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Will Superhero Movies Go The Way Of Old Westerns?


Are you sick of superhero movies? Well, that's understandable.


NICHOLAS HOULT: (As Hank McCoy) The world needs the X-Men.


CHRIS EVANS: (Captain America) Sorry Tony. You know I wouldn't do this if I had any other choice.


RYAN REYNOLDS: (As Deadpool) I didn't ask to be super, and I'm no hero.


JESSE EISENBERG: (As Lex Luthor) Bruce Wayne, meet Clark Kent.

CORNISH: That was a bit of "Batman V Superman" and "Deadpool," and before that, "Captain America" and "X-Men," which come out next month. Now imagine for just a minute what it was like in the '40s, '50s and '60s.


CLINT EASTWOOD: (As Monco) Tell me, isn't the sheriff supposed to be courageous, loyal and, above all, honest?


ALAN LADD: (As Shane) I heard that you're a low-down Yankee liar.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Hallelujah.

CORNISH: Back then, the Western was king. Brooks Hefner, who teaches at James Madison University, says from the mid-'30s to the mid-'50s, about 20 percent of the films made in the U.S. were Westerns. In other words...

BROOKS HEFNER: Most years, it was a hundred or more.

CORNISH: Wow, OK. So I'll stop complaining about the half-dozen (laughter) comic book movies.

HEFNER: Right, right. I think there's seven comic book movies this year.

CORNISH: And what was going on there, what was kind of driving that boom?

HEFNER: Well, I think there were a couple of different things that you could attribute it to. I think one is this Western sort of interest in American expansion, sort of the American empire, the idea of American values. And so the fact that, you know, in the late '30s and during World War II the Western is really popular makes a lot of sense because there's a kind of reinforcement there.

They also sort of rose in the '30s at a point when the Hollywood studio system could really support a lot of movies. Westerns could be cheap. If you have the horses, right, and you have the land, you could churn out a lot of these movies pretty regularly.

CORNISH: So at what point did it seem as though that fell off, where moviegoers started to say, OK, we've had enough?

HEFNER: Well, the real fall is in the 1950s. By 1960, it's really, really dropped. There's only maybe 30 Westerns produced in 1960. I think that audiences became just exhausted with the genre. Two other reasons come to mind. One is, in the 1950s, particularly the late 1950s, studios began focusing more explicitly on the youth market and on teenagers. And teenagers were not interested in movies about the Old West, they were interested in movies about other teenagers.

The other is the rise of television in 1959, which is probably the peak of the television Western. You could stay home and watch Westerns every night of the week. So why go to the movie theater to see a Western when you had really good Westerns on TV?

CORNISH: What do you think will have to happen for superhero movies to go away?

HEFNER: People have to stop going to them I think is the simple answer to that because right now I don't necessarily see a way out of it for people who may be weary of the superhero movies. And the Western, for example, in the late '50s as it was declining, the stars were aging and the kinds of stories that were being told - they're often called the psychological Western - in the 1950s were really stories about protagonists that had demons, had a dark side, or they were very weary and just kind of tired of being cowboys.

So there are lots stories that really are about the end of the West. And that was a sign that the Western was in its first decline. So with the superhero movies, it's interesting because it seems like everything's happening simultaneously. We have the TV shows and the movies. We have the sort of upright moral heroes and we have the self-critical, sarcastic, weary heroes like Deadpool or Jessica Jones, right? But that doesn't seem to be a symptom of the superhero movie's decline. It's merely part of a larger landscape where some of the movies are for adults, some of the movies are for a broader age group.

CORNISH: If you're not a fan, you're basically saying we're stuck with it.

HEFNER: Pretty much, yeah.

CORNISH: (Laughter). Brooks Hefner. He teaches at James Madison University in Virginia.

Thank you for speaking with us.

HEFNER: Thank you having me, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.