superhero films are no different. While comic books, and the movies based on them can be incredibly diverse, superheroes recycle the same elements first introduced by the granddaddy of them all, Superman. What do such seemingly diverse characters as Batman, Spider-man, Wolverine, and Spawn all share? A lot actually, various degrees of secret identities, a tragedy in their past that pushes them towards their heroic (or not so heroic, as the case may be) acts, a whole host of psychological problems, and a diverse array of foes (that last one owes more to Batman than Superman). The superhero origin story is as embedded in popular culture now as the final shootout is. Both genres also offer a heaping helpings of wish fulfillment. The greatest of which is that the good guys will always win. It’s not a spoiler to tell that Iron Man saves the day in the just released Iron Man 3. No matter the toll taken on Batman’s soul, at the end of the movie Joker will be rotting in Arkham. Just like in the old Westerns the white hat will shoot down the black hat, because he has to. Most of the movie-going audience shares the same desire as the kids that filled the matinee shows decades ago. They want to see the good guy win.
There comes a point though where you want to see an old dog do new tricks. Watching a newly christened hero learn the ropes of his powers in time to overcome his new nemesis is cool no doubt, but that too will get old. No matter how shiny the latest movie trend is, even the addled attention spans of the American movie-going audience can get tired of the same thing ad nauseam (no matter how many sequels tell you otherwise), usually because something shinier has come along. Want a good example, the Western, or, as this interesting article by Cracked.com points out, the “New Hollywood” era. Hollywood is a place that is shy about innovation, they are looking for the perfect alchemy, a formula that they can use on any movie to make you give them money. When they find it they will bleed that golden goose dry. They think they’ve found it with the successes of Iron Man and The Dark Knight, that’s why we’re swimming in a sea of movies that are exactly like Iron Man (with the rest of the Marvel slate) and The Dark Knight (with gritty reboots of James Bond and Spider-man). The day will come (and may have already) when you’re at the opening of the latest hero flick and you ask yourself, “Haven’t I seen this before?” Why yes, you actually have, and the same thing happened with the Western. After audiences had watched the grizzled drifter roll into town, learn to love, and fight for the people who he once hated almost as they hated him, hundreds of times they decided to stop going to see it, and the Western died.
Or did it? Like many former apex predators, it may not be at the top of the food chain anymore, but that doesn’t mean it’s completely gone, just evolved into something fitter. Want to see a dinosaur, go to the zoo and look at the ostrich. It may not be as impressive, but it’s survived where it’s bulkier brethren fell. The Western lives on in movies like No Country for Old Men. It jettisoned the typical time period, but kept the setting, then adopted crime/thriller, and noir elements, and went on to a big Oscar win. At its core though, if slightly obscured, is a Western. Django Unchained on the other hand kept the time frame, but ditched the setting, and added a contemporary flare and Blaxploitation attitude.
As it is said, evolve or die. The traditional Western may be dead, but its spirit has evolved into a leaner, meaner beast. If superhero films are to survive their oncoming apocalypse they ought to do the same. And no, you can’t point to Captain America as breaking the mold by placing itself in World War II. It may take the audience back in time, but its tone is exactly that of any other Marvel film. Marvel has a better chance of branching out with its upcoming Guardians of Galaxy movie. They would do well to really embrace the space opera aspects of that movie so that it has space (haha) to breath (maybe it could even embrace some of the more philosophical elements Abrams Star Trek has jettisoned… wishful thinking, to be sure). I know many a comic fan would balk at this, but that’s the thing. Comic fans look at these movies as comic fans, not as general movie-goers. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard fans rail against DC for wanting to release a Justice League movie before they’ve established every… other… character in their own movies. “Just like Marvel!” And that’s the point, as the Western was, most superhero films are too alike to be long for this world. For the genre to survive it needs to start breaking its own mold, but studios won’t let that happen until they stop breaking box office records. In the meantime comic book fans like myself can just content ourselves with seeing our favorite pop culture characters dominate the zeitgeist, even if the shadow of their ultimate end looms, and along with it the anticipation of what comes next.
(To those out there that are fans of superhero movies, but aren’t familiar with the source material, then this is a great weekend for you! Tomorrow is Free Comic Book Day at shops all across the country! Check the official website to find a retailer near you, and pick up some free comics. And if you want to win a whopping 100 FREE comics, enter State-Lines Superhero Week Comic Giveaway today!)
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