Or, how the Superhero genre is following a similar arc to the Westerns of yesteryear.
March 29th, 1993 marked the day of the 65th Academy Awards (don’t worry, this isn’t another Oscars article). Of all the notable Academy Awards ceremonies over the years, this one is not usually identified as being massively historically significant, except for two major awards of note, Clint Eastwood won Best Director and Best Picture for his brilliant film “Unforgiven”. This film is not only notable in the history of the Academy Awards, but it also marked a noticeable shift in the genre of Westerns.
“Unforgiven” is not the first Revisionist Western ever to be made, in fact, icons like John Ford were making a sort of Post-Western nearly 40 years earlier with films like “The Searchers”. However, by earning the honors of “Best Picture”, films like “Unforgiven” became identified as more prestigious than their counterparts. I am not the first person to point out the similarities of the Western and the Superhero genres in their respective eras, but I think what I find more fascinating than their shared clutches on the monoculture of their individual times is the similarity in which the stories seem to evolve and follow a familiar trajectory.
For decades you knew what you were getting when you stepped into the theater to see a Western. If we look back to, what I will call, the “First Wave” of Westerns, what we will find is very down-the-middle genre stories. When you watch a film like “Cimmaron” (1931) or “Stagecoach” (1939) you can expect to find the traditional tropes that the average person normally thinks of when they think Westerns. There are sweeping shots of the great Final Frontier, Cowboys and Indians (Native Americans) battling one another, with a heroic, strong jawed white male saving the day from the “ruthless savages”. By the same token, Superhero films began with a very similar arc to one another. They usually consist of an origin story, or a continuation of an already established story, that includes a character who is mostly relatable but possesses one extraordinary gift that makes him or her Super.
To be clear, I am not directly disparaging these films for being “bad”. There are highs and lows within the genre just like there are with anything in art, but the central theme that connects these two is a genuine sense of earnestness.
After years and dozens of films in these respective genres, we received the farcical, “winking at the camera”, style of film that I will call the “Second Wave”. This includes the Spaghetti Westerns that went for maximalist violence with typically minimalist cinematography, and the “meta” superheroes like “Deadpool” or “She-Hulk”. What these films share in common with each other is that they use the already established idea of what a Western or a Superhero movie is and twist it, usually for the sake of comedy.
This style of filmmaking marks a clear break from the “First Wave” because it relies on the audience having a preconceived notion for what a film in this genre should look and feel like, only for the filmmaker to pepper the product with a twinge of satire. Not all of the films in this “Second Wave” are pure romps, after all, look at something like the 2018 animated masterpiece “Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse”. “Spider-Verse” takes our shared collective experience with the iconic “Spider-Man” character and uses that as a jumping off point to tell a completely new and exciting story.
Finally, we reach the phase that we are now beginning to enter with the superhero genre, or, the “Third Wave”. This new wave is a direct continuation of the “Second Wave” in that it also takes our expectations of what a film in this style should look like and twists it. However, instead of playing it for laughs, these stories act as a sort of self-reflection. These films typically look and feel like classic films of the genre, but often serve as an investigation into the characters that we typically admire and, at their best, make us question what we as the audience ever found appealing about their lifestyle in the first place.
This is where a film like “Unforgiven” comes into play. “Unforgiven” follows the story of William Munny, an elderly bandit played by Clint Eastwood, who comes out of retirement for one last job. On its surface, this seems like any other John Ford-era Western, however, along the journey we see the horrors that have haunted Munny over his waning years as the countless number of people he has murdered, and the trauma that goes along with that, finally begins to catch up with him.
From the superhero perspective, “Invincible” similarly acts as a complete deconstruction of the genre that has come to act as the most singular piece of monoculture that we have in the 21st century.
Note: Aside from giving an overlying plot synopsis, I will tip-toe around any major plot spoilers for ‘Invincible.’
“Invincible” tells the story of high schooler Mark Grayson who gains superhuman strength and the ability to fly following his seventeenth birthday. If you think this premise sounds like a combination of iconic heroes like “Spider-Man” and “Superman”, then you’d be correct, but what follows is anything but your run-of-the-mill Marvel or DC comic. “Invincible” is a story that truly revels in the gore and the horror of everything that being a superhero entail. Grayson (played by Steven Yeun) is consistently beaten to near-death and the show does not shy away from the carnage. Without getting into spoilers, the show also acts as an interrogation into who the people are that we admire so much as heroes. Zack Snyder’s adaptation of “Watchmen” and the 2019 HBO sequel series, as well as another Amazon Prime series, “The Boys”, serve as similar works that look to examine what it is that we see in these stories that makes them so attractive to us.
