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Cowboys vs Superheroes

To walk into a movie theater today is to notice one obvious thing. Aside from the inflated ticket prices, and the resort to gimmicks such as 3D by a film industry unable to compete with newer more immersive forms of entertainment, is that a genre which hardly existed 50-60 years ago dominates the box office, and a genre which was omnipresent then, is all but absent now.

The Western, once the defining American myth and its most potent international export, has all but vanished. Occasional remakes such as 3:10 to Yuma or True Grit surface, and are gone. In their place is the superhero spectacle. A genre which has become America's new chief cultural export.

The comic book superhero postdates the Western, but not by that much. And they share certain things in common. The Western myth is of a frontier vigilante. The comic book is of an urban vigilante. The genres romanticized the violence and disorder of the frontier and the urban city, while dramatically exaggerating them, and turning the sordid aspects of life and those who resisted them into the heroes of the new American narrative.

The energy of rapid growth in the city and on the frontier, people moving faster than laws could bind them, gave birth to the setting and with it the idea that a moral individual is a better force for good, than the system. There is something inherently libertarian about that. And indeed some of the more influential forces in both genres have been libertarian or libertarian-leaning. The comic book heroes looking down from the movie theater marquee at your today were often created or co-created by libertarians.

But there is a dramatic shift that takes place between the two genres. And it is a revealing shift. The cowboy is human. The superhero is increasingly inhuman.

The cowboy can be an individual on the frontier. When the freedom of the frontier shrinks, then he is diminished. The superhero arises out of an urban setting only because he has extraordinary powers, wealth or skills that give him a freedom denied to ordinary men and women. If he did not have these powers or skills, then he too would be just another drudge in an urban maze. He too would be interdependent.

The term superhero is already revealing. On the frontier, it was enough to have a space of your own. In a packed mass, the only way to be a hero, is to be superhuman. To stand out by focusing the mass of attention on yourself, whether as a superhero or a celebrity.

That the cowboy has given way to the superhero in the American myth is painfully revealing. It is the siren song of the last frontier, giving way to an overcrowded and dangerous society where the law fails, and only a gift from the storytelling gods, can give a man his freedom and let him do what's right.

The Western promised a kind of universal freedom available to anyone who could go out west. The comic book superhero turns freedom into something that is only magically available to a small elite.

The heroic narrative is always the story of freedom. Lost or gained. It may be the freedom of the open road, a liberation from obligation and routine, or from tyranny and oppression. But that question of freedom lies at the heart of the narrative. Whether or not the hero directly fights for freedom, his life is a form of second-hand liberation. His freedom of action is the liberating element of the myth. That such freedom is mostly mythical is what makes it both inspiring and escapist.

The romanticism of urban freedom through violence takes many forms. The romance of the criminal is an old one, from bank robbers to modern hip hop, its origins lying back in the romance of the bandit and the highwayman, who takes what he wants and follows no law but his own.

On the other side is the cop story. The police officer is free, because he has powers that civilians do not. His freedom is the liberation of being on the side of authority. The man of action with a badge who can tell people what to do because his greater responsibility gives him greater powers. The fictional cop myth is the story of men who can hijack cars, have gun battles in the street, break the rules, and still be rewarded for it. It is vigilantism with the approval of the system.

The superhero is partly the cop myth taken to the ultimate level. But the badge no longer comes from the system. It comes from individual abilities. If the cop myth is the outgrowth of a self-policing society which wants to stretch the rules, but not entirely break them, individualism within collectivism-- the superhero myth applies frontier rules to an urban society. No laws, but those that a man thinks are worth upholding.

The superhero myth supersedes the physical and moral limitations of the urban vigilante. Not only is he physically superior to the society he confronts, but he is morally superior to them, for his own laws are better than theirs, and manage to be both more compassionate and more directly practical. And like the urban vigilante, the myth rises out of the frustration with an urban society in which laws trumps justice and individual freedom. Where doing what's right and following the rules are not the same thing.

The tension between freedom and order is at the heart of all these narratives. The freedom to be an individual, to be left alone and still lead a moral life. The vigilante is a private figure. Mysterious. He may have a secret identity, or he may just show up when needed. His public self is not his real self. Yet it is his best known self. He participates in the group only on his own terms. He comes and goes when he pleases, rather than being compelled to by any authority.

The superhero takes the ordinary urban battles of cops and robbers and makes them extraordinary, with superhuman men and women fighting each other. But this myth is an admission of urban helplessness. The need for vigilantes on the frontier was an admission that anarchy does not work. And the need for them in the city is an admission that the urban society in all its progressive multicultural glory does not work either. As much as the stories may try to leave behind the city and its dysfunction, for other worlds and complex mythologies, they always have to return there sooner or later. Because it is its failure of law that gives them meaning.

