This Century’s Superhero Films: A Similar Trend to the Golden Age of Westerns?
Cinema audiences appear to be caught in the middle of a superhero surge. Since the beginning of the noughties there’s been a flourish of film releases about costumed crusaders defending the public from an assortment of unsuccessful arch nemeses. Now with The Avengers becoming the third highest grossing film of all time, the relatively unnecessary The Amazing Spider-Man still making about $600 million worldwide this year, The Dark Knight Rises breaking $1 billion worldwide and Man of Steel likely to bring in big numbers too, one can’t help but ask: will it ever end?
Superhero films tend to be compared to the zombie or vampire screen trends, but a better comparison can be found with Westerns. Both are primarily action genres, though superhero films have a greater tendency towards the spectacle of destruction: namely, blowing things up.
Westerns were immensely popular in the silent era but their popularity largely faltered until John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939). This was the prominent film that sky-rocketed what came to be known as ‘The Golden Age of Westerns,’ which lasted until the end of the 1950s and mid 60s (but some argue it lasted until the 70s). Classic Westerns had lone gunslingers taming the uncivilised structure of western USA. Similarly, superhero movies have extraordinary individuals who generally must keep their identities hidden while they defend Americans from our time’s undesirables. The most common of which seems to be the US military, who appear as villains in the two Hulk movies, X2 and X-Men Origins: Wolverine, or weapons-technology manufacturers in Iron Man and Spider-Man, among others. This demonisation of the military-industrial complex is attributable to wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. With our real world protectors in disgrace, we look to a new force for justice. Superheroes, like the gunslingers in the old West, represent a high moral standard that will not give in to oppression, and are willing to fight to achieve a safe and equal society.
While the superhero genre existed before the noughties, the most popular being the (Christopher Reeve) Superman franchise and the various incarnations of Batman, this Golden Age really only kicked off with X-Men in 2000. The film grossed almost $300 million, which prompted the industry (with Marvel and DC Comics) into fast-tracking countless superhero productions. This explosion eventually turned out a modern classic: The Dark Knight. Christopher Nolan toned down the cliché and flamboyant nature of previous films – action movie quips and camp costumes – and took the necessary explosions and violence into a more gritty and realistic world. The hero – who is endowed with billions of dollars rather than superpowers – faced frightening moral dilemmas, though he still performed impeccably. In The Golden Age of Westerns there was never any question as to whether the protagonist was the good guy, and that confusion is nearly completely absent from superhero films too.
However, the quantity of superhero films has also seen a tragic downside. In fact, the negatives could possibly outweigh the positives. Was Kick-Ass worth The Green Hornet? Was Batman Begins worth Catwoman? Was the Spider-Man trilogy worth Daredevil, Elektra, two Fantastic Four films, two Punisher films and two Ghost Rider films? The consequences of this superhero trend are evident. These embarrassments reflect the ratio of quality to quantity in the industry at large. The critically unpopular films were often financially lucrative anyway; Fantastic Four (2005) more than tripled its $100 million dollar budget despite universally scornful criticism.
The end of The Golden Age of Westerns obviously didn’t mean the end of Westerns; the genre entered a new phase which revised the traditional ideology and themes of their predecessors. ‘Revisionist Westerns’ gave us more interesting and subversive films like Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy, Once Upon a Time in the West, and also more modern productions like The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford or the HBO series Deadwood. Here the protagonists are often as selfish and savage, if not more so, than the land and the natives they claim to be civilising. Perhaps in the continuing onslaught of superhero films we may see the prevailing ideology revised. Perhaps superheroes will defend the world from that which threatens their personal interests, rather than what threatens society.
This Golden Age of Superheroes clearly isn’t ending very soon, not only are more superhero blockbusters opening soon, but superheroes who have never been seen on the big screen before are also in pre-production stages, with reboots also being planned; DC are looking to create a shared film universe in the coming years, much like Marvel has done. A complete revision of traditional superhero formula might wait until box office figures show a downturn in interest.