The Western and the superhero movie—the two most American genres in cinema—come from the same literary tradition: the great American mythos.
In that tradition, America is history told as legend. This is not to say that the nation’s history is fabricated, but that it is attuned to the rhythms and themes of storytelling: the taciturn hero, the clash between Good and Evil, the triumph of idealism over cynicism, the blessings of God, and the fortunes of opportunity. “The western,” wrote André Bazin, a French critic who understood the genre better than did his American contemporaries, “was born of an encounter between a mythology and a means of expression.” The superhero movie, now wildly popular, replicates that encounter in an urban setting colored by decay and the betrayal of the principles the hero of the western had stood for. The superhuman savior is the pioneer town sheriff returned to restore order and drive out the modern-day cattle rustlers.
This summer’s superhero offerings, which revive or reinvent old favorites, resurrect the familiar western tropes. The Dark Knight Rises joins Batman Begins (2005) and The Dark Knight (2008) to complete Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, and The Amazing Spider-Man reboots the Marvel Comics hero barely five years after Sam Raimi rebooted it in his own troika. Nolan gives us a Batman as morally complex as Gary Cooper’s drifter in The Westerner (William Wyler, 1940) or John Wayne’s gunslinger in El Dorado (Howard Hawks, 1966). Eight years after being wrongly suspected of the murder of a crooked politician, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) is forced to assume his alter ego one final time to stop Bane, a nuke-wielding nihilist who has fomented revolution on the streets of Gotham. The movie retains the murky tone of its predecessors but lacks their nuance, partly because the assaultive soundtrack punctuates every meaningful beat with a cymbal-crash exclamation point and renders whole exchanges of dialogue inaudible.
The Amazing Spider-Man is directed by Marc Webb, who was behind the indie relationship comedy (500) Days of Summer (2009), but it is the sense of visual grandeur learned in his earlier career as a music-video director that is on display here. Webb tells the story of how Peter Parker went from being an introspective teenager to a supernatural crimefighter. After the death of his parents, Peter (played by relative newcomer Andrew Garfield) goes to live with his aunt and uncle (those archetypal 60s radicals, Sally Field and Martin Sheen, turned fluffy and commercial and dishing out bromides about personal responsibility). Bitten by a radioactive spider during a visit to the laboratory of cutting-edge, and inevitably sinister, Big Pharma company Oscorp, Peter develops supernatural arachnid abilities. At first, he resists his new powers, but after his uncle is shot and killed trying to stop a robber, Peter dons a costume and takes to swinging balletically across the nocturnal skyline of New York City, swooping down on criminals and roughing them up until the cops arrive. Soon, a mad scientist—a comic book staple—from Oscorp decides he wants in on the superhuman action and, after injecting himself with lizard DNA, hatches a plan to make everyone in the city reptilian.
Although these movies are tonally distinct—The Amazing Spider-Man is closer to the primary-color pop-action of The Avengers (Joss Whedon, 2012) than the shadowy hues of The Dark Knight Rises—they share a debt to the western genre. For Bazin, the western was the original superhero movie, an adventure yarn made epic “because of the superhuman level of its heroes and the legendary magnitude of their feats of valor.” But while the golden era of westerns, roughly spanning from John Ford’s Stagecoach in 1939 to John Sturges’s The Magnificent Seven in 1960, was dominated by product instead of art, both the genre’s mediocrities and virtuosos operated in accordance with a common set of assumptions. The western ethic held that the settlement of America, though by no means bloodless, was a noble endeavor. To pioneer meant to pursue opportunity and self-advancement through hard work and smarts. There was Good and there was Evil, and the existence of shades of gray was no excuse for confusion between the two. The local lawman might be a gambler or a drunkard or otherwise compromised, but he believed in defending the homestead, protecting the women, and hanging the horse thieves.
The sheriff’s hands were often tied by the strictures of the law, and it is in this that the western shares its strongest bonds with the superhero flick. Spider-Man and Batman are apart from their fellow men and act outside the bounds of legality. This has led some critics to misread the superhero as a simple vigilante, cutting down muggers and rapists like a spandex-clad Bernie Goetz. But the superhero faces the same moral dilemma encountered by the frontier lawman: as Bazin puts it, the “conflict between the transcendence of social justice and the individual character of moral justice, between the categorical imperative of the law which guarantees the order of the future city, and the no less unshakable order of the individual conscience.” The pitting of the untamed but decent individual against the lousy laws of a corrupt system has always given the superhero genre a libertarian flavor that complicates straightforward readings from the left or right.
The Dark Knight Rises takes several steps beyond the boundaries of this framework and articulates a more explicit political position. Bane, the villain of the movie, raises a mob of unkempt street radicals who raid the Stock Exchange, drag wealthy guests from their hotel rooms out onto the streets, and conduct show trials of bankers in which the only sentences are death and death by exile. By the movie’s dénouement, this Occupy Gotham movement has taken complete control of the city and their rebellion must be crushed by an infantry of police officers. Critics who routinely nod along to movies that portray America as corrupt, Christians as stupid, or the South as one big humid Klan rally, are very concerned about the sourness The Dark Knight Rises expresses toward banker-baiting mobs. Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir ponders whether Christopher Nolan is “some kind of furious right-winger” because his “fascist” movie offers a world “straight out of the playbook of neocon founding father Leo Strauss.”
Any movie that has PC hysteric O’Hehir whipping up a hyperbolic conspiracy salad is safe-bet entertainment, and getting New York audiences to cheer as starch-collared cops charge billy-clubs-a-swinging at left-wing protesters is no mean feat. Nolan’s movie, like the westerns of Howard Hawks and John Ford, is actually in the old liberal tradition—not the current leftist one. Bruce Wayne may be a one-percenter, but the rich of Gotham are portrayed as lucky, not evil, and their spare time is spent raising money for orphanages and saving the environment. There is corruption in Gotham, but Gotham is not corrupt. There is poverty and injustice, but revolution offers no answers. The Dark Knight Rises, like all good superhero movies, is a love letter to American idealism.
Superhero gunslingers, be they Rooster Cogburn or Peter Parker, give us someone to root for. They also give us hope, however confected, that right can trounce wrong. A common slam is that superhero movies and westerns prize spectacle over story, with panoramic tracks of vast prairies and snaking digital tours of the New York skyline substituting for character development. But these movies are about scale, not empathy. Our intimacy is not with the characters on screen but with the myths they represent, myths that command great physical and intellectual expanses. Audiences know these myths to be their own, recognize them from childhood, and understand that, whether rendered behind a mask or a marshal’s shield, they are the pop biography of America.