And though the superhero myth has displaced the Western, it lacks the essential American appeal of it. While there was something unique about the frontier, there is nothing so unique or different about urban decay. The glamor and decay of the American metropolis, the spectacle of New York and Chicago writ large, are not nearly as fascinating as it was in the 1930's or 50's. Urban decay is now everywhere. Skyscrapers mingling with multicultural slums is no longer uniquely American. And while there is something in the response to it that is American, the creation of a secular religion, with men elevated to godhood to resist urban blight and inspire its residents with a progressive morality, it is no longer truly liberating. Only escapist.

What does it say about a society that leaves behind the cowboy for the superhero, and the frontier for the decaying urban infrastructure? That which the passage of all myths says about a society. The death of the cowboy is the death of the West, at least in the minds of those who tell the stories. The birth of the superhero comes from the stories of an urban culture that fears police and criminals, and does not feel competent enough to resist their trespasses on their lives and freedoms, but wishes that someone out there would. Someone so superior to them that he or she might as well be a god. And if not a god then a billionaire. Which is close enough.

Is this shift reflective of America as a whole or only its urban and suburban centers? Probably the latter. The urban and suburban centers are where much of the popular culture gets made and consumed. But there is a larger America of which it is unrepresentative. The stories that popular culture tells reflect the experience of its storytellers. The shift from the frontier to the urban dystopia defined the experiences of those men and women who found themselves in the position of being able to tell the stories. As urban dystopia has given way to suburban apathy, the comic book has gone into decline. It has been partly revitalized by the move back to the cities in the last two decades. But as that trend begins to reverse itself-- the way be open for a third myth to take its place. A story that is neither of the frontier or the city, but of a lost country.


  1. Yee Haw Buckeroo,
    you know I love Westerns.

    The superhero comes from outside to save the day while cowboys helped themselves and did their own heavy lifting.

    ♪Whoop-ee-ti-yi-o get along little doggies, ♪ ♪ ♪
    It's your misfortune and not of my own.
    Whoop-ee-ti-yi-o get along little doggies,
    You know that Wyoming will be your new home ♫

  2. Where does a character like the Punisher fit in? since he seems more like an urban Cowboy Vigilante (and normal human) than an inhuman Superhero who appears to let evil-doers live just to make themselves appear useful or just for the fun of it.

    The only other human(ish) character I can think of, who does not give evil-doers a chance to live and fight another day is a 1980s Bruce Lee / Sylvester Stallone composite named Kenshiro.

    Even then, it seems that even the Superhero can no longer escape authority with series such as the Boys, which has the CIA monitoring all superheroes due to a directive made by the President.


  3. Maybe they should start remaking Mad Max movies...

  4. Funny story but regrettably a very real reflexion of lost worlds and lost ideals. Panta rei, an ever smaller ever more crowded and with this less changeable and less challenging world even though this latter is debatable but the challenges faced are less "sexy" and with this it's heros. Small example the Gazaflotidiots stopped by lawyers and not by commando's.

  5. Anonymous3/7/11

    Well that was depressing....

  6. Sadly Yael...what is happening in the country and world is indeed depressing

  7. Individuals who happen to have been born within the lost country do have, will always have, their own choices within the decay, be it frontier, urban, or national.
    This will always be true, no matter how thickly the odds are stacked against them.
    And those internally free individuals can occupy their lives in search for others of like mind. The finding and cultivating of this precious fellowship among heroic ones--this quest--is sufficient in and of itself to make life worthwhile.
    The primary relationship in that life-project is selection of a loving mate. If that choice is well-made, the detritus of society with its vain pursuits can be left in the dust, at no great loss.

  8. The only reason that comic book characters have come to be so popular for movie productions is the technological revolution given us by computer 3D graphics and simulation. That's the only reason. It is easy to see that the stories we see in the comic book movies are original comic book stories, they were written over thirty years ago at least. And so also are the characters not recent creations.

    Another significant difference between comic book heroes and cowboy heroes is the role of science. Comic books are not exactly science fiction, but science fiction plays a role. The heroes of comic books typically derive their heroic abilities from some aspect of scientific speculation. Occasionally, the supernatural plays a role, but even there the setting is strictly realistic and bound by scientific reality.

    Westerns are further limited for production in that the sets of cowboy movies are necessarily out in the open. Places to shoot these kind of settings are rapidly disappearing as people rapidly crowd into them. More than a few recent Westerns have not been shot anywhere in the "West" at all, and in fact have been shot in Europe or Asia where there continue to be open areas that look like the West once did.

