Cowboys vs Superheroes

RightSide NewsDaniel Greenfield

To walk into a movie theater today is to notice one obvious thing. Aside from the inflated ticket prices, and the resort to gimmicks such as 3D by a film industry unable to compete with newer more immersive forms of entertainment, is that a genre which hardly existed 50-60 years ago dominates the box office, and a genre which was omnipresent then, is all but absent now.

The Western, once the defining American myth and its most potent international export, has all but vanished. Occasional remakes such as 3:10 to Yuma or True Grit surface, and are gone. In their place is the superhero spectacle. A genre which has become America's new chief cultural export.

The comic book superhero postdates the Western, but not by that much. And they share certain things in common. The Western myth is of a frontier vigilante. The comic book is of an urban vigilante. The genres romanticized the violence and disorder of the frontier and the urban city, while dramatically exaggerating them, and turning the sordid aspects of life and those who resisted them into the heroes of the new American narrative.

The energy of rapid growth in the city and on the frontier, people moving faster than laws could bind them, gave birth to the setting and with it the idea that a moral individual is a better force for good, than the system. There is something inherently libertarian about that. And indeed some of the more influential forces in both genres have been libertarian or libertarian-leaning. The comic book heroes looking down from the movie theater marquee at your today were often created or co-created by libertarians.

But there is a dramatic shift that takes place between the two genres. And it is a revealing shift. The cowboy is human. The superhero is increasingly inhuman.

The cowboy can be an individual on the frontier. When the freedom of the frontier shrinks, then he is diminished. The superhero arises out of an urban setting only because he has extraordinary powers, wealth or skills that give him a freedom denied to ordinary men and women. If he did not have these powers or skills, then he too would be just another drudge in an urban maze. He too would be interdependent.

The term superhero is already revealing. On the frontier, it was enough to have a space of your own. In a packed mass, the only way to be a hero, is to be superhuman. To stand out by focusing the mass of attention on yourself, whether as a superhero or a celebrity.

That the cowboy has given way to the superhero in the American myth is painfully revealing. It is the siren song of the last frontier, giving way to an overcrowded and dangerous society where the law fails, and only a gift from the storytelling gods, can give a man his freedom and let him do what's right.

The Western promised a kind of universal freedom available to anyone who could go out west. The comic book superhero turns freedom into something that is only magically available to a small elite.

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