Steven Spielberg believes Batman, Superman, Iron Man et al will soon be sharing a shallow grave with Liberty Valance, Rooster Cogburn and Shane. But do the two genres really compare?
Steven Spielberg believes comic-book films are doomed, at least until they rise once again from the ashes. “Right now the superhero movie is alive and thriving,” he told the Associated Press this week. “We were around when the western died and there will be a time when the superhero movie goes the way of the western. It doesn’t mean there won’t be another occasion where the western comes back and the superhero movie some day returns. I’m only saying that these cycles have a finite time in popular culture. There will come a day when the mythological stories are supplanted by some other genre that possibly some young film-maker is just thinking about discovering for all of us.”
Spielberg isn’t the first observer to compare superhero movies with westerns, and you can see his point. Not since the 60s, the last decade when cowboys and “indians” truly ruled the silver screen, has a single genre of films occupied as great a share of the overall film audience as comic-book movies do now. And there are many similarities between the two templates: both focus on heroism, often against a backdrop of violent conflict, and both highlight the moral rectitude of the strong standing up for the weak. Early western favourites such as Zorro and The Lone Ranger are clear influences on the masked crimefighter archetype of early superhero films.
The comic-book movie can even be seen to have followed a path towards ever increasing levels of sophistication well trodden by its cinematic forebear. Even the superhero movie’s critics – such as Joaquin Phoenix and Emma Thompson – would presumably admit that the standard of Marvel Studios’ bright and shiny, increasingly twinkle-toed 21st-century confections are a lot more watchable than 99% of the genre’s flat-footed 80s and 90s efforts. Likewise, many of the best westerns, from film-makers such as John Ford, Sergio Leone, Anthony Mann and Sam Peckinpah, are from the 50s, 60s and 70s – beginning more than half a century after the first western, The Great Train Robbery (1903).
If Spielberg is right, and superheroes do follow westerns into the wilderness, it’s most likely they will do so when the genre loses touch with what made it commercially viable in the first place. And here it’s harder to see a parallel. Iron Man and his pals might have to evolve into the equivalent of the morally nebulous, trope-reversing, acid western period into which its predecessor slipped just prior to its long goodbye.
But it’s hard to see how the slick Hollywood studio machine would allow that to happen. Edgar Wright’s efforts to depart from tried-and-tested formulas on Ant-Man were shot down by Marvel last year, while Josh Trank’s attempts to retool the Fantastic Four as a brooding, dialogue-heavy, indie-style drama saw the movie taken away from him before its miserable debut in cinemas. One of the most daring examples of comic-book film-making in recent times, Alex Garland’s Dredd, failed to find any traction at box offices outside the UK. Nor is there any sign on the 21st-century horizon of a dramatic shift towards more adventurous film-making, such as the one that inspired western film-makers to experiment from the late 60s onwards. Some might say, more’s the pity.
The advantage that Batman et al have over their sharp-shooting forebears is reflected in these movies’ international traction. In the decade when China is due to overtake the US as the largest box office, superheroes have proven popular across the world in a way the western would most likely never have managed. Just ask Disney, whose The Lone Ranger bombed even more dramatically in the world’s most populous nation (with just $12m in receipts) than it did at home.
Finally, it’s worth noting that comic-book movies have been in their pomp only since about the turn of the century, while the western was top dog for almost five decades from the 20s onwards. So Spielberg might have to play the long game if he really is hoping the genre will simply haemorrhage all its superpowers and fade from public view.