The Magazine

Touch of Evil

The familiar problem of the boring Good Guy.

Aug 15, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 45 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
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Captain America:
The First Avenger

Captain America Photo

Directed by Joe Johnston

It’s been 33 years since Christopher Reeve donned the cape in Superman and gave birth to the genre of the superhero movie—and 22 years since Jack Nicholson slapped on clown makeup for Batman and redirected the superhero universe beyond the rather dull guy with the costume to the sexier and more complex villain.

The superhero movie is now a full-fledged genre of its own, and serves as the financial backbone of the American movie industry the way the western did for the first forty years of the cinema’s cultural primacy in the United States. (To give you a sense of just how central to the movies westerns once were, there are more of them than any other type of American movie, even though most westerns were made before 1960, more than half a century ago.)

Superhero movies are present-day Hollywood’s replacement for the western in other ways as well. Like westerns, they depict a battle between the forces of good and the forces of evil, with the forces of evil controlled by a dark man greedy for power and the forces of good led by a stoic loner with an amusing sidekick or two who stands up for the defenseless and is only interested in girls because the screenplay says he should be.

The classic Hollywood western played with American archetypes derived from historical experience—cowboys, Indians, cattlemen, rustlers, post-Civil War gangs—but the conflicts they depicted bore almost no relation to the lives of mostly urban and suburban moviegoers. The superhero movie does the same in reverse. The movies are set in a recognizable reality, New York or Chicago or Los Angeles, but the archetypes come from a boy’s fantasy world—one in which his secret self is powerful, strong, self-sacrificing,
and noble.

They share other qualities too—like the fact that they are mostly awful. Westerns and superhero movies have a common storytelling weakness: They’re all the same. Good guy vs. bad guy. Bad guy more colorful than good guy; bad guy delivers flowery speeches while good guy glowers manfully. And they have common longueurs. Westerns have the endless shootouts in the canyons that usually lead to a sidekick getting killed but no plot point advanced; superhero movies have endless chase scenes with cars flying around (and a dead sidekick).

They are, literally, generic. That is what studios (and audiences too, I suppose) like about them: You always know what you’re going to get. But when you know what you’re always going to get, the possibilities for boredom become almost limitless. It is, therefore, only when something unexpected happens that the movies get interesting—as when the lawman in 1939’s Destry Rides Again refuses to wear a gun and works in a frontier town that is more of a melting pot than the Lower East Side. In the middle of the new Captain America: The First Avenger, the superhero ends up not fighting bad guys but touring the country in a high-stepping road show selling World War II war bonds with a line of Rockettes.

These and dozens of others—1939’s Stagecoach and 1962’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, 2008’s Iron Man and the original Reeve Superman—are examples of how to take a generic picture and structure it as a comedy. Because you don’t expect it to be funny, the humor surprises and delights you and deepens both the comedy and the genre elements.

The same is true when they go dark. There’s the classic setup of 1956’s The Searchers, in which a man goes in relentless search of a niece kidnapped by Indians—not to save her but to kill her. In 2008’s The Dark Knight, the anarchic Joker turns into the screen’s most terrifying villain not because he’s full of blather but because he creates impossible moral challenges for the intellectually outgunned Batman.

These movies take something generic and make something operatic out of it—trafficking without irony in overripe emotion in an effort to provoke an unguarded response from viewers. When it works, the effect can be overwhelming (as it was, for example, in Clint Eastwood’s still-astonishing Unforgiven, which won the 1992 Best Picture Oscar). When it doesn’t, as it really and truly didn’t with the superhero epic Watchmen a couple of years ago, the results are agonizingly painful.

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