Last year, Steven Spielberg doubled down on a long held theory among cinephiles and film lovers: superhero movies are the modern Western, and like the Western, one day they will no longer be with us. It is fair to say that the online reaction, from trade papers to internet forums, was not pleasant.
“We were around when the Western died, and there will be a time when the superhero movie goes the way of the Western,” Spielberg said in the much linked to Associated Press interview. “It doesn’t mean there won’t be another occasion where the Western comes back, and the superhero movie someday returns. Of course, right now the superhero movie is alive and thriving. I’m only saying that these cycles have a finite time in popular culture.”
And quite honestly, Steven Spielberg is right. The superhero movie is a 21st century variation on many of the Western’s most alluring draws and motifs, and eventually the newer form will also face an abdication of its box office throne.
This isn’t to say that the superhero movie is showing any signs of immediate danger or slowing down. Indeed, even if both Spielberg’s Jurassic World and fellow Universal tentpole Furious 7 out-grossed Marvel’s Avengers: Age of Ultron, that costumed house party still earned $1.4 billion, and there are few indicators of oversaturation at the moment. How could there be when the genre is entering its most decadent year yet with seven releases in 2016 (of which Civil War is another bonafide hit)?
No, the superhero movie is the defining entertainment of our time, just as the Western (along with the musical) was for another. But this is not why the prescient analogy should be made. While not quite a one-to-one comparison, the Western and superhero movies share more commonalities than they do differences.
Superhero fans often like to suggest that there are fewer comic book movies released in a year than there were Westerns at the peak of that genre, and that Westerns are also historical period pieces, as opposed to larger-than-life fantasies. On the first count, there were admittedly more Westerns released by Hollywood studios during their heyday in the system’s Golden Age—but that is true of all theatrical output from the seven biggest studios (MGM, Warner Bros., RKO, 20th Century Fox, Paramount, Universal, and Columbia) to Republic Pictures and the rest of the Poverty Row B-studios of yesteryear: in 1952, MGM released 39 films and then 44 movies the year after that; Paramount also produced 24 films in 1952 and then 21 movies the following year.
Today, studios are shrinking their focus, such as Paramount continuing to pursue its 21st century ethos of more tentpoles (Transformers) and micro-budget films (Paranormal Activity), and fewer medium budget or even “prestige” pictures. Hence, the studio releasing only 11 movies in 2015 (many of which are co-productions or distribution only), which is incidentally the same number as Disney, distributor of 2015’s two biggest superhero blockbusters.
While the advent of digital media and the democratization of filmmaking might mean there are more independent films now being released in speciality theaters, on VOD, or simply via social media (though not anything like independent cinema’s own 1990s glory days), the massive cultural footprint of big budget Hollywood studio moviemaking has decreased significantly in quantity. That is an inevitable result when only so many movies can cost over a quarter-billion dollars with pop culture-shattering marketing included.
All this is to say that the build-up of nine months of marketing for Avengers 2 is arguably comparable in zeitgeist penetration to a half-dozen annually released Gene Autry movies.
But on the other major dismissal of Spielberg’s comments—that Westerns were anchored to a specific time and place, unlike the presumably timeless mythological quality of superheroes—this is where detractors miss the forest for the trees (or cactuses). In truth, the appeal of the Western in pop culture has as much to do with historic fact as any post-Tolkien fantasy has to do with 13th century papal decrees.
The Western is the quintessential and original American mythology—an excuse to play with archetypes just as primordial as masked demi-gods. Before capes, six-shooters and spurs were the currency of U.S. fantasy, and it was one about the rugged individual manifesting his own destiny through physical force or righteousness. Good and evil, pacifism and justified violence, love and lust, tolerance and bigotry: these were all but a tumbleweed on the unlimited landscape that the Western was allowed to traverse for several generations of book readers and moviegoers, raised on the most simplistic derring-do of idealized adventures.
That is not to say that Westerns were simplistic; the best ones never were. However, much like the comic book origins that materialized during the same period when the Western was at its pop culture peak, the most straightforward forms of good vs. evil, heroes vs. villains, and (regrettably) cowboys vs. Indians were what generations of children were reared on. It’s a morally black-and-white fantasia that would inform adult storytelling both in film and on the page.
