by Adam-Troy Castro
Full Disclosure: your humble movie columnist read his first superhero comic book when he was about eight. He became addicted to the form and continued to read much of the combined output of Marvel and DC for more than thirty years, quitting only when the cost of following all those books finally became more than he could manage. He wrote a highly popular trilogy of Spider-Man novels pitting the web-slinger against the villains known as the Sinister Six, who in the books attack New York on the behest of a mysterious figure known as The Gentleman, who appears for a grand total of two minutes or so between the two Amazing Spider-Man films starring Andrew Garfield. (And, no, before you ask, your humble columnist did not receive a cent for this.) Your humble columnist is just nuts about Batman in particular, and still enjoys the occasional superhero story, both in the movies and when he manages to pick one of the compilations that put together stories “paced for the trade.” So when he says that he thinks that there are way too many superhero movies, further that there are certain real-world limitations to how good they can be, and finally that they’re crowding out too many other genres in ways that are not healthy, it’s not said lightly… but we don’t have to go into particular argument this time, as he has other fish to fry.
Your humble columnist also loves westerns, just loves them. He knows that this is rare today. Twenty-five years ago he was already encountering moviegoers who had never seen one and who, with the callow superiority of the uninformed, were nevertheless confident in saying not just that they hated the genre, but that they knew what it was all about; more than once, that every movie of the type was “exactly the same” as every other one.
Audience ignorance of the form is even worse now. But at one point, westerns were so dominant at the box office that by one estimate he’s encountered, they accounted for a full forty percent of all motion pictures being made in the United States, big or small. It was almost unheard of for any movie star to go an entire career without making one. You think superhero movies are ubiquitous now? Westerns were even more so.
Your humble columnist is happy that while there are damned few westerns made today, the genre still pops up in the movies once in a while, and not just in bastardized forms like Seth McFarlane comedies and awful versions of The Lone Ranger. Every once in a while, as if just to remind us of the possibilities, a great one like Open Range or the Coen Brothers version of True Grit shows its head. The last one he saw was a terrific little indie filmed in New Zealand called Slow West, released just this year, which culminates in a large gang of hired killers laying siege to an isolated farmhouse for the purpose of killing a young woman and her father. It was thrilling.
As it turns out, the western and superhero movie genres have some other superficial elements in common. Although this is not always so, westerns tend to concern themselves with questions of good and evil, law and order, backing down or standing up to fight for what’s right, and in many cases these questions are resolved by physical confrontation, like that siege of the farmhouse, or a gunfight in the center of town, at high noon. One difference is that many of the best westerns, like those made by Anthony Mann, seek to add moral nuances and shades of gray to this formula, whereas almost all superhero movies seek to do the precise opposite. Another is that many great westerns touch on the actual issues of our shared past, and superhero movies gleefully and for the most part exclusively hinge on things that can’t happen, that won’t happen, and for the most part don’t intersect with the world we live in at any point.
These are major differences, differences that your humble columnist is willing to contend make westerns the superior form, all other things being equal. But for the specific difference this column is about, let’s take a brief look at one particularly classic film, adapted from a classic novel by Walter van Tilburg Clark. It’s called The Ox-Bow Incident, it was made in 1943, and if you haven’t heard of it or seen it, you really do need to correct that omission before seeing yet another film where somebody gets super-powers from a lab accident. It’s a classic.
The Ox-Bow Incident begins with two men, Art Croft (Harry Morgan) and Gil Carter (Henry Fonda), riding into a sleepy little town after a long winter spent in the mountains. It has been so long that either one has seen civilization that they’re both rusty at conversation. They head into a bar, where they order whiskeys. Gil is hypnotized by a painting hanging over the bar, of a beautiful woman caught in the act of parting a curtain; she’s still mostly hidden, and he croaks something like, don’t she ever finish getting that curtain out of the way? The bartender says something like, I’ve worked here for years, friend; she’s never crossed that room yet. While at the bar Gil picks a stupid and pointless fight with another patron, gets knocked out, wakes up after a few minutes, and comes back to the bar. We gather from Art that this is his usual pattern. And soon afterward, the plot becomes a raging engine.
But here’s the important thing. We know that Art and Gil are hard-working men who live a tough life, that they don’t enjoy much in the way of human companionship except for one another, that they’re in a rut, that Gil yearns for the company of women, that he’s a bit of a hothead, that he’s directionless, that he’s bored, and that he’s pretty much without the power to change any of that.
The story’s about his opposition to a lynch mob, a bunch of town idiots eager to alleviate their own boredom by hanging three guys who they think murdered a local rancher. We learn what Gil is willing to do, just as importantly what he can’t do and how that will change him, by listening to what he says and watching what he does.
What we don’t get is a twenty-minute early section detailing how when he was just a boy he saw a man hanged for a crime he didn’t commit, explaining the attitudes he’s carried all his life; nor do we get a flashback showing that to us.
His character is revealed by his behavior. Any backstory we learn – which includes the revelation that he’s loved and lost – is provided by incident along the way.
