Captain America: The Winter Soldier stood in first place at the box office for most of April, crossing $200 million in the US and $650 million worldwide. Since Iron Man repulsed his way into theaters in 2008, a string of 30 superhero films have made over $4 billion in U.S. ticket sales according to Box Office Mojo. There are nine more comic book films coming this year and a league of other superheroes on the way after that from a variety of production companies.
In the language of the comics, we are entering the “Age of Miracles,” which may be a clue to what is really going on here. For students of film history, this may be just another genre cluster. For students of culture, though, it is a significant change in the nation’s unofficial metaphor.
Last year’s collapse of The Lone Ranger puts a blunt hollow-point on the fact that America has fallen out of love with Westerns. Disney confirmed that it lost $190 million on the film, which turned out to be no big deal because Disney made it right back on its next superhero movie.
The golden age of American Westerns lasted roughly from John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939) to his masterpiece, The Searchers (1956). America found its own expression on television and film in the Western themes of moral isolation, privatized justice and mastery of the wilds. By the 1960’s, the Western genre’s earnest self-righteousness was ripe for parody and reinterpretations, especially by Europeans. In some cases, it took an outsider to truly understand the western mythos, as exemplified by Sergio Leone’s brilliant and dead-on Once Upon a Time in the West.
Like Jazz, Westerns were one of America’s rare cultural inventions. They fascinated the industrialized world where battles against the wilderness and weapon-based dispute settlements were deep in their savage past. Americans strapped on their allegorical six-guns and strode onto the world stage with a “slightly tipsy, slightly off-balance looking, rough, tough and rugged” walk that it learned from John Wayne. Here, America’s fascination with individuality found expression. It was the story of solitary man pitted against solitary man, against a pitiless landscape and underneath the unrelenting sun.
The icon of a grim cowboy silhouetted against the horizon has faded from the post-modern imagination. It has been replaced with a comic book superhero. Superheroes are “burdened with a glorious purpose” and tortured by the power they desperately try not to wield.
They present themselves as reluctant saviors, wishing only to be forgotten in their secret identities, like Shia LaBeouf seeking anonymity under the paper mask reading “I’m Not Famous Anymore!” Their true selves, though, are bound up in their crackling magic powers and colorful costumes, which were based on circus performers from last century.
It’s a startling transformation. From the silent, suffering lawman with six bullets of vengeance to the wise-cracking rainbow spandex warrior, still suffering but no longer silent, projecting unstoppable force from a safe distance. Even the dark vigilante Batman, the Western’s true son, crafted at the height of the Western film era and originally packing his own justice-dealing .45, has been drafted into a super-league. He will appear in his new colorful, gun-free costume in May of 2016.