The superhero genre – since it’s become a genre unto itself and not a subset of science-fiction or action – is really taking off, in case you haven’t noticed. Between Marvel Studios putting out two movies a year, DC’s big plans to do big things, and the companies Marvel sold characters to over the years trying to make good on their investments. It’s big.
Some articles I’ve read online have likened the superhero genre to the western. It sounds a touch farfetched at first; the western’s about cowboys and lawless towns, superhero flicks are about people in costumes and their derring-do.
But the western is also in some ways a morality play. You’ve got the good cowboy and the bad one, the white hat and black hat. Good versus evil. Same with the superhero genre. Dark and brooding as Batman is, he’s fighting for good. The X-Men want acceptance and coexistence, as opposed to the Brotherhood’s want to dominate. Robert McKee’s description of the western; “a mythical golden age for allegories of good versus evil,” works equally well for the superhero.
The western was immensely popular for a period of time, with some of the earliest movies ever made showing shades of the genre. These films, particularly the ones most remembered (which I’ve found out are considered revisionist westerns, as they deconstructed a lot of tropes of the westerns that came before), feature elements that can be reliably found across the board. You’ve got the desolate town on the edge of civilization and the duel at high noon, for example. There’re the themes of lawfulness and lawlessness and doing wrong to do the right thing. Conventions are expected.
Likewise, the superhero genre, now reliably bringing in millions of dollars at the box-office, is arguably the closest thing we’ve got to a sure thing. Until recently, the structure and set up of superhero movies were reliably similar to one another. You had the hero getting powers, the hero figuring out what to do with his (because face it, just about every lead in a superhero film has been male) newfound powers, rises to the mantle of his responsibility, then goes to fight the villain who’s often a byproduct of his own call to heroism. Usually, if we’re watching a superhero movie, be it Batman Begins or Iron Man, we know what we’re getting into – and we’re watching it for that.
There’s the argument that the western afforded greater flexibility. Simpler sets and lower budgets meant just about anyone could take a stab at it. With a great range of voices involved, the western offered diverse takes on the themes of the genre which allowed it to grow into the esteem it holds today. The western could be about someone audiences had never heard about and would still be engrossing.
But superhero movies need massive budgets for intricate special effects and they need the comic book source to do well. They’re tied to studios and the money they afford, strangling out creativity and voices in favor of rolling in the dough. Hence the formula.
See, here’s where I think the superhero genre’s moved forwards, maybe even more so than the western. And I’m not talking about the smaller, independent ones like Chronicle; I mean Marvel’s tentpoles and the like. Over the past few years, we’ve seen superhero films going past what we’re expecting from them. The Winter Soldier was more like a spy thriller than your usual superhero set up; The Dark Knight was a crime movie; and Thor has heavy shades of fantasy. They remain expensive, but the movies show thematic and stylistic variance.
Guardians of the Galaxy may be most emblematic of superhero movies going forwards. For starters, Star-Lord and the others were hardly household names when the film was announced. The majority of the film’s audience wasn’t going to the movie because of the recognition of the name. Then Guardians hardly followed the typical superhero plot, eschewing it instead for the space opera. So here’s a superhero movie that feels very much unlike a superhero movie, yet still is one. Why?
At its core, Guardians has that central theme of a superhero film: good versus evil, where the hero has to overcome their flaws to defeat the villain. At the end of the day, that’s the kernel of the genre. Unlike the western, however, superhero films have a lot more flexibility setting-wise with how to explore it.
So here we are, on the verge of several, several new superhero movies over the next few years, with a big concern being that we’re gonna grow tired of them really soon. But give the genres similarly to the western, the western’s staying power in its heyday, and the comparative flexibility of the superhero film; I’m thinking we’ll be alright.