Even if you haven’t actually seen one, we can all picture a stereotypical Western… a Man with No Name comes into town, minding his own business, and after trying to avoid it ends up having to Get Involved, thanks to an evil mayor/sheriff/brothel owner/. He doesn’t really have a past, except for some vague sense of dread/sorrow from something that Went Wrong. And in the end, he rides off Into The Distance.
Now, not all Westerns went this way, but a large percentage of them did. Westerns were arguably the most dominant cinematic form of the ’50s and ’60s, a staple of both high-end movies (John Ford, Howard Hawks) and low-end flicks (The Lone Ranger).
While Westerns are mostly remembered through Baby Boomer nostalgia (the Gold Standard of nostalgia), they probably more accurately reflect the generation that made them, the “Greatest Generation” (take that, Ancient Rome). The self-reliance, the ignoring of personal feelings, the kicking-ass-and-taking-names… that sounds more Greatest than Boomer.
The Westerns were always the example of a dominant genre… until recently. Because comic book/superhero movies have marked the past decade as much as Westerns defined previous ones.
In the past decade alone, we’ve had a Spider-Man trilogy, with an upcoming restart; two different reboots for Superman; and three interchangeably decent actors playing The Hulk (Eric Bana, Edward Norton, and Mark Ruffalo).
According to Wikipedia, here’s the movies based on comic books or graphic novels that have been made released since 2002:
30 Days of Night; 30 Days of Night:Dark Days; 300; Alien vs. Predator; Alien vs Predator:Requiem; American Splendor; Art School Confidential; Batman Begins; The Dark Knight; Blade II; Blade:Trinity; Bulletproof Monk; Captain America:The First Avenger; Catwoman; The Crow:Wicked Prayer; Daredevil; Elektra; Fantastic Four; Fantastic Four:Rise of the Silver Surfer; Ghost Rider; Green Lantern; Constantine; Hellboy; Hellboy II:The Golden Army; A History Of Violence; Hulk; The Incredible Hulk; Iron Man; Iron Man 2; Jonah Hex; Kick-Ass; The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen; The Losers; Son Of The Mask; Men In Black II; The Punisher; Punisher:War Zone; Red; Road To Perdition; Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World; Sin City; Spider-Man; Spider-Man 2; Spider-Man 3; The Spirit; Superman Returns; Surrogates; TMNT; Thor; Timecop 2:The Berlin Decision; V For Vendetta; Wanted; Watchmen; Whiteout; X2:X-Men United; X-Men:The Last Stand; X-Men Origins:Wolverine; X-Men:First Class; Cowboys & Aliens; Astro Boy; Ghost In The Shell 2:Innocence; Oldboy
That’s 62 films in less than 10 years. And it’s not over.
In the next two years we can look forward to: The Amazing Spider-Man; The Avengers; The Dark Knight Rises; Dredd; Ghost Rider:Spirit Of Vengeance; Iron Man 3; The Man Of Steel; and Men In Black III, undoubtedly among many, many others.
And it isn’t just the straight from the page comic book adaptations… the sensibility has informed all sorts of other movies, including some of the most popular recent flicks (Hancock; the National Treasure twosome; the Transformers trilogy; the Pirates of the Carribean cuadrology; the Fast and the Furious quintology… OK, I made those last words up).
Just like Westerns were informed by the experiences of the generation that lived through The Great Depression/World War II, so the comic book boom reflects much about its makers, Generation X (god, has their ever been a good generation name).
Coming From A Broken Family
Whether it’s because your planet blew up (Superman), your parents thought they could walk anywhere they fucking wanted because they’re rich (Batman), or because you’re a straight up orphan (Spiderman), there aren’t many superheroes from a nuclear family. Obviously, most of these genesis stories started a long time ago, and not having parents has always been a psychologically appealing idea for powerless children. But that the first divorce generation has decided to put so much time, energy and money into a genre all about broken families isn’t a coincidence.
Going Through The Fog Of Self-Doubt
The hero of the Western didn’t give a shit about anything but taking care of business and being a man. A superhero often explores every last nuance of the reasons for/meaning behind/consequences of his actions. However tough they may be on the street, when they take off the tights they’re often quivering bowls of pussy. There’s no more doing the right thing and riding off into the sunset. Because what’s right? Who’s to say? Maybe what seems right at the time is unintentionally bad? Unintended consequences and moral soul-searching abounds. It’s as exhausting in the movies as in real life.
Technology Will Conquer All
The hero of the Western needed nothing more than his trusty horse and a piece of steel. He took charge with moxie and some tobacco spit. The superhero? Without technology, whether in the form of physical changes (coming from another universe, being bit by a radioactive spider) or gadgets (an inpenitrible suit, an awesome car) they’re fucked. Find yourself falling off a building? Grab the rope claw and shoot it up. Been shot? Thank god for that Kevlar armor. Without the benefits of technology, whether built or accidental, superheroes get beat down like Dookie in The Wire.
Girls Still Don’t Matter
In both genres, girls are there to be nags to prod the hero to do the right thing or objects to be rescued (and often both). Some things never change.