Two years ago, I wrote about starting to watch westerns. It was mostly about the gap between westerns as I imagined they would be through cultural osmosis and westerns that I actually watched: defending westerns from the preconceptions of those who haven’t seen them. I was rejecting the view of westerns as a reactionary monolith. No genre is as uniform as the popular imagination frequently remembers westerns to have been.
I’m not sure if the rhetorical function of the western in popular discourse has shifted or if I’ve just noticed different parts of it, but I haven’t seen much of “westerns, of course, went into decline when audiences became uncomfortable with racist depictions of Native Americans” lately. Instead, westerns seem to be more often invoked as… a defense of superhero movies. The westerns/superheroes comparison is probably as old as the contemporary superhero boom – westerns, the story goes, dominated Hollywood for a time, just as superheroes have in the last few years – but was kicked into overdrive when Martin Scorsese called Marvel movies “theme parks” and a million nerds lost their minds. There were a lot of arguments made against Scorsese, from calling him a racist for not thinking Black Panther is extremely important to long Twitter threads of ugly CGI landscapes or medium shots of actors looking sad to “prove” that Marvel movies are cinema.
A couple of years ago, comparisons between superheroes and westerns were usually made to speculate on superhero movies going “the way of the western” and dying out. But the comparison was invoked here to place superheroes in a tradition of genre filmmaking: that like westerns, or gangster movies, or horror films, superheroes are popular, populist films critically unappreciated in their own time thanks to snobs who think these films can’t be art. “Many of our grandfathers thought all gangster movies were the same, often calling them ‘despicable,’” James Gunn, director of the Guardians of the Galaxy films, wrote, “Some of our great grandfathers thought the same of westerns, and believed the films of John Ford, Sam Peckinpah, and Sergio Leone were all exactly the same. I remember a great uncle to whom I was raving about Star Wars. He responded by saying, ‘I saw that when it was called 2001, and, boy, was it boring!’ Superheroes are simply today’s gangsters/cowboys/outer space adventurers.”
I understand the impulse here. There is no such thing as high and low art, as Cassavetes put it, only good movies and bad movies. It’s absurd to automatically relegate a film to a lower tier just because of its genre. And it’s a particularly satisfying clapback to Scorsese, who famously makes gangster movies and really, really loves westerns: he’s become everything that he once railed against, or something.
The problem is that the comparison only holds up as long as you look at westerns from a distance of a couple of decades and try very hard not to think about it. Scorsese’s critique of superhero movies – or any of the dozen similar critiques from artists and critics since the boom began – is much less a matter of genre than of mode of production. “They are sequels in name but they are remakes in spirit, and everything in them is officially sanctioned because it can’t really be any other way,” he wrote in a beautiful and incisive op-ed for The New York Times, “That’s the nature of modern film franchises: market-researched, audience-tested, vetted, modified, revetted and remodified until they’re ready for consumption.”
The nature of how the films are produced makes the western comparison vaguely ridiculous, once you drill down into it. Both genres have been solid money spinners at different points in film history, but through very different means. John Heath outlined it brilliantly in 2014, but the key thing is that superhero movies are made by a handful of major studios who own the copyright to all the superheroes, produced with huge, effects-driven budgets, while westerns could be made dirt cheap by any movie studio who could scrounge up a couple of horses and some prop guns. The economics of westerns allowed for the kind of innovation that superhero movies are frequently hostile towards. It’s easy to romanticise a creatively-driven past in film history that, outside of a brief period in the 1970s, has never existed in Hollywood, but even grading on Hollywood’s curve, superhero movies are especially allergic to creativity and innovation. Studios regularly fire directors who assert any kind of vision, and enforce visual uniformity across their properties. Most modern superhero movies, and Marvel movies especially, are safe to the point of being stale, but, as Heath writes, since small-scale westerns “were relatively cheap to make and reliably profitable box office attractions, producers – both independent and those at major studios – essentially didn’t care what the creative team did so long as they delivered a film in time and under budget.” More than that, there is essentially no market for original superhero films, because while westerns were driven by and marketed around actors – someone who likes a John Wayne or Clint Eastwood western would go see more westerns with the same star – superheroes are driven by and marketed around copyrighted characters. It ultimately doesn’t really matter who plays Spider-Man, because the character of Spider-Man is the attraction.