Another thing that separates “Invincible” from many of its contemporaries is that it not only inverts ideas of contemporary superhero movies and shows, but also takes a new look at coming-of-age stories in general. Especially as we enter into the 2020’s it seems as though the only way that a medium to high-budget coming-of-age drama can get made is if an established auteur is attached to the project or if the story is hidden behind a veil of superpowers and CGI nonsense. “Invincible” deals with classic themes of budding adulthood (relationship issues, family and parental drama, the lack of clarity when it comes to figuring out your place in the world, etc.) but uses its superhero premise as a jumping off point to say something new as opposed to falling back on the genre as a crutch.
One of the best episodes of the first season (Episode 5) follows Mark Grayson through his mental back-and-forth in deciding whether or not to help out Titan (a superpowered thug played by Mahershala Ali) take down his boss, the discount Daft Punk looking, Machine Head (played by Jeffrey Donovan) as Machine Head is blackmailing Titan and his family. On one hand, Grayson sees that Titan has a family and seems like a good guy caught in a bad situation, however, he also knows that Titan is a criminal who has robbed and murdered. This sort of nuance in trying to figure out the right thing in a world that isn’t black and white is a genius addition to the story and touches on a theme of “which is the lesser of two evils” as opposed to “pure good vs pure evil” which is prevalent throughout the show.
Similar to previous Revisionist Westerns, these so-called “Revisionist Superhero” stories are not anything new. For one, they are almost all based on texts that were written decades prior, but there are also numerous films from the last century that work as an investigation into the superhero ideal (just look at things like “The Toxic Avenger” (1984) or “The Crow” (1994) or even something more sci-fi like “Robocop” (1987)). Maybe the difference is that now that we as a society have become so inundated with superhero content, a new look on a classic and recognizable story just seems more refreshing.
The other principal difference between something like “Unforgiven” and “Invincible” is that the latter has not yet received the proverbial stamp of approval to be considered “prestige”. Whether that comes in the form of some sort of awards recognition (which is doubtful given that it is an animated television show made for adults) or merely a mutual admiration from its peers and TV critics, that piece of the puzzle still seems to be missing. The closest that we have come to seeing a superhero story that was considered prestigious was probably “The Dark Knight” which was well before the superhero boom of the 2010’s and “Joker” (2019), which, no thank you. The fact of the matter is that I believe that “Invincible” does deserve the recognition and acclaim as one the best series on television.
To be clear, I am not writing this to say that there is no room in the culture for films and television series of the first and second wave that I have outlined here to exist (we all know that we will see at least another dozen or so fairly basic Marvel movies). Like I said before, many of them might even be great! It’s just hard to imagine something like the upcoming “Black Widow” movie being nearly as compelling as “Invincible”. I’d love to see Marvel do a full heel-turn and make a series devoted to true anti-heroes (and not pseudo-anti-heroes like Deadpool that act as a wry satire of the genre without offering a full-on investigation), but I’m not holding my breath for that day to come. Maybe the future of these stories belongs on television, but as a movie lover first and foremost, I hope that is not the case.
I just want there to be space in the ether for both down-the-middle superhero stories and darker, more intimate tales that serve as tonal pieces. After all, following “Unforgiven”, there was still room for all sorts of Western films in the American cinema. Some of the best Westerns of the 21st Century (“True Grit”, “3:10 to Yuma”, “Bone Tomahawk”, “Hell or High Water” and even the Post-Western masterpiece “No Country For Old Men”) all have drastically different tones from one another. We have even seen a blending of these waves in the Western genre with films like Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained”. “Django” certainly shares much of the look and feel of the Italian Spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone, however, it is elevated by the source text to become more profound than many of its tongue-in-cheek counterparts.
It’s a bummer to think that so many of our great filmmakers are getting swept up into the “IP Machine”, but if I may share just the tiniest semblance of optimism, maybe this is what superhero movies need. Look at what happened in the Thor franchise for example. Thor was a brooding and, frankly, unlikable character who’s “fish out of water” bit I found to be a complete drag, not to mention his solo movies were two of the worst Marvel movies to date. Insert a comedic mind like Taika Waititi and “Thor: Ragnarok” (2017) takes our preconceptions of the Thor character through his two prior solo movies and a couple of appearances in “Avengers” films and twists them to show us a lighter and more fun side of this character. It was the first time that somebody actually got a charismatic performance out of Chris Hemsworth who had been completely wasted in the past.
Would I rather have more works like “What We Do in The Shadows” or “Hunt for the Wilderpeople”? Sure. But maybe, just maybe, injecting somebody like Academy Award winner Chloe Zhao into the Marvel Machine can produce something special. Maybe. That, or we will just get some blue people and ripped Kumail Nanjiani punching each other.