This is what Westerns and superhero movies truly have in common; they are both an outlet for adults to grapple with their own anxieties and moral ambiguities on a mythic stage, scorching self-doubts with a red sun spotlight. They’re American passion plays where children learn social morality and adults find comforting escapism in the increasingly complex evolution of their former childhood daydreams. But while superhero movies still cling preciously to formula, their destiny might be written in how the Western always pushed itself and evolved with a century—which perhaps explains what killed it.
“Just when you think the Western has been exhausted, that there’s nowhere else to go with it, something will come along with a new slant on things. It’s very exciting when that happens.” These are words that Clint Eastwood shared with Martin Scorsese for a 1995 documentary on American cinema. It is the logic which allowed the legendary filmmaker to make something as challenging as his Western swan song, Unforgiven (1992). And it’s also the driving force behind the Western myth of the last century, and the costumed one of our current one.
As mentioned, Westerns have endured in the American imagination for over a hundred years. But their status as something grandiose and operatic, an abstract idea greater than the dime novels and pulp stories that etched the first draft of mythmaking, came about in large part due to filmmaking.
John Ford, one of Hollywood’s most legendary directors and its greatest Western storyteller, often remarked that there is no moving image more beautiful than a man on a horse. It is the promise of infinite possibilities and self-realization. It might be why the first American narrative film was a Western, Edward S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery (1903), and why some of the first movie stars out of Hollywood were Western icons Tom Mix and William Hart, who incidentally were still in the genre’s infancy as they were able to meet the real Wyatt Earp before his death in 1929.
But it was Ford and his ilk who progressed the genre past the silent era of boyhood heroics, giving birth to the images people usually associate with a “Western.” Ford’s first collaboration with then-unknown John Wayne, Stagecoach, came out in 1939 and already the cultural relevancy of the genre was on display.
Unlike the singing cowboy adventures of Roy Rogers, Ford grandly introduced John Wayne to moviegoers in his favorite location, Monument Valley. The camera pulls up on Wayne like it’s as awe-struck and intimidated to meet his gaze as the other characters. Together, they’re riding on a stagecoach from Arizona to New Mexico sometime in 1880 (and second star to the right). To be sure, this is a fantasy, but not one like typical Saturday matinees. John Wayne is the Ringo Kid, a fugitive who is running from the law. He joins the central band of heroes on their journey to escape Apache Indians, but he also is primarily concerned with avenging the death of his father and brother at the hands of other outlaws.
In the film’s climax, and despite the protests from the Ringo Kid’s love interest Dallas (Claire Trevor), a prostitute with a heart of gold, Wayne’s hero is allowed by a lawman to seek his justice as a vigilante inside city limits. After killing the Plummer gang, the U.S. Marshal (George Bancroft) allows both Ringo and Dallas to skip town and not face the prosecutions of an unfair system. He’s the hero that the town deserves, but not the one it needs right now.
Stagecoach was a breath of fresh air for a genre many considered played out and mostly for children, because it humanized its archetypes with real blemishes and flaws, including criminal activity, alcoholism, post-war prejudices, and doing what you need to survive (prostitution). It also reflected the Western hero as not a moral authority in the government, but as an outsider who has been cheated by an imperfect system.
Ultimately, it is a mirror of a real-life society reaching the end of a decade-long Great Depression where banks and institutions left many unfairly out of work and as desperate as the protagonists. Similar to that same year’s less memorable Jesse James at WB—which romanticized bank robbers for the Depression era with revisionist history—modern and serious demons were being exorcised in the comforting notion of childhood escapism.
The evolution of this can be simply traced by following the filmic history of Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer, a man who foolishly led 225 cavalrymen to certain death against the Lakota and Cheyenne at the Battle of Little Bighorn. The vainglorious leader was depicted as a martyred peacemaker when he was played by Errol Flynn in They Died with Their Boots On (1941). Then again, that flick dropped in a year when America’s entrance into World War II appeared inevitable.
But by 1948, John Ford, who also served as a commander and head of a photographic unit in the U.S. Navy, could at least question ignorant military leadership with the real-life conflict now settled overseas. In Fort Apache, Ford and Henry Fonda depicted Custer in all but name as a stubborn and prideful fool that gets his heroic and lovable boys killed, with only John Wayne being the wiser as the cavalry dutifully glorifies his failing in the other fallen heroes’ memories.