  9. One thing that bothered me for years was the transition from genuine Westerns that offered heroic figures, to the Westerns that began to appear in the mid-1960’s that went out of their way to debunk Westerns and offered heroes with feet of clay or worse and conflicted souls and dubious causes. I was certain the Western had been gunned down by Hollywood when Clint Eastwood “remade” Shane with Pale Rider, which was a shameless rip-off of George Stevens’ masterful Western. His capitulation was completed with Unforgiven (1992) and Hollywood awarded him an Oscar. Western heroes and anti-heroes were eventually replaced with, as Daniel notes, the superhero, endowed with powers that saved them the moral conviction of actually having to take real-world, credible actions to combat evil, sometimes presented seriously, other times as a joke. But the cultural rot began decades before, with, for example, the tongue-in-cheek Bond movies (the novels are far superior to any Bond movie). Police and cop serials appeared on TV and borrowed several leaves from daytime soaps. So the country began to become “lost” long before the advent of the cinematic superhero. If you’re looking for emotional fuel to survive (and possibly fight) this decline, you can choose to be a Shane or a McMurphy from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, or a Will Kane from High Noon. It’s up to you.

  10. Yes deconstruction is the first stage, then camp and then there's nothing left to work with anymore.

    The Bond novels were all over the place, but certainly nothing as cold and hard as The Spy Who Loved Me was ever put on screen. But then the whole reason for the Bond movies was to take away the seriousness of the struggle against Communism.

  11. There are millions of acres in the west for them to film on.

  12. James Bond is a British character and part of the appeal of Bond in the US is the worldly sophistication of what is basically a government employee. We see this in the friction exhibited between Bond and the people he answers to, his employers. I haven't read the novels, but the settings and threats he is put up against in the movies are all too frequently comic book grade stuff with the same vague scientific speculation driving the fiction.

    Clint Eastwood started his career with the "Spaghetti Western". These were rich and melodramatic stories in vast and stark settings that highlighted mysterious, yet simple characters. These were the first hint that Westerns didn't have to be "Western" at all. The characters were comic book-like in that we didn't expect too much out of them except that they be stuck like flies in some complicated devilry. It worked and Clint Eastwood was well justified carrying the idea forward into the rest of his oaters.

  13. in both cases the common denominator is a lack of historical context for faux history

  14. Paul and Daniel: I could write an essay (and someday I may) about Hollywood and its meandering and too often venal ways. I cited the Bond novels and movies as a measure of Hollywood’s march to Marxist/cultural relativist decrepitude; chiefly because the films were notable and it was obvious their makers didn’t take the Fleming stories seriously and decided to turn them into jokes. This, at a time when people were searching for heroes they could admire and want to emulate. Clint Eastwood’s career actually began on TV, when he played cowhand Rowdy Yates on “Rawhide.” Furthermore, the Communists and other collectivists more or less won the war for Hollywood, a war that dates back to at least the 1930’s. For a glimpse into that conflict, see the HUAC hearings.

    I contend that the “faux” history cited by Daniel about the Bond novels is irrelevant. They were written by a man who was an actual spy during WWII, and who became a newspaperman after it. There’s nothing wrong with portraying a spy as a patriotic hero who values his country (although I think he would have second thoughts about risking his life for Britain today). Qua thrillers, the Bond novels are extremely well-written. What is wrong would be portraying a hero as a “social worker with a gun and a hand buzzer” (I’m quoting from a detective novel of mine published in May, “Honors Due”). Also, I object to the use of the term “comic book.” All literature, from Dostoevsky to Hawthorne to Victor Hugo to Wilde to Rand to Fleming, can be reduced to “comic books,” and much has been, as in the Classic Comics series of years ago. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. But one must remember that the novels came first, and that their comic book versions are merely essentialized renditions with illustrations and captions, however often leave out great chunks of relevant and important narrative and dialogue (because they can’t be illustrated or reduced to single sentences). And comic book versions of great novels simply cannot capture the intensity and passion one encounters in the original texts.

  15. Certainly it's better than the Le Carre era, and the spy novel as an anti-government narrative.

    The Bourne movies which takes that tack have been more successful than the Bond films.

  16. I would sure not mind to see a movie about a cowboy that can jump over buildings, and shoot force beams from his arms (do I need to copyright that idea now? ;) ), but there is a real lack of genuine message in the current superhero trend.

    When Batman picks a muslim to defend Paris (from himself, possibly?), and cannot even treat criminals harshly anymore, then you know this genre, too, has been abducted by political correctness.

  17. There aren't any real superheroes. There are real cowboys. I know some of 'em.


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