Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Spurs to Spandex: Why Westerns Died and Superheroes Fly

In his only DVD commentary, which accompanies his 1950 movie Winchester '73, Jimmy Stewart was asked about the enduring popularity of Westerns. In his own words, Stewart answered that he believed the Western was the essential version of the American identity, that it totally encapsulates the pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps, hard-work-makes-anything-possible American ethos. He believed that to this day we had maintained a frontier mentality, and in retelling the story of the United States' westward expansion we continued to tell stories that spoke meaningfully to our present-day lives. And for that reason, screen legend Jimmy Stewart felt the Western would remain enduringly popular for as long as people made movies.

Sorry, Jimmy.
Jimmy Stewart
"Well, this is what I think of YOU!"
For the last decade or more, there's been a new sheriff in town, and he wears spandex instead of spurs. And he can usually fly. And more often than not, he's super-well coiffed and bullets pretty much just bounce off of him. Because he's a superhero. I believe this shift in the genre balance is more meaningful than just a simple evolution of tastes. First, I think Hollywood has yet to understand (but is starting to) that "Superhero" has become an actual genre, and with that comes a tremendous degree of latitude that film executives are still unwilling to exploit, but that a market exists for. But second, and more importantly, I think this evolution in genre preference is actually a response to a much larger cultural shift that has changed the fundamental definition of what it means to be an American.
Captain America
"Pretty sure I'm still what it means to be American, bud."
In many ways, Westerns and Superhero Movies are identical. They are both action/adventure-oriented stories that 1) celebrate the "individual" as a type/archetype, 2) exist in a reality outside of the audience's own (past/future/alternate present) and so are essentially fantasies, and 3) are primarily concerned with the intersection of violence and power. While some movies are overtly and explicitly concerned with that question (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and Spider-Man, for instance), both genres are fundamentally undergirded by the push-pull between violence and power. In the Western, it's your outlaws and scheming land-grabbers pitted against the homesteader or lawman, and both sides are pretty much outfitted with the same gear -- your six-shooter and Henry rifle, or something similar. For Superhero Movies, it is generally the massive, superhuman power of the hero pitted against either the massive, superhuman power or the mechanical product of the massive, superhuman brain of the villain. It's the same struggle, but played out with different toys against a different backdrop. Both sides possess the tools of violence, but the struggle is between whether to use those tools for good or ill.

In the 21st century, then, we prefer our stories about outliers caught up in the battle between good and evil to be clothed in more capes and fewer chaps. More explosions, fewer horses. More stardust, less, well, actual dust. A quick look at BoxOfficeMojo bears this out. The box office-tracking site lists 55 Superhero Movies released since January 1, 2000, and only 32 Westerns in the same time period. That's not a tremendous difference, but take a look at the highest-grossing Western of all time, Dances with Wolves (yep, really), and its lifetime theatrical gross of $184 million. BoxOfficeMojo lists 18 Superhero Movies that have all eclipsed Wolves, all but one of which have come out in the last decade. Dances with Wolves came out 23 years ago. Even adjusted for inflation, there are at least seven Superhero Movies released since Wolves that have left it well in the dust.

If this is the case, if Superhero Movies have established themselves as their own genre and have taken the place of the Western, what does that mean for filmmakers and fans? A lot, naturally, but until the people who greenlight movies are hip to this transformation, we're not going to see much innovation. We can look at the incredible breadth of stories Westerns provided as a possible indicator of things to come. Tables were turned, where we began to see antiheroes and were asked to invest in the story from the "bad guy's" perspective, we saw stories of smaller lives touched by much larger struggles playing out around them, allegories for cultural and religious struggles, broken people forced into the hero mold and asked to do something beyond themselves, fringe voices telling familiar stories in entirely different ways, comedies, etc.

"But wait!" you may be saying, "We've already seen all of that in Superhero Movies!" Right. Because a genre establishes a set of tropes and the storyteller's creativity rearranges those pieces into something new within familiar boundaries. It's what allows audiences to experience something new while also getting exactly what they expected. The hang-up right now is the familiar fear-based decision-making process inside of Hollywood. Until a broader way of looking at this type of movie takes hold, the response you're most likely to get to a new idea (especially if it doesn't involve a pre-existing character, like, say, Stretch Armstrong...or Aquaman) is "Well, didn't such-and-such movie already do that?" I've run into this both as a writer and working in studio development. One case in particular involved a superhero comedy script that a manager sat on because somebody "already did a superhero comedy and it tanked," only to have the script for Kick-Ass come along a few months later and step into that gap.

