Eppler: Westerns are back thanks to superhero movies - FOX34 Lubbock

Eppler: Westerns are back thanks to superhero movies

"Logan" (20th Century FOX) and "Hell or High Water" (CBS) "Logan" (20th Century FOX) and "Hell or High Water" (CBS)

It is a common complaint: "They don't make movies like they used to!" Comments like that tend to be a reaction to modern sensibilities, themes, filmmaking techniques and even perceived objectionable content in popular films. But here is what is actually happening: one of the oldest genres in film is seeing a comeback.

A piece published in the "Hollywood Reporter" this week by Patrick Shanley points out that Westerns are popular again, and the article traces the ups and downs of the genre over decades. It is a good history lesson with commentary by people like Jeff Bridges and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan ("Hell or High Water," "Sicario") who are at the forefront of the Western resurgence. Shanley's analysis makes the case that the Western has been resilient in spite of the current popularity of superhero movies, but I think that misses the point. Westerns are popular again because of comic book movies.

The two genres have a shared history with some of the most enduring comic book heroes like Superman and Batman emerging in the late 1930s when Westerns were easily the most popular Hollywood genre. It is why so many superhero stories are bathed in Western tropes: the lone hero against insurmountable odds, the outcast, a man with special abilities (superpowers/fastest gun in the West, etc.) and even the idea of team-up story.

Superhero movies are the new Westerns – presenting traditional genre themes in a fresh way. So it makes sense that the appetite for movies that look more like literal Westerns has grown.

While the “X-Men” and “Spider-Man” movies of the early 2000s helped usher in this era of superhero movie saturation, the model for making these films and creating a connected universe of spinoffs and sequels was established by Marvel in 2008 with “Iron Man.” Since then, superhero movies have dominated the box office and four of the top five highest-grossing Westerns ever have been released: “The Revenant” (2015), “True Grit” (2010), “Django Unchained” (2012) and “Rango” (2011).

That is not a coincidence – it’s a trend. And it is just getting stronger. Last year’s remake of “The Magnificent Seven” made nearly $164 million worldwide; the most buzz-worthy new TV show of 2016 was “Westworld”; and a long-awaited film adaptation of “The Gunslinger,” the first installment of Stephen King’s “Dark Tower” series, is due out this year.

Moreover, there are plenty of Westerns being made that are not box office giants or buzz machines: last year’s aforementioned “Hell or High Water,” a modern day Western, was a big success for its budget and earned four Oscar nominations including Best Picture; smaller releases like “Jane Got a Gun” and “Bone Tomahawk” have found dedicated fan bases; even the loathsome Adam Sandler made a Western in “Ridiculous 6.” And that is all just within the last two years.

Now we are starting to see these Western and superhero genres intersect in both themes and appearance with pictures like “Logan” (a dystopian Western where characters literally sit and watch a classic Western as a foreshadowing device) and “Guardians of the Galaxy” (a “Wild Bunch”-inspired gun-slinging barnstormer).

So don’t kid yourself. Despite the multi-million dollar computer effects, pop culture-savvy dialogue and shifting political ideology - in the end, they’re still making them like they used to.

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