Monday, February 17, 2014

The Comic-Book Movie: The New Western?

Which is the more expensive and prestigious production?
Douglas Wilson in the 1942 serial ‘Batman’ (left), Christian
Bale in the 2008 feature film ‘The Dark Knight’ (center), 
and Adam West in the 1966-68 TV series ‘Batman’

Here’s a quick and inchoate thought: Are today’s comic-book (or as some prefer, “graphic-novel”) movies the counterpart of Hollywood’s World War Two-era and postwar westerns?  I don’t mean as the preferred action genres of their respective eras.  I mean as kinds of films with similar histories, two genres that went from pulp to prestige.

While some prestigious westerns were made during Hollywood’s silent era, the genre fell out of favor for most of the 1930s.  This may have been due to the poor box-office performance of expensive examples like The Big Trail (1930).  But for whatever reason, the western genre was relegated to B movies and serials with rather thinly drawn characters, films of poor quality with heavy-handed moral messages.  And these movies seemed aimed more at children than adults. 

John Wayne in ‘The Big Trail’ (1930)
In fact, The Big Trail was John Wayne’s first starring role in an A picture.  Had the film (which, incidentally, was shot in a widescreen process 23 years before the first CinemaScope feature) been a success, it might have been the vehicle that launched him into Hollywood superstardom.  However, The Big Trail’s ticket sales disappointed, and like the genre itself, Wayne was relegated to B movies and serials for most of the decade.  Yes, there were films that were exceptions, like the Oscar-winning Cimarron (1931, the only western to win Best Picture in the first 62 years of the award’s history), but that movie was also based on a respected Edna Ferber novel and (like Heaven’s Gate 50 years later) didn’t seem to sell itself as a western. 

The full arrival and flourishing of the sound-era western as a genre for adults as well as children would need to wait until the financial success of Henry King’s Jesse James and John Ford’s Stagecoach in 1939.  So, for most of the 1930s, the western was thought of as a low-budget pulp genre with black-and-white stories primarily made for juvenile audiences. I wonder if you told the average moviegoer (or movie critic) at the time that, in a few years, this disdained genre would one day be an esteemed, high-budget vehicle for important themes and Hollywood’s best talent — and especially that the B-movie actor most associated with the genre would become moviedom’s most enduring star — that audience member would have believed you.  Would this filmgoer have been able to take seriously the idea of such adult-oriented and critically acclaimed postwar westerns as Howard Hawks’s Red River (1948), Anthony Mann’s Winchester ’73 (1950), George Stevens’ Shane (1953), and Richard Brooks’s The Professionals (1966), never mind Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969)?

John Wayne as 1930s B western star (left) and as postwar Hollywood icon

Fast-forward to the present.  Until the commercial triumphs of George Lucas’ Star Wars (1977) and Richard Donner’s Superman (1978) (cemented by Steven Spielberg’s serial-inspired megahit Raiders of the Lost Ark [1981]), fantasy and super-hero properties weren’t usually thought of as prime adaptation sources for Hollywood.  Like the western of the 1930s, movies made from comic-book-type material were relegated to shabbily made B movies and serials.  The low budgets often produced laughable results because the heroes’ costumes that looked so impressive on the comics page looked less so on the screen, especially when made by second-rate costumers. 

The few super-hero feature films that were made when theatres stopped showing double bills (and therefore no longer needed B movies or serials) were campy, not serious, and still low-budget — such as the 1966 Batman feature that used the resources of the 1966-68 Batman TV series.  And like the B western, such movies were thought of primarily as offerings for juveniles.  I understand that the producers of Donner’s Superman were desperate to sign Marlon Brando for the project so that the rest of Hollywood would take it seriously and not think it was supposed to be a (full-blown) comedy.  When Tim Burton cast comic (as in ha-ha) actor Michael Keaton in his 1989 production of Batman, fans feared that the director would make another spoof like the 1960s TV series.  The fact that Burton did not make a comedy demonstrated the new earnestness with which Hollywood henceforth would deal with comic-book properties.

Kirk Alyn in the 1948 serial ‘Superman’ (left) and Christopher Reeve in the 1981 feature ‘Superman II’

As with the western of the 1930s, I don’t think that the average pre-Star Wars moviegoer would think that this heretofore-risible (when onscreen) comic-book subject matter would one day command Hollywood’s prime talent, and even deal with serious themes.  In the Production Code days, the industry would shy away from solemn subjects like rape and miscegenation, but when placed in the context of a familiar and long-ago genre like the western, the topics could become more palatable to the audience — hence John Ford’s The Searchers (1956).  Today, the issue of our civilized society slipping into anarchy might be too intense and too disturbing for the usual Hollywood patron, but in the guise of a super-hero film, such a subject becomes more digestible — hence Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008).  I also wonder if that pre-Star Wars filmgoer, who would have lived in a time when dozens of westerns would be screened theatrically each year, would imagine a day when the genre would become an infrequent anomaly in the major studios’ release schedules.

However, when the western was Hollywood’s most popular genre, the American motion-picture industry still produced a wide variety of films.  But nowadays, with the rise of pop culture’s respectability (at least financial respectability) and the spiraling costs of feature films, most releases from the major studios (with only a few exceptions, such as raunchy or romantic comedies and Oscar bait) need some sort of readily identifiable, pre-sold identity to the audience.  For the past few years, whenever I watch a trailer for a Hollywood movie in a multiplex, the advertised film contains some kind of fantasy/horror/science-fiction/comic-book/super-hero/action/video-game/television-series subject matter.  In twenty-first century mainstream American cinema, the aura of the fantastical that was once associated with the typical comic book has now become the dominant element in most of Hollywood’s big-screen productions — while more down-to-earth subject matter is increasingly relegated to smaller distribution arms and exhibition spaces.  I wonder when the homogenizing ubiquity of Hollywood’s fascination with the fantastical will finally, like the western genre, ride off into the sunset.

Trailer for the sci-fi film ‘Cowboys & Aliens’ (2011), based on the graphic novel: virtually the only way you can get anything like a western made these days

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