And when Little Big Man finally rolled around in 1970, America was entrenched in an endless and unwinnable war in Vietnam. This movie still articulates the national morale amongst the young and dying when Dustin Hoffman’s titular hero crosses path with a deluded, dangerous, and flatly evil Custer (Richard Mulligan), who slaughters hundreds of lives with no rhyme or reason.
The Western was a mythical, psychic expression of every American thought in mainstream conversation. This is hardly removed from the modern world that saw real-life tragedies birth the superhero craze in which we currently live. It’s no coincidence that the first major superhero movie of the 21st century to be a pop culture phenomenon was 2002’s Spider-Man. After all, it was the first summer movie after the tragic Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, and it offered pure reassurance with its kid from Queens fighting aerial villains in the New York canyons—he is even aided in the fight by the Big Apple’s hometown pride during the final act.
As the horrors of 9/11 faded more into context with the Bush administration’s never-ending War on Terror, multiple headlines about detention and torture, and a worldwide loss of confidence in the sole superpower, superhero movies slowly stopped reflecting Sam Raimi’s shiny optimism in favor of Christopher Nolan’s shrouded ambiguity and societal angst in The Dark Knight trilogy. Super-villains suddenly appeared closer to terrorists who execute prisoners on viral videos and cable news, and shoot up public gatherings for no discernable reason other than the occasional bit of zealous ideology.
Even as the grim grays of the Nolan movies seemed to likewise wash away from the genre as we entered the Obama Years, the economic insecurity reared up in Nolan’s final Batman film, and new more visible phobias blur into even Marvel’s rigid assembly line formula. For what else is the MacGuffin of Captain America: The Winter Soldier than a thinly veiled analogy of the NSA’s unchecked ability to spy on citizens’ email and digital lives? Even if the Marvel formula smoothed the edges of discomfort (it’s really an evil Nazi cell inside the NSA SHIELD as opposed to the organization itself), it is still a blatant instance of a superhero righting our own current social woes.
The best Westerns also had this paradoxically timeless and viscerally immediate effect. High Noon (1952) is an obvious metaphor for the Red Scare and McCarthyism since the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) was literally blacklisting the film’s screenwriter Carl Foreman as he finished the script.
In High Noon, Gary Cooper is a U.S. Marshal that is told men who want to kill him are coming to town. His new Quaker bride, Amy Fowler Kane (Grace Kelly), begs her groom to run away on a train with her; the rest of the town’s locals merely sit by, too scared to lift a finger to help Marshal Kane face what otherwise will be certain death when he is outgunned 10-to-one. But Cooper stands his ground, and only finds true solace in his wife who must abandon her religious beliefs in order to save her husband’s life.
It’s a darker film than most Westerns with nary an action scene until the climax. Instead, it is marked by the anticipation of annihilation, much like Foreman must have felt as he stood before HUAC and refused to rat out colleagues. As a consequence, he was blacklisted and fellow producer Stanley Kramer had Foreman’s name as a co-producer scrubbed from the film’s credits.
Foreman had to flee to England before the picture’s release in order to find work. And for what it’s worth, John Wayne despised High Noon, calling it un-American and saying he “would never regret having helped run [Foreman] out of the country.” Indeed, the Western became a form of political discourse as Wayne and director Howard Hawks mounted a political rebuttal to High Noon with Rio Bravo (1959).
But even Wayne’s conservative politics could change with the times. Depicted as a mighty hero who was unafraid of savage Indians in Stagecoach, by 1956 he had returned to Monument Valley with John Ford for The Searchers, a film where he was both the central protagonist and antagonist. The film is as much about Wayne’s Ethan Edwards searching for a reconciliation between his humanity and his bigotry as it is about a wayward uncle (Wayne) reluctantly teaming with his adopted, one-eighth Comanche nephew (Jeffrey Hunter) to find a missing niece.
The Searchers is a masterwork the likes of which the superhero genre has yet to offer (though The Dark Knight comes close). And it’s another film that blurs myth and history, both of which are wonderfully unpacked and extrapolated in Glenn Frankel’s The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend. Here, Ford adapts the legend (as well as Alan Le May’s novel) about a young woman raised to be a Comanche on the Texan frontier and turns it into something profound about the ugliness of American racism that Ford and Wayne have both propagated in their own films and off-screen.
