Are superhero movies going the way of the Western?

Graphic by Akhil Shashi | Mercury Staff

The golden age of the superhero genre is showing signs of expiring in a similar fashion to the Western genre that came before it, thanks to audience fatigue and recent flops in quality.

The Western genres provided escapism through a series of classics that dominated in a golden age between the 1940s and 1960s. However, despite revivals with Spaghetti Westerns in the 1970s, the genre largely died alongside the Hays Code — a set of rules that forbade taboo topics in movies — as directors investigated more experimental ideas like sci-fi and horror films. Westerns couldn’t compete with greater spectacles and the several flops that brought the genre down. They became formulaic and predictable so naturally, tired audiences weren’t as excited seeing a cowboy in a desert for the thousandth time when the 1970s introduced the “Superman.”

The superhero genre’s golden age didn’t start until 1998, arguably with the success of Marvel’s “Blade.” With the following successes of “X-Men,” “Spider-Man,” and “The Dark Knight,” the genre’s momentum seemed unstoppable. You know the rest. In 2008, “Iron Man” would begin the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the flagship of the superhero genre, which climaxed with 2019’s “Avengers: Endgame,” arguably the end of the genre’s golden age. While there have been several successful films that came after, like DC’s “The Batman” and Sony’s “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” the quality just isn’t the same.

“Avengers: Endgame” felt like the appropriate final chapter to the genre. This is obvious considering supposed blockbusters like 2022’s “Doctor Strange: Multiverses of Madness,” 2022’s “Thor: Love & Thunder” and 2023’s “Ant-Man: Quantumania” fell short as critical, audience or financial failures. Since 2019, DC has only produced “The Suicide Squad” and “Zack Snyder’s Justice League,” and while both were fantastic, they were essentially remakes of previous failures that will likely be erased along with the DC Extended Universe. For independent superheroes, most people can only look towards “Invincible” and the later seasons of “The Boys,” which weren’t even feature films.

The two genres share a core trend of audience fatigue. The Western genre pumped out up to 140 movies per year between the 1940s and 1960s. Between 1998 and 2019, the superhero genre has seen 235 superhuman vigilante films, with over 52 of them belonging to Marvel. I’m exhausted just thinking about watching 235 films, and I’m not even including the countless TV shows. After 23 years in the limelight, it is easy to admit superhero films are predictable, formulaic money grabs.

While there have been hundreds of superhero films outside Marvel, the universal flagship was the MCU, and with “Avengers: Endgame” feeling like the last chapter for most audiences, James Gunn’s new DC plan might just revive the genre like Spaghetti Westerns did. However, it is uncertain whether Gunn can pull off the same miracle he did with “Guardians of the Galaxy” or “Suicide Squad.” 

I think there are still masterpieces that have yet to come, but my hopes aren’t as high as they used to be either. What we can learn from Westerns is that it is not quantity we need to keep the genre going, it is inventive challenges to pre-existing formulas and creative decisions that help movies stand out past pretty faces and CGI nano suits. Otherwise, maybe superheroes are destined to go the way of the Western.

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