Comparing superhero movies to westerns mostly serves to highlight the deficiencies of contemporary superhero filmmaking. James Gunn aside, it’s easy to conclude that the people making the comparison haven’t seen any westerns, and just think it acts as a pithy shorthand for critical snobbery towards genre films. Yet it’s strangely dismissive of genre films in itself, treating them less as an equal artform than something to be cordoned off and treated with kid gloves. As if criticism of them can only be born of snobbery. It reinforces the idea that contemporary superhero films are all that popular cinema is or can be: that dully pleasant and instantly forgotten Marvel movies are par for the course, occupying the same function that westerns did in the 1940s and ‘50s. It’s easy to nod along, because nobody wants to be the crotchety old man saying things were much better in the good old days. But then you sit down and actually watch a 1940s western and it melts your face clean off.
The Ox-Bow Incident is so good that it’s weird that we aren’t all talking about it all the time. It seems like every conversation had on earth, by rights, would eventually circle back around to The Ox-Bow Incident. It is, after all, one of the best films ever made. Henry Fonda and Harry Morgan play a couple of drifters who land into town right before it’s announced that a local rancher named Larry Kinkaid has been murdered. The townspeople form a posse to track down the murderers, on strict notice from the town judge to bring them back for trial. But when they discover three men in the Ox-Bow Canyon with apparently stolen cattle, bringing them back to stand trial starts to sound a lot less attractive than hanging them at dawn.
It’s a film about a lynching. It agonises over this one long night of debate and bloodthirst, giving us dozens of moments when the crowd might decide against doing this evil thing so that it hurts all the more when they do it anyway. It’s about how so much of what claims to be justice is just revenge in pretty clothes, about how our prejudices and preconceptions and assumptions are so easy to take as fact, about the near-irresistible pull of a mob. It could easily be a overly neat little liberal message picture, but it’s hard to beat for sheer drama: my heart was in my throat basically the whole time. Although it’s not about lynchings as racial violence – two of the men are white, the other is Mexican – it is keenly aware of how the particular horrors it examines affect black Americans in particular. A black man (Leigh Whipper) talks about the trauma he still carries from his brother being lynched when he was a kid. He says he never knew if he did what he was accused of, but – to a modern viewer, certainly – there is little doubt that he did not. And even though it’s only 75 minutes long, it also manages to fit in a whole subplot about a cruel army guy’s disappointment in his gay son. (They don’t say that he’s gay, because it’s 1943, but he’s gay.)
But it doesn’t get talked about as one of the best films ever made. It’ll make list of the best westerns of all time, but rarely ever escapes the ghetto of its genre. It probably doesn’t help that it was a slight flop on release, and has a weird, nondescript title. But it’s also actual, old-fashioned genre snobbery: logic dictates that one of the best westerns of all time would have to be one of the best films of all time, unless westerns get shunted off into a lower category.
Not that something has to show up on lists of the best westerns of all time to be worthwhile. I don’t think Bad Company has ever shown up on a list of best anything: I watched it never having heard of it before during the halcyon days when Netflix had a westerns section, because it’s got Jeff Bridges in it and it’s directed by Robert Benton, who directed Kramer vs. Kramer and co-wrote Bonnie and Clyde. People love to say that films didn’t actually used to be better than they are now, it’s just that we pretty much only revisit the best of older films while we have to wade through all the slush to find the best contemporary films. The problem with this argument is that every film from the 1970s rules, and Bad Company is no exception.
It’s about two lads – Drew (Barry Brown), a straight-laced Methodist boy, and Jake (Jeff Bridges), a petty criminal – who go west to flee the draft during the American Civil War. They meet when Jake mugs Drew: it’s a classic meet-cute, and Drew insists that he’ll follow Jake around until he pays him back every dollar. It’s a really funny, clever little film, demythologising the image of the bandit cowboys by giving them an origin story full of hopelessness and destitution. They become bandits because what the hell else are they going to do? Jeff Bridges is great, obviously, but Barry Brown is revelatory, just the right mix of sullen and naïve. He’s like Jimmy Stewart reincarnated. (Brown died just six years later at the age of 27. Peter Bogdanovich once called him “the only American actor you can believe ever read a book.”) The dynamic between Jake and Drew is the heart of the thing, a brilliantly rendered friendship of necessity. They’re stuck together because they’re all they’ve got.
Westerns are one of the most male-dominated genres, which I’m sure is something you could get mad about it if you were so inclined, but which makes it an especially fruitful genre for exploring homosocial dynamics. Take Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, Sam Peckinpah’s 1973 western. James Coburn plays Garrett, hired as a lawman to bring down his old partner, Billy (Kris Kristofferson, perhaps the actor who belongs most perfectly in westerns). Bob Dylan appears in a supporting role – there’s a really funny scene where he just reads labels off jars for ages – as well as contributing to the soundtrack, and it works so perfectly that it makes you wonder how they made westerns for decades without Dylan soundtracks.