Ethan Edwards at first wants to rescue his kidnapped niece out of love, but after years have passed, she has grown up to marry a Native American and she’s been assimilated into their culture. Upon this realization, Ethan’s own prejudices lead him to decide he will kill his niece out of love (for what is worse than being defiled by a Comanche’s marriage bed?), and the ending is as much his part-Indian protégé trying to prevent Ethan from his evilest impulses, as it is a fight between cowboys and Indians.
The movie concludes with Ethan not killing her, but he abandons her to a life of darkness in civilization that will never embrace her “tainted” history as one of their own while he too remains an outsider, alone and weary in Monument Valley’s harsh sun.
It is the kind of gnawing ambiguity that both helped Westerns reach new heights and ultimately fade away.
In the end, the Western has proven more flexible than superhero movies have to date. They could be genuine comedies (Cat Ballou), self-aware meditations on their own dishonesty (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance), or eventually even foreign films that are reconfigured as pulpy epics of biblical proportion (anything Sergio Leone directed, but especially The Good, the Bad and the Ugly).
Yet, they ended.
There is a multitude of factors to this demise, including Westerns becoming too bleakly cynical of their own preciousness, whether to great results (McCabe and Mrs. Miller) or lesser ones (Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid). But this dose of cold water reality was largely due to why they were already dying: the next generation didn’t want them.
The Baby Boomers grew up on just as many Westerns as their parents. They watched Disney’s Davy Crockett on television and listened to Buddy Holly sing “That’ll Be the Day” (a quote from The Searchers). It was their parents’ entertainment. It was also the kind of black-and-white and conservative leaning wish fulfillment that many of the older generation in Washington probably related to (along with the “lessons” of World War II) when they escalated Vietnam toward American involvement throughout the 1960s. The same year that the Civil Rights Act was passed, but the battle against Southern bigotry was only beginning, the Gulf of Tonkin sounded the call to battle—a cry that Western icons like John Wayne trumpeted beforehand in 1960’s dreadful The Alamo and only echoed louder once American boys were dying in the swamps with 1968’s egregious propaganda, The Green Berets (1968).
While Spaghetti Westerns were flourishing in Italy and Spain during the ‘60s, the studio system was dying in Hollywood, as stars now had full agency, and studios could not understand why teenagers didn’t give a damn about Rex Harrison singing in Doctor Doolittle (1967). There were more great Hollywood Westerns that demystified the appeal like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), but more of them leaned on nihilism and a type of ugly revisionism which still failed to appeal to a drafted youth lost in its own culture war.
Look no further than box office flop Doc (1971), a Western that reimagines Wyatt Earp and company as not only bullies, but corrupt government officials who straight up murder unarmed Clanton gang members at the O.K. Corral and get away with it, all while building a “more perfect” society.
Thus, the Western died around the same time that Steven Spielberg and the film school generation—Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Brian De Palma, John Milius—were coming up.
Does this mean the superhero movie will also fade away one day? Yes. Nothing lasts forever, and no genre has been popular indefinitely—albeit, the Western perhaps had the longest run since Ford reinvigorated it in 1939 and until its gradual vanishing during the 1970s (capped off by the catastrophic Heaven’s Gate in 1980). And just as it took a massive event of cultural and sociological trauma to usher in the age of superhero movies as a dominant genre after 9/11, I imagine that it will take one of equal magnitude or generational changeover for the superhero genre to ever reach Heaven’s Gate territory.
Even so, the Western has never fully left us. In the 1990s, it had a brief revival with both Dances with Wolves (1990) and Unforgiven winning the Oscar for Best Picture, and Tombstone (1993) just being a terrific piece of entertainment and box office gold. More recently, the Coen Brothers’ True Grit remake in 2010 and Quentin Tarantino’s Southern fried spaghetti, Django Unchained (2012), proved that the Western can not only still make money on a given day, but that it is now more respectable and award-friendly than it ever was in the past. This nostalgia is pulsating through Tarantino’s next Spaghetti Western-meets-Stagecoach, The Hateful Eight. It also informs The Revenant, a new Western from Birdman director Alejandro G. Iñárritu. Both are due out on Christmas.
It is unlikely the Western will ever be what it once was, but it’ll never fully ride into the sunset either. So, superhero fans need to stop clenching their fists in anguish at Steven Spielberg for stating the obvious. There will likely always be superhero movies now. Just be prepared for the day when you will not have eight coming out in a year. That might actually be a blessing.
You can follow (or duel) David Crow on Twitter.
This article was first published on Sept. 15, 2015.