Sorry, the Superhero Genre Is Not Like the Western Genre

'Captain America: The First Avenger'Credit: Marvel
These heroes are not remotely the same. 

As we see more and more superhero movies coming out, people are equating it to the western genre. They're saying that much like the westerns of the 50s and 60s, these are easily replicable movies that will have their bubble and fade.

But if you look closely, that is a false equivalency that cannot be further from the truth. Not only are these movies not alike, but their place within the studio system and Hollywood are vastly different. 

Take a look at this video from Eyebrow Cinema and let's talk after the jump. 

Sorry, the Superhero Genre Is Not Like the Western Genre 

Let's start with a disclaimer up top—I love superhero movies. I think they're so much fun. I've seen every Marvel and DC offering, and you can frequently find me perusing Golden Apple Comics in Los Angeles, where I spend what little money I have on "Saga" books.

I also love western movies. So when I write this, my goal is not to offend fans of either genre, but to educate people as to why this comparison is wrong. I know that somewhere in the annals of No Film School, I've probably made this argument myself.

But after watching this video and reading a little about the westerns of old, I think we have to retire this comparison and really take a hard look at how superhero films are changing Hollywood in a way westerns could never have imagined.  

Variations of the "Superhero movies are just like Westerns" argument have been used for a long time. But what they fail to see are just how different of a market share these films take up and reach. While there are similarities, like the American myth, action set pieces, and heroes fighting for justice, the idea that these movies occupy the same space within Hollywood is patently false. 

To begin, Hollywood never really relied on westerns the way they do heroes. Westerns were a subset of films made from the 30s into the 60s that were relatively cheap. While there was a glut of these films made at the time, westerns actually didn't take up much space in the Hollywood production line, because we were making so many movies.

In fact, since TV was not a factor until the late 60s, Hollywood was making far more movies than ever today. Also, the price of westerns didn't preclude them from making other things. 

The next biggest point—westerns were popular, but they were not high money makers. In fact, over those 30 years, if you take the 300 highest-grossing movies, only 21 of them are westerns. That's a pretty slim number when you consider that from 2000-2020, five of the top-grossing films of the year were superhero movies, and if you take the 24 highest-grossing films of the 21st century, 11 were superhero movies.

We can dig deeper into these numbers. Only 7% of classical Hollywood movies (the 30s-60s) are westerns. Comparatively, from 2008-2020, 28% of all the highest-grossing movies of the last 13 years are in the superhero genre. 

There's also the overall cost of these superhero films. Most are over $100 million to make, which means studios are making these tentpoles instead of making a plethora of smaller movies. They're forgoing other genres to make big bets and make more money. In an era where streaming and TV have taken a lot of people away from the box office, it makes variety in short supply. 

The worry is that nothing else can find a foothold at the box office. Aside from heroes, we're seeing movies like Transformers, Fast and Furious, and Harry Potter make the most money. These aren't classified as superheroes, but you could argue they still fit into the same genre categories. In the video, they find that over the last 13 years, only 10 of the top 138 highest-grossing movies were genres other than large-scale action

As I've written before, nowadays, Hollywood has a problem making movies for adults.  When westerns were being made, we did not.

The worry with superhero movies is that they lean into this huge intellectual property vacuum we have where other films get silenced. Westerns just got to have fun and exist until they burnt out. Hollywood is betting the future on these hero movies. And if they're wrong about a few, it would be catastrophic. Jobs would be lost, studios may fold and combine, and we could be left with even fewer movies being produced every year. 

What's your take on all of this stuff? Are we worrying too much? Let me know in the comments.      

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This was a much more researched and fascinating deep dive into the genre comparison than I would have expected. Talking about a revisionist take of the western myth in movies that came out in the 60s, as the genre was nearing the end of its popularity, I couldn't help but think that arguably the best revisionist superhero movie came out before the current superhero boom. Unbreakable re-imagined the superhero as a sombre, grounded story of people who became relegated to myth and legend rather than actual history. This came out the same year as X-Men and two years before Spider-Man. So, it was a genre that was deconstructed before it even had a chance to start, much less wear out its welcome. Even Deadpool, much as I enjoy it, seems more like a superficial wink at the genre than a revisionist take on it.

