Westerns evolved, out of necessity. Can superhero movies do the same?

superhero movies vs. westerns

“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” opens May 5.

What happens when a genre goes bust?

No one is giving up on superhero movies yet. Disney has too many of its plans pinned on Marvel, and Warner Bros. is nearly as dependent on DC. Like it or not, there are plenty of comic-book films still slated for multiplexes (the eagerly awaited “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” opens May 5).

But there have been some disturbances in the multiverse.

Although there was a time when billion-dollar box office returns weren’t uncommon, the sole superhero film to hit that mark this decade was “Spider-Man: No Way Home” in 2021. “Eternals,” released the same year, was a decided flop. More recently, “Black Adam,” “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” and “Shazam! Fury of the Gods” have been financial disappointments, too.

Angela Bassett in “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.”

Admitted, moguls still have a few things to smile about. Last year’s “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” was a hit, and “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” made some $850 million dollars. But that’s more than a half billion dollars less than the first “Black Panther” grossed, and the original also cost less to make.

Is the genre finally running out of gas?

It has happened before in Hollywood.

In the early ’30s, for example, mobsters and monsters began to dominate movie screens. The Depression had driven away audiences and studios needed to bring them back, so they tried sensation and special effects. (A winning formula they would return to again in the ’50s, when they had to lure people away from their TV sets, and the ’80s, when they were first competing with video games).

It worked, but it worked a little too well. The ultra-violent gangster pictures — “The Public Enemy,” “Little Caesar,” “Scarface” — brought complaints from civic organizations that Hollywood was glamorizing criminals. The monster movies — “Frankenstein,” “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” “Island of Lost Souls” — grew so gruesome that Britain, a major market, refused to import any more of them.

Facing criticism and censorship, Hollywood pulled back, and both genres went into a decline. Jimmy Cagney and Edward G. Robinson started concentrating on more heroic roles. American studios didn’t even make any horror films for a couple of years (and when they started again, in ’39, the movies were definitely more family friendly).

The Western — probably the American genre — faced other challenges. They are ones the superhero industry could learn from.

A scene from “The Great Train Robbery.”

Born with 1903’s “The Great Train Robbery” — shot partly in South Mountain Reservation — the Western would produce some of the industry’s greatest stars, from William S. Hart to John Wayne. And its elements were adaptable for a variety of budgets and audiences, from the cheap Saturday-matinee serials made for kids to thoughtful, adult dramas like “Red River” and “The Searchers.”

But then, like the superhero film, the Western went from being popular to being inescapable. It spread from movie theaters to TV, taking over hours of programming. (In 1959, America had only three national, commercial networks — and 30 different prime-time Westerns.) It became predictable, too. White hats, black hats, heroic loners and plucky dancehall girls — it all began to feel the same. And who needs to see something they’ve seen before?

But then, in the ‘60s and ‘70s, a few smart filmmakers began to rethink the genre.

Directors like Sam Peckinpah and Arthur Penn took the old tropes and twisted them, turning out Westerns that were really about the price of violence and the pain of racism, and often served — not so subtly — as parables about Vietnam. Clint Eastwood — both as a star and a director — explored themes of masculinity and revenge.

Eastwood said goodbye to the form more than 30 years ago, with the brilliant “Unforgiven,” both a summation of his Western roles and a criticism of what had always driven the genre — myth-making and vengeance. And as he rode away, many audience members followed him.

The genre never quite recovered, although Kevin Costner has been doing his part for years. Starting with “Silverado” in 1985, he has starred in, and often directed, some solid Westerns — “Dances With Wolves,” “Wyatt Earp,” “Open Range.” Lately, he has been even busier on TV with “Yellowstone,” a collaboration with writer/director Taylor Sheridan, whose other neo-Western credits include “Wind River” and “Hell or High Water.”

If the genre is still alive, after 120 years, it’s because artists like them have kept reinvigorating it with new kinds of characters, new attitudes, new settings.

And there may be something there for the comic-book gang to think about.

The answer to a few flops isn’t simply digging deep to come up with a superhero who hasn’t been on screen before. (Had anyone, outside of die-hard fans, even heard of “The Eternals”?) Nor is it simply redoing the same stories with different casts (eventually audiences are going to realize they don’t need yet another Batman origin story.)

No, the best solution isn’t repeating the past, but learning from it.

Clint Eastwood in “Unforgiven.”

“Guardians of the Galaxy” was a hit (and “Vol 3” will undoubtedly be one as well) not because the characters weren’t overly familiar, but because it had a hip, self-mocking attitude. Ryan Reynolds’ “Deadpool” wasn’t a smash because of its R-rated language and violence, but because that was part of its deeper disrespect for tired taboos and filmmaking conventions.
Both DC and Marvel have been praised for their creations of an “extended universe,” an interconnected series of films in which stories are told over several movies, and some characters are there only to prepare you for their reappearance in a different installment down the road. It’s clever, it’s intricate — and it’s ultimately too smart for its own good.

Who wants to buy a movie ticket to find out the film only really makes sense if you’ve been watching the tie-in TV show? Or meet new characters only to have them suddenly disappear? Or reach the end, after two hours, only to find it’s no ending at all?

There is a path back for Marvel and DC. And it’s based on finding a new path — off-kilter takes, stand-alone adventures, stories as wild as the special effects, performers as big as their characters, directors who will take real risks.

And, maybe, just making fewer, better movies.


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