A few years back, Steven Spielberg — already in the news today with a possible return to Universal — predicted superhero films would implode. With so many superhero films on the way, that it crashes my local calendar app, it would seem he was mistaken.
Talking with the Associated Press about his new film Bridge of Spies, the director clarifies his comments about superheroes. “We were around when the Western died and there will be a time when the superhero movie goes the way of the Western,” he explained. “It doesn’t mean there won’t be another occasion where the Western comes back and the superhero movie someday returns. Of course, right now the superhero movie is alive and thriving.
He continued, “I’m only saying that these cycles have a finite time in popular culture. There will come a day when the mythological stories are supplanted by some other genre that possibly some young filmmaker is just thinking about discovering for all of us.”
Which is actually a completely valid viewpoint to take, I think. I’ve generally had a good time watching superhero movies, but only Guardians of the Galaxy joined my home video collection. I’m excited to see new characters like Captain Marvel and The Inhumans arrive on the screen, but less enthused to see upcoming sequels. Yeah, even the Guardians sequel. Consumer fatigue is inevitable.
By framing his comments in the standpoint of history, Spielberg will eventually be proven right. It just seems people expected this to happen within days of his first pronouncement. The western was a thriving genre from the moment Universal set up shop near the Cahuenga Pass. There were so many westerns made in the first 60 years of commercial cinema that it’s almost impossible to count how many have been lost.
At the same time, the western’s death was as much a business consideration as anything else. When Universal was known for churning out a western a week, they were incredibly cheap to make. Standing sets on the lot, costume shops, ready props and no rabid film fans to notice how samey everything looked meant studios could churn out a film with relative ease and few start-up costs. A standing unit also meant costs on more expensive westerns with bigger stars and location shoots could also be minimized. Look at the Warner Archive’s selection of westerns. The amount of available films is staggering.
Demand did decrease to be sure, but there was also a demand for greater authenticity and quality in the pictures the studios made. John Wayne only changing the color of his undershirt would no longer cut it. This was also coupled with the end of the studio system and the loss of ready employees to manufacture new sets, costumes and stories cheaply. Between projects become costlier and the audience shrinking, the genre fell into decline. Then came Spielberg and the blockbusters. The western, as a dependable genre for the studios, survived for decades.
Despite precursors like 1979’s Superman, the first Batman cycle and 1998’s Blade, the superhero genre is less than fifteen years old. The cycles Spielberg refers to have sped up, look at the ebb and flow of disaster movies or the rush of technothrillers twenty years ago, but the willingness to pour hundreds of millions of dollars into superhero pictures means they will be around for quite awhile.
Of course, the first honest-to-goodness Marvel flop could change the speed of the cycle precipitously.
Also, as noted in the Hollywood Reporter article from earlier today, Spielberg is more interested in making “adult fare” at budgets Hollywood is disinclined to offer. He is interested in seeing the market more diverse than it’s been in superhero era; even if he still makes the occasional blockbuster like the upcoming Ready Player One. It’s not an unreasonable desire, and perhaps in the next cycle there will be room for it.