It has often been pointed out that the superhero film occupies the space once held by the Western. There are key differences between the two genres, of course: superheroes will never be quite as ubiquitous as Westerns once were, for example, as a typical superflick requires a sizeable effects budget while B-grade oaters were made using little more than horses, extras and dust. Another is their distinct relationships with genre revisionism.
Broadly speaking, Westerns started out as simplistic white-hats-versus-black-hats affairs; but later came revisionist Westerns, which offered more thoughtful takes on familiar conventions. Superhero comics followed a similar trajectory, but not so much superhero films: although revisionism exists in this field, it is far more erratic.
If we take 1978’s Superman: The Movie as the starting point for superhero blockbusters, we find that the cycle began with an odd combination of earnestness and camp. 1989’s Batman strove to present itself as a serious superhero film, in contrast to the 1960s incarnation, although its sequels later returned to camp. Spider-Man and The Avengers are light-hearted, but in a manner that is largely true to Silver Age Marvel, without the wink-wink irony that characterises the Adam West Batman. The Nolan/Snyder/Goyer Batman-Superman cycle attempts (with varying degrees of success) to be a complex and literary treatment of their source material, and are perhaps the closest in spirit to the revisionist Westerns. Topping it all off, we have out-and-out parodies like The Incredibles and Deadpool.
Each of these films is faced with the same problem: they all have source material that will look a bit silly if faithfully adapted for the screen. Some, such as The Dark Knight, try to avoid the sillier aspects of their sources. Others, such as Deadpool, treat the whole thing as a joke. Still others, like The Avengers, try to rekindle that childlike mindset where the silliness didn’t seem so silly.
X-Men, which kicked off the current wave of supermovies back in 2000, is something of an oddity in this respect. It apparently did not realise that its subject matter was a bit silly, and ended up playing a frankly daft storyline entirely straight. Later films in the franchise took different tacks, however, as when First Class embraced colourful kitsch. And with Logan, we have a superhero film that really, really wants to be a revisionist Western.
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