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 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.
The heroic narrative is always the story of freedom. Lost or gained. It may be the freedom of the open road, a liberation from obligation and routine, or from tyranny and oppression. But that question of freedom lies at the heart of the narrative. Whether or not the hero directly fights for freedom, his life is a form of second-hand liberation. His freedom of action is the liberating element of the myth. That such freedom is mostly mythical is what makes it both inspiring and escapist.
The romanticism of urban freedom through violence takes many forms. The romance of the criminal is an old one, from bank robbers to modern hip hop, its origins lying back in the romance of the bandit and the highwayman, who takes what he wants and follows no law but his own.
On the other side is the cop story. The police officer is free, because he has powers that civilians do not. His freedom is the liberation of being on the side of authority. The man of action with a badge who can tell people what to do because his greater responsibility gives him greater powers. The fictional cop myth is the story of men who can hijack cars, have gun battles in the street, break the rules, and still be rewarded for it. It is vigilantism with the approval of the system.
The superhero is partly the cop myth taken to the ultimate level. But the badge no longer comes from the system. It comes from individual abilities. If the cop myth is the outgrowth of a self-policing society which wants to stretch the rules, but not entirely break them, individualism within collectivism-- the superhero myth applies frontier rules to an urban society. No laws, but those that a man thinks are worth upholding.
The superhero myth supersedes the physical and moral limitations of the urban vigilante. Not only is he physically superior to the society he confronts, but he is morally superior to them, for his own laws are better than theirs, and manage to be both more compassionate and more directly practical. And like the urban vigilante, the myth rises out of the frustration with an urban society in which laws trumps justice and individual freedom. Where doing what's right and following the rules are not the same thing.
The tension between freedom and order is at the heart of all these narratives. The freedom to be an individual, to be left alone and still lead a moral life. The vigilante is a private figure. Mysterious. He may have a secret identity, or he may just show up when needed. His public self is not his real self. Yet it is his best known self. He participates in the group only on his own terms. He comes and goes when he pleases, rather than being compelled to by any authority.
The superhero takes the ordinary urban battles of cops and robbers and makes them extraordinary, with superhuman men and women fighting each other. But this myth is an admission of urban helplessness. The need for vigilantes on the frontier was an admission that anarchy does not work. And the need for them in the city is an admission that the urban society in all its progressive multicultural glory does not work either. As much as the stories may try to leave behind the city and its dysfunction, for other worlds and complex mythologies, they always have to return there sooner or later. Because it is its failure of law that gives them meaning.
And though the superhero myth has displaced the Western, it lacks the essential American appeal of it. While there was something unique about the frontier, there is nothing so unique or different about urban decay. The glamor and decay of the American metropolis, the spectacle of New York and Chicago writ large, are not nearly as fascinating as it was in the 1930's or 50's. Urban decay is now everywhere. Skyscrapers mingling with multicultural slums is no longer uniquely American. And while there is something in the response to it that is American, the creation of a secular religion, with men elevated to godhood to resist urban blight and inspire its residents with a progressive morality, it is no longer truly liberating. Only escapist.
What does it say about a society that leaves behind the cowboy for the superhero, and the frontier for the decaying urban infrastructure? That which the passage of all myths says about a society. The death of the cowboy is the death of the West, at least in the minds of those who tell the stories. The birth of the superhero comes from the stories of an urban culture that fears police and criminals, and does not feel competent enough to resist their trespasses on their lives and freedoms, but wishes that someone out there would. Someone so superior to them that he or she might as well be a god. And if not a god then a billionaire. Which is close enough.
Is this shift reflective of America as a whole or only its urban and suburban centers? Probably the latter. The urban and suburban centers are where much of the popular culture gets made and consumed. But there is a larger America of which it is unrepresentative. The stories that popular culture tells reflect the experience of its storytellers. The shift from the frontier to the urban dystopia defined the experiences of those men and women who found themselves in the position of being able to tell the stories. As urban dystopia has given way to suburban apathy, the comic book has gone into decline. It has been partly revitalized by the move back to the cities in the last two decades. But as that trend begins to reverse itself-- the way be open for a third myth to take its place. A story that is neither of the frontier or the city, but of a lost country.