This week will see the release of Marvel’s Doctor Strange, the second film in the movie/comic juggernaut’s Phase 3. The beginning of Marvel’s rise to stardom and America’s obsession with superhero movies began back in 2008 with the release of Iron Man starring Tony Downey Stark Jr. and it has been going strong ever since, breaking blockbuster records and blowing the minds of everyone between the ages of 8 and 46, but especially in China. However, this is not the first time a movie genre has surged forth to capture our imaginations. Remember westerns? Well, even if you don’t you should, because the rise and fall of the western movie genre is a good precursor to what may one day happen to superhero movies…
Yippee Ki Up Up and Away
The American western genre was the premiere movie genre for much of the 20th century, starting way back in 1903 with the silent film, The Great Train Robbery. In a way it makes sense too. At the time the western defined what it meant to be American, rugged, good, and independent. It is also no coincidence that the genre changed over the decades, along with the American identity. During the World Wars cowboys were heroes taking the good fight to the frontiers. During the Cold War the cowboy became more complicated, often blurring the lines between hero and criminal, and by the time of Vietnam most cowboys had gone full anti-hero. The west changed from a pastoral landscape to a brutal and complicated place that could not be tamed. Still, by the late 1960’s the genre of the western had mostly fallen out of fashion. America had had its fill of white hats and black hats and gunfights, and the kids of those later eras moved on to admire different types of heroes.
Similarly, comic books have been around since before World War II, and have always had a steady if not stereotyped following, but starting in the early 21st century their popularity and the popularity of superhero movies exploded into major blockbuster bucks. Now every studio trying to make a name for itself is jumping on the cape and tights band wagon. Yet, before we get to that we need to look at the factors of the early and mid-2000’s and why superheroes came into mainstream popularity at all. It certainly has something to do with the rise of CGI and special effects, as well as the Millennial generation that came into adulthood about the time Sam Rami slapped a spider-man outfit on Toby McGuire, but there are other factors that contribute as well.
We cannot forget the events of 2001. 9/11 had an incredible impact on our culture and our American identity, with full ramifications that we are only starting to become fully aware of now. After those horrific events and the decade after it we were left feeling vulnerable. So we retreated to stories about heroes with extraordinary powers and noble intentions that saved us from the unthinkable things in the world. Watching heroes soar through the sky reminded us that there was good in the world, and that one person could make a difference and be the hero. In that way, superhero movies are not dissimilar to the esterns of the 1920’s and 1930’s. They are both about a lone hero bringing the good fight to the chaotic and uncivilized world of the frontier, often working outside the confines of the law. During World War I, America watched the major European powers descend into savage madness, creating no man’s lands of mines and trenches and blood. At the time westerns reminded Americans that the lone hero could go into that wilderness and come out victorious and that governments were not always better at keeping the peace than a solitary hero.
Shootout at the OK… Whatever
During their run Westerns changed as audiences changed. Tales of good vs bad or stories of the “civilized” white man vs. the “uncivilized” native gave way to stories about gritty heroes or even outright outlaws. The western genre fractured into dozens of sub-genres, including Noir Westerns, Martial Arts Westerns, Space Westerns, Spaghetti Westerns, and many more. These differences arose due to a combination of natural cultural pressures, an influx of new directors and talents from all over the world, and the ever changing face of the American audience. Cowboys became a symbol for the American dream and like that dream they grew with each new generation. Superhero movies are now moving in that direction.
Think of the superhero movies that have come out over the past six years. Ant-Man, was a Heist movie. Captain America: Winter Soldier was a Spy movie. Guardians of the Galaxy was a Space Opera. Doctor Strange will be a Magic/Fantasy movie, and Batman v. Superman was a Crap movie. Maybe it is the nature of the beast, but these tent pole genres cannot sustain the same old stories over and over again. If they want to continue being relevant to our lives and our tastes they must continue to change to suite our whims. After all, we may have started the genre of the super-powered hero because of our desire to see the good and just hero, but 15 years down the line we have changed and our need for heroes has changed. Thus, superhero movies -like the western genre before it- will change to fit those needs. Unfortunately, there is only so much the genre can bend and stretch before it eventually runs out of steam.
Phase Too Many
Marvel Phase 3 will come to an end with the maybe two-parter Infinity War in 2019, but after that, the slate is open to any possibilities that Marvel may have in store for its multiple franchises. Quite frankly, we find ourselves being a little skeptical about the future of the genre beyond that. From the outsider’s perspective it seems as if Marvel planned this far and then had a good laugh about it, as if never expecting to reach a seemingly unbelievable goal. Now that the finish line is very much within reach we have to wonder what the comic giant will do as the contracts for its biggest budget heroes expire. They are not going to quit. There is still money left on the table to grab, but as DC has shown us: the simple act of just putting people in capes on a screen only to pull in box office money is a surefire way to kill the enthusiasm of moviegoers, and maybe the genre as a whole. We want to have faith in Marvel and its ability to sustain the ever growing Jenga tower that it has created, but we are also students of history and have seen how this has turned out in the past.
We still get westerns every now and then, though they never tend to do well at the box office, even when they have Johnny Depp being culturally insensitive. The best westerns today are the ones we barely even think of as westerns, such as Firefly or Westworld. Yet, for the most part the western died because it became bloated and ultimately irrelevant to modern audiences at the time. As more Americans moved to the suburbs and cities, the frontier no longer represented the American landscape. The idea of the lone man with the gun died a slow death with the rise of hippies and free love. The audiences of the 60’s and 70’s grew apart from the western because it stopped being able to give them what they were looking for. Those ideas of the American persistence and the underdog are now expressed in sports stories; stories about the little man versus the system are better suited to political thrillers; and the idea of the American hero is now accomplished by a man holding a red-white-and-blue shield, instead of a six-shooter.
In the end, we have to remember that the superhero genre was born from the western genre. The may not wear white hats, but the heroes of superhero movies are closer to the lone ranger than we sometimes admit. This also means that the superhero genre has many of the same frailties and shortcomings as its predecessor. The field of caped heroes is becoming bloated and we are heading for a bubble bursting. It may not be today or tomorrow or even in ten years, but it will happen. We are not hoping for the end of this golden age of comic book heroes, but we must also be prepared for it as well. The attention span of audiences are fickle, and even more so now that we have social media and the Internet over-saturating everything we touch. We do not know what the next big genre will be, but our children or our grandchildren will eventually find it to be a better representation of their heroes and dreams, and then like the lone ranger, superheroes will ride off into that wild blue yonder of obscurity.