But like with Bad Company, the heart of the thing is the dynamic between these two guys. You can feel the unspoken weight of history between these two men who have ended up on opposite sides of the law. It makes it so painful to know that the only way this can end is for one to put a bullet in the other. While Bad Company demythologises bandit cowboys by showing us how they start out, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid demythologises them by showing how they end up. It’s full of the melancholy of aging, of a past that stretches behind you that can never be changed.
Like so many westerns, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid is consumed by the sense that an ending is coming – that a way of life and form of society the characters were built for is disappearing and something else is coming to take its place. Westerns are so often about lawlessness: about what it means to be on the edge of the world where all the structures of modern society haven’t yet reached, where the only law is the law of the gun. This is why their tropes and narratives apply so easily to samurai films and space operas. But eventually law in the modern, state sense comes to the west. Eventually Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid get old, and find themselves in a world that has no room for them anymore. Peckinpah tends to make this more explicit than most: The Wild Bunch is about a bunch of old cowboys in 1913, and the threat of modernity isn’t an oncoming spectre anymore. It’s here.
My favourite western about the end of the Old West is John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. It’s weird to think that Liberty Valance was released in 1962 because it feels like a 1940s movie, from its crisp black-and-white cinematography to its stars: bringing together John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart and Lee Marvin in what some are calling the most ambitious crossover event in history. But it couldn’t have been made in the 1940s – it’s got a grit and a cynicism unlike the films of that era, and a reflectiveness only possible in the waning days of the western’s popularity. Stewart is Ranse Stoddard, a United States senator travelling to an old frontier town for the funeral of Tom Doniphon (Wayne), an unknown rancher. He tells a local journalist the story of why he came, which forms the bulk of the film: we flash back twenty-five years to when Ranse knew Tom, to when this state was a territory and when this town was on a precipice between law and lawlessness.
Ford is one of the great American directors, and Liberty Valance is an elegiac goodbye to a genre he helped define. It’s the end of the west and the end of the western. It’s beautiful and thorny and unromantic. And when Ranse gets to the end, the journalist says he won’t publish the story – the very story that’s thrilled and delighted and moved us for two hours. “This is the West, sir,” he explains, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
Liberty Valance is a classical western – almost a love letter to the form – that is also an interrogation of the mythos of the western. It holds those seemingly contradictory impulses in productive tension with one another, rubbing them together until they make sparks. The western’s years of box office domination accrued to form layers and layers of meaning: reflecting and interrogating ideas about the nature of justice and masculinity and violence and no less a subject than America itself. And so Ford’s elegy to the genre – or Peckinpah’s, or Leone’s – are imbued with all those accrued layers of meaning, even when they explicitly shrug them off. Scorsese’s The Irishman does the same trick with gangster movies: we see these men who once seemed so cool – De Niro, Pacino, Pesci – have grown old, and the gangsters, like the cowboys before them, find themselves in a world that no longer has any room for men like them.
I’m not sure that superhero movies will ever have that kind of elegy. The closest is Logan, which is, not coincidentally, a western – in addition to interpolating Shane, it has the structure and themes of a western – and besides, is less a tribute to superhero movies as a whole than to the X-Men series in particular. In hindsight, it’s almost an elegy for a kind of superhero film that the Marvel Cinematic Universe helped kill off. Released shortly before Disney bought the X-Men to graft them into the MCU, it’s the last gasp of a time when a director could put their own spin on a superhero to tell a particular story – Tim Burton’s Batman, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy – instead of having action scenes outsourced to the second unit. It’s an elegy for a time that hardly began. “Tentpole movies in general, they are not movies, generally,” Logan director James Mangold once said, “they are bloated exercises in two-hour trailers for another movie they are going to sell you in two years.”
Disney tried to sell Avengers: Endgame as that kind of elegy. The cast sign the credits at the end, and I mean, it’s literally called “endgame”. But it’s not endgame. It’s not goodbye; it’s barely see ya later. It’s just passing the baton on to the next group. Even at their peak, so many westerns are defined by the sense of an ending, but there’s no capacity in the superhero genre for that, even as the world threatens to end in every instalment. The decisions are made so far above the films themselves that they don’t have a Ford or a Peckinpah or Leone to want to mourn them.