Back in 2000, 20th Century Fox took a gamble on the idea that taking Marvel’s campy superhero properties and cinematizing them with high production value and top talent would pay off at the box office. They hired a hot young director, to whom they gave significant creative control, and recruited two highly-acclaimed veteran actors to headline the cast. The result was X-Men, which was critically well-received, which, with a gross of just under $300 million, was one of the top ten earners of the year, and which set off the ongoing trend of giving every possible superhero franchise the screen treatment.
With today’s release of The Avengers and the upcoming July premiere of The Dark Knight Rises – not to mention the surely-misguided reboot of the Spider-Man franchise and February’s superhero-subversive Chronicle – 2012 may well prove to be the pinnacle of that trend. Both movies should finish among the year’s top movies, and if Rises is anywhere near as good as prequel The Dark Knight, it’ll probably have the inside track to the genre’s first Best Picture nomination. While there’s no such thing as a sure bet in this industry, the modern superhero movie may be the closest thing to it; even Bryan Singer’s mediocre Superman Returns made almost $400 million.
Certain subgenres – the noir, the western – seem to grip the collective imagination for some period of time before fading into the background, a phenomenon that I questioned briefly in my essays on The Maltese Falcon and The Searchers. Neither the noir nor the western should properly be called a ‘genre,’ since what distinguishes them is not the type of their story but particularities of setting, style, and character. They are, rather, subgenres of larger categories – the noir a certain kind of mystery, the western a certain kind of adventure story – that developed large and distinctive enough bodies of work to demonstrate a certain thematic consistency. The reason that that happened was that, for some period of time, those subgenres captured the national imagination completely enough to justify studios churning them out. That is precisely what is happening with the superhero movie today. No matter how much we complain about the enduring popularity of this subgenre, we keep on making exceptions for movies within it that we deem remarkable.
Why this genre, though, and why now? Or, to ask what may be the more relevant question, what does the ongoing fascination with superheroes and their powers and adventures tell us about what we want and aren’t getting, both in our entertainment and perhaps also in our day-to-day lives?
Way back in the day, in one of the very first film posts for this blog, I wrote in relation to The Searchers that the Western was ‘the most heroic of American film genres,’ because its setting on the lawless and untamed frontier necessitated that it be populated with grim men with no recourse to law. Where Europe has its tales of antiquity and its medieval legends, America has the Western, which is allowed to be heroic because, in contrast to the noir and the gangster movie (the protagonists of which operate on the margins of the law), the cowboy must be his own law in a forbidding and inhospitable landscape. There is no recourse for him, no alternative to individual action, so his comfort with violence is not transgressive but admirable.
Somewhere before 1970, though, the Western as a cinematic genre began a decline from which it has never recovered. Though some notable films in the genre were made and rightly praised (Dances With Wolves, Unforgiven, most recently the Coens’ remake of True Grit), they were all in some sense specialty or prestige movies: I have previously written at some length on Unforgiven’s effort at deconstructing the very mythology that it plays off of, while both Dances With Wolves and the new True Grit billed themselves, and were accepted, as American epics. But the Western ceased to be a reliable commercial draw; if you’re working in a genre where an Oscar nomination is a minimum requirement for box office success, you’re fighting an uphill battle. For some reason – and there are many possibilities – the Western could no longer capture the American imagination in quite the same way.
What does capture the imagination today is the superhero movie, a genre which on the face of it is wildly different. Where the Western is always rural, focused on the vastness of the plains and preoccupied with the rhythms and challenges of agrarian life, the superhero movie is instead always urban, featuring a city at risk that must be protected by a masked man with remarkable abilities. (A lone, and telling, exception: Ang Lee’s Hulk, which is not really worth seeing for any reasons other than academic ones but which is probably the most interesting effort within the genre.) The cowboy is a man whose mythic status arises only from his heightened resolve and skill; he may be more stoic and imperturbable, and may be a better shot, than the rest of us, but his troubles and trials are fraught with human danger. The superhero, by contrast, has supernatural powers (extreme wealth may sometimes be counted a supernatural power) and accordingly confronts more cosmic challenges.
