Arts, Movies, Column

Cowboys & Superheroes Riding Off into the Sunset

I’ve always loved the cowboy aesthetic in film. I guess that’s why I just bought a poncho. I think I’m subconsciously trying to emulate Clint Eastwood from The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly—though I doubt Eastwood’s Man With No Name would look half as intimidating if he were wearing the poncho I snagged off Etsy, but I digress. When it comes to the Westerns I love, there are a few givens in almost every film you encounter. The cowboy hat, old-fashioned cigar, and ornate gun holster jump from film to film like each of them had the same costume and prop designer.

Also, Westerns all pull their stories from about three archetypes that the genre thrives off of: a new baddie rolls into town, a rough and tough cowboy finds he’s not as tough and rough as he thought he was, and there’s usually a lovely dame in need of rescuing. Sure, there are exceptions to these vague parameters, but for the most part one of these movies can usually be dissected in the first few minutes of watching it. I think it’s intriguing and amusing, however, that at some point there were so many Westerns and they were so popular that they constituted their own genre. At another point, I think Westerns fell off the face of the Earth. If it weren’t for the Coen brothers and Quentin Tarantino, they would practically be extinct in mainstream media. Westerns, in these regards, were almost entirely unique.

That is, until superhero flicks came around, of course. Now, in the world of drama in cinema, superhero movies have etched their own genre in film history—a genre that, generally speaking, crushes Westerns in comparative popularity. They even have a more recognizable aesthetic than Westerns ever did. It’d be difficult for a modern viewer to distinguish between John Wayne’s several characters in Westerns, but if you ask someone to tell apart Superman and Batman, I think most people would have a relatively easy time with the task.

In my opinion, superhero films truly made their mark on the world with Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man in 2002. I might be partial to marking Spider-Man as the start of the world’s growing obsession with superheroes because it was the first superhero movie I saw in theaters, but I think it’s reasonable to argue that Spider-Man stood as a revolution for Hollywood’s superhero movies.


Spider-Man showed the world that Hollywood could really thrive off of superheroes other than the Dark Knight or Superman. Sure, X-Men came out in 2000, but X-Men didn’t exude the potential that Hollywood executives probably noted with Spider-Man’s success. X-Men pulled in almost $300 million dollars worldwide, which was comparable to Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin and Batman Forever—two films that brought down the Batman franchise for nearly a decade. Spider-Man brought in over $800 million dollars when it came out in 2002.  In the world of superhero movies, this was a raking-in unlike anything ever seen.

Fast forward 14 years and Spider-Man’s epic leap in the superhero community looks almost miniscule compared to some of today’s big hitters. Now, the most recognizable superhero flicks find themselves knee-deep in a billion dollars and with the slew of Marvel and DC films hitting theaters in the next five years, it doesn’t look like this trend is going to fizzle out anytime soon.

It’s difficult, on the other hand, as a fan of most of these films, to look out on the horizon and see what’s coming next. What happens in seven or eight years when Robert Downey, Jr. doesn’t want to play Iron Man anymore or when the DC universe really establishes its Justice League? Superhero movies, just like Westerns, have a limited range of storylines that are quickly becoming depleted. The super villain wants to take over the world and decimate the human race, biochemical weapons are usually a pervading theme, and there’s usually an Amy Adams falling out of the sky in a serious pinch. Even if Hollywood’s trying to break these molds with films like Deadpool and Suicide Squad, what happens when these self-aware, anti-hero-centric films get stale along with the rest of the bunch?

I know it’s a bold claim, especially with the spectrum of Marvel superheroes that are getting their first films, to say that the superhero genre could possibly die out. It’s reasonable to think, however, that only so many different Batmans can face off against so many Jokers before things get old. These stories’ expiration dates might be far off in the future, but they’ll still meet us somewhere down the road. Sure, the superhero in film will probably never disappear, but he might, however, go the way of the Western, riding off into the sunset, coming back to town every once and a while to make sure the place hasn’t burned down.

Featured Image By Kelsey McGee / Heights Editor

February 10, 2016