About a dozen movies have been made about the lawman Wyatt Earp, whose big moment was the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. (Which was, buffs never tire of pointing out, was not actually at the O.K. Corral.) A number of them present Wyatt Earp as a done deal, a guy who’s either already developed a remarkable reputation as a lawman, or is at the very least an adult possessing the shootist skills that served him so well at that confrontation. We don’t necessarily need to know the triumphs and tragedies of his earlier years, and one reason we know we don’t is that Lawrence Kasdan made an almost four-hour movie, Wyatt Earp (1994), starring Kevin Costner, that gave it to us anyway. It presented us with such previously uncovered parts of Wyatt’s story as his childhood attempt to run away, the time he saw a gunfight and vomited, an early marriage that ends in his wife’s death by typhoid and Wyatt’s arson of the house where they lived together, his years buffalo-skinning, his…
…well. This all takes up the first half of the movie and it gives us nothing.
The movie is never great, except in the performance of Dennis Quaid as the consumptive Doc Holliday, but it only becomes interesting on any level when Wyatt Earp becomes Wyatt Earp and the story finally starts.
For the most part, the best westerns are those that omit, or minimize, the origin stories. John Wayne made any number of westerns where it was understood that he was tough old cuss, tending to fat, but we rarely dwelled on how he learned to shoot or why he walked that way. Clint Eastwood made a bunch of films where he was just a scruffy guy who could outdraw anybody and walk away with a squint, and that’s all we knew. There were a couple of others like The Outlaw Josey Wales where his background was provided in record time and High Plains Drifter where it remained an ambiguous mystery, and only one, Unforgiven, where it was a large part of the point. There are any number of films where we first meet the protagonist as he’s riding across the desert, and already know that he’s a guy whose adventures we’re here to see, without learning about every single trauma that shaped him.
And it’s not just true of westerns. Do we really need to know why John McClane of the Die Hard movies decided to become a cop? Or why Axel Foley did? Or Popeye Doyle?
It’s action and behavior, not origin stories, that defines character.
We really don’t need to know how all those guys learned to shoot. But in superhero stories it’s considered important that we learn how Snot-Man learned to sneeze villains into submission, and so we tend to get half an hour explaining how he was hit by lightning while scratching his nose, or whatever.
In too many cases, the origin is deadly, taking up space that could be used for the actual story. And the sad fact is that it’s usually not really necessary to dwell on it at such length. The Batman of the Adam West TV series and of the Tim Burton movie is first presented to us to a done deal, a guy who has already made this awful decision about what to do with his life; he’s right there, at the very beginning. The Burton gets rid of that stuff with a flashback. You really don’t need forty minutes of a two hour movie to tell it. Especially not if you’re going to then have to tell another story, a self-contained adventure, afterward.
This column’s being delivered just after the premiere of the widely-despised Fantastic Four reboot, which infamously spends an hour, out of an hour and forty minute running time, just giving them their powers… and then doesn’t give them anything to do for almost half an hour after that. It’s spending millions on the part of the story that Marvel Comics used to dispense with in a single paragraph over the splash page. Which is inane. You don’t need that.
This is even true in cases where the origin story is a great one. You think every comic book reader starts reading every comic with issue one? Your humble reviewer picked up his first Fantastic Four comic when he was a kid, but this occurred long after the series began; and the first thing he saw was that these were four folks with strange powers, living as a family in a Manhattan skyscraper, getting on with their various adventures. He picked up his first Spider-Man comic under similar circumstances. He was introduced to their adventures in media res; and he did not need to learn everything about the pasts of those characters to pick up what their basic concerns were. When the origins needed to be talked about, they were, and he added them to his store of knowledge. But he was doing just fine before that. He was doing just fine before he learned that Batman was an orphan.
Hell, The Incredibles never even bothered to explain how its supers could do the things they could. Nobody ever talked about it. It didn’t matter.
The only Marvel character who could arguably fill an entire movie with his origin story alone is Dr. Strange, who went from being a successful surgeon to losing the full use of his hands due to his own negligence to being a derelict vagabond to being the wanderer searching for a cure to being the student of the Ancient One to finally being Sorcerer Supreme. That’s a character arc, it really is. But if that’s the movie you want to make, you won’t have a Dr. Strange movie movie; you’ll have a guy-who-eventually-becomes-Dr. Strange movie But I’d just as soon see him the way the comics first presented him, a magician living in a funky house in Greenwich Village. Because that’s when he’s Doctor Strange, and if we need to know that he ruined his life as a surgeon, then let him just tell us on the fly.
It’s action and behavior, not origin stories, that define character.
And if we’re going to have superhero movies, it’s the origin that can be left out, or substantially shortened, in almost every iteration. It distorts and hobbles almost every movie where it’s a major factor.
We can do without it, most of the time.
We really can.
In The Magic Lantern, multiple Hugo and Nebula nominee Adam-Troy Castro reviews and reveals under-appreciated films worth talking about. This column will alternate with The Remake Chronicles, in which A-TC examines the stories that movies keep returning to.