Is it possible that a Superhero genre isn't large or diverse enough to contain that many stories, though? No. We have 80 years of superhero comics that refute that pretty definitively. Like anything, the quality of the storytelling will usually win out, especially as the market becomes more mature. I do not believe it can become saturated in any real sense, but expectations have to be adjusted. Not every movie with a cape or a costume will make $100 million. Chronicle didn't cost much, didn't have a huge marketing push, but it gave audiences a new twist and did well, despite not coming from a pre-existing property. With successes like that, and with the emergence of independent filmmakers stepping into the waters with films like the little-seen Super, I expect Hollywood will begin experimenting a little more, inasmuch as it ever really allows experimentation.

Why this surge in superhero popularity? After all, we've had superheroes in comic books since the 1930s, and superheroes like Flash Gordon in films since about the same time, but they never enjoyed the same broad-based appeal that they're seeing now. Imagine walking into Bob Evans' office at Paramount in 1972 and pitching The Avengers why don't you? I'll argue that this new swell in popularity is because the Superhero story, much more than the Western, has become the quintessential American story for today's audience. This is the genre -- for all of its fantasy -- that speaks most directly to our lives today.
The Avengers Godfather
"They're going to make him some shawarma he can't refuse."
It comes down to how we answer one, giant question: What really is the American Dream? As far back as Fitzgerald, we pretty much knew it wasn't simply amassing great gobs of money (although a few years after Gatsby we'd face a long American Nightmare when great gobs of money suddenly evaporated, and then we'd do it all over again 90 years later). The Declaration of Independence outlines the familiar "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," where the emphasis is on one's ability to pursue something that might make them happy without facing barriers based on race, creed, or color. We've done a pretty shaky job of that in the last 250 years, though, and these days people have pretty much figured that out. If that version of the American Dream has become so mist-enshrouded and distant that it may as well be a literal dream for all but a very few Americans, then what has taken its place? Hard work doesn't pay off like it used to. Many of the hardest working people in this country can barely keep a roof over their heads, and people who have played by the rules and "done everything right" can find themselves out of work for years and unable to repay medical or student loan debts.

Superheroes tend to have a couple of things in common: they exist in a primarily urban landscape, and they believe in magic. Just like their audiences. As a culture, we are far more likely to believe in magic today than in hard work, and not without reason. Sut Jhally, one of the foremost media scholars in the U.S., really doesn't like advertising. In Advertising and the End of the World he argues persuasively that the entire consumerist model is based on a belief in the magically transformative abilities of products. Listen up, guys, drinking poor, mass-produced beer will make beautiful women attracted to you. Buying this or that article of clothing or car will make your sad, dull life exciting and fresh! This bottle of household cleaner will unleash a muscular bald man who will scrub your floors! You get it, you've seen TV.

But reality has begun to approximate this magical aspect of our daily narrative. Peter Parker, Steve Rogers, Harry Potter, Carrie Underwood, Jennifer Hudson, Snooki, and all of the Kardashians share one thing in common: they were unknown, regular people who had something inside of them just waiting to be discovered and exploited on a larger stage. They were destined for greatness. We watch reality TV and Superhero Movies wishing that someone would see past our own humble situations, recognize our latent talent or nobility, and lift us out of our everyday lives. I mean, tell me that there's no magic in a world where a woman can make a sex tape with a mediocre rapper and then become so much more famous than that rapper that the entire rest of her family becomes famous. Tell me that's not magic.
This one. This one is like, the most famous one ever.
I don't think there's an antidote to this type of thinking, any more than there was an antidote to the glorification of a genocidal period of national history. In time, we become more educated, we perceive more of reality, or different aspects of it, and these observations inform our view of ourselves, both individually and collectively. We then seek out stories that speak to us. Today, and for some unknown period of time stretching out ahead of us, those stories will involve gods and goddesses...er, I mean knights, er...cowboys and Indians?

Oh, right. Superheroes.

There is probably a much better, longer, and more fully researched and articulated version of this idea that I could've written if I'd had a bunch of time, but you do what you can.