Before caped and masked superhumans were saving cinematic worlds from the forces of evil, gunslingers in straw cowboy hats and ponchos were upholding fairness in the lawless Wild West. Perhaps due to the current popularity of the superhero genre, some are drawing similarities between it and the formerly popular westerns. However, these genres have differences that should be taken into consideration when comparing them.
Experimental narratives vs. the superhero formula
It did not cost much to make a quality western movie, so these films were widely produced even during the Great Depression. They did not need a lot of special effects or huge stars to be a commercial success, and it furnished filmmakers with the freedom to experiment and create movies that reflect their personal visions. Joseph H. Lewis’s 1958 film, Terror In A Texas Town, for example, is made with a budget of around $80,000 (adjusted for inflation) and had no stars, but it offers a thought-provoking anti-capitalist political allegory and remains a cult classic to this day.
Although superhero movies are also reliably profitable, they are very expensive to produce. The costumes, sets, CGI, licensing, star power and marketing required to make a successful superhero film takes millions of dollars. The amount that goes into the production also drives filmmakers to stick to formulas that are proven to sell. Take the Marvel formula for instance; the movies in the franchise may be predictable, but they make up half of the top 10 highest-grossing films of all time.
Brand vs Form
Superhero films have established fanbases that are guaranteed to flock the theaters on opening weekend. Since the heroes have been established even before the film, they are the icons that resonate with the public and drive them to watch a superhero movie. Basically, the superhero genre relies on the brand laid out by comic books to attract viewers.
Meanwhile, western fans watched western movies whether or not they are familiar with the individual characters in any film. It was the form of the genre itself that held a special resonance with them and made them want to see the film. If the movies were only about select western icons, like Jesse James, Wyatt Earp, and Billy The Kid, many of the greatest western movies ever made would be eliminated, which is inapplicable to the superhero movie genre.
Character stories: different angles vs origins
Western movies are historical in nature and some draw their plots from the biography of historical figures from the Old West. For one, dozens of western films have been made about the infamous outlaw, Jesse James, but the most memorable ones approached his life story with various emphases. In the 1939 film by Henry King entitled ‘Jesse James’, he was painted as a populist New Deal revolutionary. Meanwhile, the assassination of Jesse James by Robert Ford portrayed as a metaphor on McCarthyist betrayal in Samuel Fuller’s ‘I Shot Jesse James’ (1949). This assassination was also used to explore celebrity fetishization in Andrew Dominik’s 2007 film, ‘The Assasssination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford’.
Unlike historical western icons who are known for their acts when they were alive, superheroes are defined by their origins. So, when they go beyond the origin story, a superhero franchise may get repetitive. For example, what makes Batman, Batman, is the tragedy that made him the caped vigilante we know. Moving past his origins, Batman films could just put him in any formulaic action film plot, like battling criminals who reflect his own internal crisis or being attracted to women who also reflect his internal crisis. Superhero origin stories, however, make the genre suitable for sequels, since the heroes can be worked into proven formulas, while western sequels are very scarce and almost none were met with as much enthusiasm as their prequels.
These genres are popular in separate times, and the generational divide may be the root of the differences between western and superhero movies.