Comparisons to booms and busts of the past are always going to be flawed because the way movies and mass entertainment are delivered to audiences has been in a constant state of flux. Silent films gave way to sound. Black and white gave way to Color. TV gave way to epic roadshows. The collapse of the Hays code gave way to grittier, more violent, more graphic films. The mere accumulation of film history opened the door for revisionist opportunities. The social and political turmoil of the 60s and 70s gave way to what we now call "adult oriented" popular entertainment. Emotional and psychological fatigue gave way to blockbusters, which themselves were popularized by the cable and home video boom of the 80s. Home Entertainment systems and DVD, which allowed for a closer approximation of the way films should be seen at home, seemed to drive the demand for entertainment that could take advantage of huge screens and stereo sound. Ennui seemed to pave the way for independent film of the 90s. 24-hour media consumption (both active and passive) has changed the mood of audiences in regards to what they actively choose to see. The most popular movies post-9/11 were overwhelmingly fantasy or action oriented. Audiences didn't need or want to see richly layered examinations into social or political constructs because they simply could no longer get away from it. There was (and is) virtually nowhere for audiences to go to escape the ceaseless barrage of real life strife and conflict.

Except to theatres, where big-budget extravaganzas have ruled since the rise of the Internet.

Until streaming came along, the one thing all movies had to battle was gatekeepers, and suddenly those gates were torn down and the walls were eroding. The gatekeepers became the viewers themselves. If you had something worth watching, and you put in front as many eyes as possible, people may very well watch it. This led the way for YouTube entertainment, which has no barriers to overcome and is beholden to no one but the audience.

But...

... entertainment has always been beholden to the audience. That is no more different now than it has ever been. It's a Wonderful Life was a flop and its success as a perennial classic was a lapsed-copyright fluke. Citizen Kane, Blade Runner, The Wizard of Oz... none of these movies domnated the box office in initial release. Hell, John Carpenter is famous for making popular movies that bombed theatrically. When self-annointed cinephiles start pointing fingers at what they will invariably refer to as "the death of cinema", I want to roll my eyes and sigh in exhaustion. The death of cinema has been foretold practically since its inception. People thought sound would destroy it. People thought color would destroy it. Everytime 3D rears its head, people will wring their hands as if they're watching cinema's coffiin get lowered into the earth.

People have a misconception of cinema history. We're led to believe that if a film endures decades that it must have been inherently popular in its day. Go ahead and take a trip back in time to the start of cinema and tell me how many titles in the box office top ten you really recognize. You'll only remember the ones that have stood the test of time, regardless of how popular it was, and the closer the timeline catches up to the present, the more you'll likely remember because... well... you lived through it.

We also forget that we’ve lost nearly 90% of all films from the start of cinema… and arguably most of those films aren't worth saving. Take a look at the list of films released in a given year, any year, and you’ll see a sea of garbage.

And looking at today, it's not as if the options have dried up. Audiences just became less interested. I would posit that "adult oriented" and independent fare, on a percentage basis, is no more appealing than blockbuster entertainment. 2019, the last pre-pandemic year, saw non-IP films like Us, Knives Out, Ford v. Ferrari, Hustlers, Yesterday, Ad Astra, Crawl, Ready or Not, Happy Death Day, Vice, Midsommar, Uncut Gems, Fighting with My Family, On the Basis of Sex, Booksmart, Parasite, JoJo Rabbit, The Favourite, The Farewell, Brightburn, Late Night, A Star is Born, If Beale Street Could Talk, The Kitchen, The Lighthouse, Motherless Brooklyn, Brittany Runs a Marathon, Mary Queen of Scots, The Dead Don't Die, Cold War, Instant Family. I'm not going to argue over the quality of those films because that sort of opinion is always going to be subjective. But by and large these were films that were as much in the mainstream as could be expected given the utter saturation of media coming from streaming services, television, cable, and online media, and overwhelmingly the audience voted for big-budget IP.

Is it the audience's fault? Is it the studios'? Is it both? Is it neither? I don't know and frankly I don't care. That is an argument for snobs on both sides who want someone to blame. I for one, see very positive signs in the box-office results of 2019 to now. For one thing, the latest film in the Harry Potter universe, Fantastic Beasts: the Crimes of Grindewald, pretty well tanked, coming in 189th that year. 189! For a Harry Potter IP! Us, on the other hand, came in 12th. That's pretty impressive considering the films in the top ten were all family-friendly films with name brand recognition.

And in the peri-pandemic era, Spider-Man: No Way Home positively shattered box office records, proving that people are still driven to go out to the cinema to be entertained. Once it became safer to venture out to the movies, people ate up more mindless entertainment and who can blame them? No matter what side of the political divide you fall on, people can generally agree that they feel they’ve been living under siege from one side or the other. Why would you not seek escapist entertainment?

There will always be people more than willing to ring the “death of cinema” bell when what’s popular does not reflect their specific taste. You know when big-budget spectacle IP will stop dominating the box office? When audiences have had enough.

Because the audience is always right.

January 17, 2022 at 5:37PM

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David Patrick Raines
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Not that I necessarily mind downvotes but I am curious why this particular comment is getting them.

January 22, 2022 at 5:24PM

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David Patrick Raines
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