Tag Archives: Westerns

Another Space Cowboy

If you haven’t had the chance to see it yet, The Mandalorian is a fantastic miniseries set in the Star Wars world. It’s about a lone gunslinger/bounty hunter, the titular Mandalorian, and his adventures around the galaxy, which, right there, is a great conceit for a story. The Mandalorian, more so than any Star Wars story since the first act of A New Hope, really leans into its Western roots and mixes all those familiar tropes together into a delightful mélange and serves it back up as something we’ve seen before, and, despite not exactly rewriting the book, remains so fresh. 

Consider first the Western. Cowboy movies — which most Westerns almost invariably are — take place in a very specific time and place. They’re set after the American Civil War, but usually before the turn of the century. There’s a specificity to it existing in the shadow of the War that plays into its setting: the American West. Out past much of civilization, Westerns take place on the edges of society where people who find themselves listless in postbellum America go to try and carve out a new life. How much a Western makes use of this varies (compare For A Fistful of Dollars with The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly to see two movies by the same director which use different amounts of setting [and both excellently), but the threat or memory of war and the isolation are quintessential to it.

From there, more tropes emerge. The duel at high noon, the train robbery, the lone wanderer arriving fresh to town. These tropes and images draw from the time and setting of the Western, and even when freed of some of that specificity, it’s still possible to see its roots. 

The original Star Wars threw a lot of those Western tropes into a science fiction world. Luke Skywalker lives on a farm in the middle of nowhere; he and his aunt and uncle are homesteaders who’ve swapped Colorado for Tatooine. The Mos Eisley Cantina is an alien saloon, replete with the newcomer who’s out of his depth (that’d be Luke). Han Solo himself, with his vest, boots, and low-slung pistol, is a wide-brimmed hat away from being the quintessential cowboy. A New Hope uses these familiar images and ideas to keep us grounded while it’s throwing space wizards, giant ships, and grumpy robots at us. Couching the outlandish in the recognizable eases us into this world. And it works! By the time our heroes are escaping from Stormtroopers aboard the Death Star, those Western tropes are far in the rearview, but they got us to where we are.

The Mandalorian really leans into those cowboy movie roots of Star Wars. It takes place five years after Return of The Jedi; the Empire is defeated and the New Republic runs the show. But the scars of the war are still fresh, and we see them in lingering grudges against the Empire and memories of pro-Imperial sentiment. Appropriately, it takes place in the Outer Rim, far from the reaches of more orderly, more populated space. The people in the story exist on the fringes of society, and accordingly, have their own rules to get by. But make no mistake, the Mandalorian is as much a cowboy as Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name. He’s an outsider whom the townsfolk are wary of, showing up to collect bounties on outlaws. Both are also shown to have a moral code; they may not be the knights in shining armor of a fairy tale, but they ultimately will defend the weak and helpless (and maybe make a buck in the process). 

It’s possible to dismiss the Mandalorian’s conscience as a by-product of the show being produced by Disney, but those roots too are found in the Western. In The American West, David Hamilton Murdoch posits the Western genre as American mythmaking, an effort in the late 1800s and early 1900s to tell stories of what the United States and its people were about. The cowboy is at once both the embodiment of rugged American individualism and the inheritor of the mantle of the medieval knight errant. He is a man who’s strong enough to weather the wilds on his own, but he is also not one to turn down a noble quest. Sergei Leone may have muddied the image with his Spaghetti Westerns, but the myth of the cowboy shines on through.

The Mandalorian is not terribly original. One of its central conceits is borrowed from a classic samurai film; the fourth episode is an homage to The Magnificent Seven. The imagery of the show — the lone rider astride his steed in the sunset, the low angles during the showdowns — are ripped straight outta the library of the Western. And that’s okay! We enjoy the comfort of the familiar, and many of these tropes have survived for a reason (that is: they are very good storytelling devices). 

Ultimately, The Mandalorian essentially just a Western in space. Which is wonderful, because there will always be stories to tell and, by setting it in a galaxy far far away as opposed to a hundred and fifty years ago, the show takes the universality of the myth of the West and transmutes it into something bigger and for more people. The Mandalorian uses these established tropes and mythic elements to tell a story that feels at once new and ever so familiar. That it’s all executed brilliantly is really just the icing on the cake.

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The New Western

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.

…right?

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.

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