For all those differences, I contend that the superhero movie (let’s refer to this subgenre as the ‘Super’ for linguistic ease) should be viewed as the truest modern descendant of the Western. However different they are, they are unified by the theme of heroism, which powers everything that happens within them. As with the cowboys that preceded them, some superheroes are heroic by nature (Superman, Spider-Man), others embrace heroism for external reasons (Batman’s family issues, Tony Stark’s need for attention), and yet more must accept the mantle reluctantly (Wolverine, the Hulk), but there is no moral ambiguity in what they do. There are no antiheroes here, only men and women who are in some way remarkable who act as their own agents, on the margin of the law but always for the greater good.
Both the Super and the Western, therefore, are profoundly mythological, but they are separated from fantasy and science-fiction (two genres whose defining characteristic is their impulse towards the manufacture of myth) by the fact that their mythologies are rooted in the modern world rather than in a far-off imagined other reality. From the 30s through the 50s – the decades when the Western was the defining genre of American cinema – the days of the frontier did not seem so far in the past. It was only officially declared closed in 1890, less than forty years before John Wayne began his film career, and up until the late 1910s, the majority of Americans still lived in rural areas. The setting and theme of the Western, then, was close to the remembered American experience, and the hardships and adventures of the cowboy hovered on the edge of the lived history of the population. Part of the power of myth is how deeply embedded it is within the collective psyche, shaping and being shaped by the people that own it, and when the winning of the West still existed within the realm of the communal memory, the Western was a natural vessel for the national myth.
By 2002, however, the Western was no longer relevant: an overwhelming majority of the nation’s population lives in cities and towns (82%, according to Wikipedia), and the experience of the metropolis, once found in only a few enclaves outside the Northeast, has become a central feature of American life. We still played ‘Cowboys and Indians’ when I was a kid, but for all intents and purposes the cowboy isn’t relevant enough to the collective experience to be the heroic center of an American myth. If we are to have heroes – heroes in the classical, Achillean sense, men who are greater and stronger and braver than we, in some way closer to gods than men – they must inhabit a world that we recognize.
Thus, while the Western shifted from its mythological past into a darker, more critical examination of the national experience, the Super transitioned from dime store fantasy to cultural phenomenon. When Bryan Singer turned his X-Men into a persecuted minority seeking protection within mainstream society, he firmly inserted them into a world recognizable in spirit as well as in form. With the fact that the superhero is necessarily a creature of the urban environment (not many things for Spider-Man to sling webs off of in rural Iowa, after all), it became possible for him to fill the heroic role that the cowboy no longer could.
At their worst (X-Men 3: The Last Stand) or most silly (Thor), Supers lose their focus on their urban environment and on the ordinary people that its superheroes are meant to protect, who become a faceless, abstract mass whose only role is to let the villain demonstrate his evil by not caring about them. At their best, though, their struggles and interactions become something like our own, stories not so different than those we tell all the time, but with the addition of characters so much larger than life that the stories must expand to fit them. That is why The Dark Knight is almost certainly the peak achievement of the type: it is not so much a Super as an urban crime epic that has expanded to accommodate a superhero and his unforgettable nemesis.
All of that brings us back to yesterday’s release of The Avengers, which, sight unseen, seems like little more than an attempt to pack as much superhero flesh into a two-hour run-time as possible. Early reports suggest that it’s more than that, and one pre-release article that I read suggested that it would be closer to a modern Greek pantheon, with gods running back and forth, backstabbing, being petty, laughing, and fighting, all on a grand scale, than deliberate formulaic overload. If that’s the case – if the heroes walk among us – then it may turn out to be an elevation of the genre. If not, well, at least I’ll enjoy the explosions.