And yet another book is out! In this case it’s my Superheroes and Worldbuilding book. I’m continuing my mini-worldbuilding books with one on Superheroes (and it mostly focuses specifically on heroes – villains may be forthcoming). So if you’re thinking about a setting with capes and heroics, give it a check!
As the decades progress with the History of Adaptations, the type of movie that is popular is changing. Biblical epics gave way to musicals, then biblical remakes, then modern thrillers. Not seen in the most popular list are Westerns*, despite them being a quarter of Hollywood’s output , from feature films to serials to television, plus radio series. The Western is a very American genre, celebrating the expansion of the US into an unknown frontier. The original Star Trek was marketed as “Wagon Train to the stars” to get the concept of the show through to executives. In the 1966-67 television season, when Star Trek first aired, there were eighteen Westerns aired on the three TV networks. Gunsmoke still holds the record for the longest running television drama, beating Law & Order in number of episodes, and has its roots in radio before airing on TV in 1955.
Westerns lost popularity in the Seventies. The Vietnam War had American questioning their country and its myths. Blazing Saddles, released in 1974, took the tropes of Westerns and skewered them with parody, much like how Airplane killed the airplane disaster film popular in the Seventies. Heaven’s Gate, released in 1980 and based loosely on the Johnson County War of 1889-1893, may have been the final nail in the coffin along with ending the New Hollywood era of the auteur director. Since then, Westerns have been made, but not in the same numbers as before.
Police procedurals took over the niche Westerns had. There is a similarity between the two genres. A lawman protecting the community against the black hats that threaten it is a common plot in Westerns. That same plot is the bread-and-butter of the police procedural. Dragnet, first appearing on radio in 1949 and television in 1951, set the tropes for the genre. Jack Webb, the creator of Dragnet, used the same approach with Emergency, a fire department procedural focused on paramedics in Los Angeles. The police procedural took over the Western’s place on television schedules, with series like Hawaii Five-0 in the Seventies, Miami Vice in the Eighties, and the Law & Order franchise through the Nineties to the new millennium.
Today, though, a new mythos has emerged, building on ideas in both Westerns and police procedurals. The superhero, while around since the age of the pulps and mystery men, has become a dominant force. Superman has appeared on radio, in live-action television and movies, and in animated series. Batman has almost kept pace, with no radio show featuring the character but appearing in the Superman radio series. Between June 2015 and 2020, there are fifty-one planned superhero movies, plus several TV series. While nowhere near the number of Westerns during that genre’s peak, the amount of money being put into developing these fifty-one movies is far beyond what Hollywood invested in oaters.
Superheroes, like Westerns, are uniquely American**. Unlike Westerns, superheroes aren’t based on historical figures, allowing the characters to remain bigger than life without the worry of an indiscretion being discovered by historians. However, like some Westerns, superheroes are vigilantes keeping communities safe from villains who would otherwise be untouchable. Batman touches on both the Western and the police procedural, touching on ideas in The Lone Ranger as someone outside the law working to enforce it and being an investigator, as seen in numerous police procedurals and detective stories. Marvel’s The Avengers can be seen as similar to movies like The Seven Samurai and its Hollywood version, The Magnificent Seven, with a number of heroes being brought together to fight off a threat.
While people may believe that the superhero bubble will pop, what needs to be kept in mind is that Westerns, as a genre, lasted decades with higher levels of saturation. Police procedurals are still around. While NBC cancelled Law & Order through an ill-advised move, its spin-off, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, first appearing in 1999, is still on the air. CBS has its own police procedural franchise in CSI: Crime Scene Investiation, starting in 2000, and still going with CSI: Cyber. Superhero media outside comics may continue for some time.
The issue that is occurring, as the History of Adaptations project will examine in greater detail, is that superheroes started in a medium considered to be for children. Comics, despite the strides made in appealing to adults, are still seen as being for kids. Westerns, while at times family fare, still could be seen by the entire family, again with exceptions. Police procedurals are definitely aimed at adults, with series aimed at a younger audience tweaked to avoid adult situations. Supers, though, still have the public image as being something aimed at children and teenagers and, thus, not to be taken seriously. The same issue exists for Young Adult novels; superheroes, though, are a visual medium and aren’t seen as being as literary.
That said, superheroes present a new American mythology, one that is still being created while building on the myths and legends of history. There is potential within the genre. Marvel Studios, through its Avengers Initiative series of movies, is showing that supers can be added to any number of genres, from technothriller to space opera, to create something new. There may be a bubble, but it’s not ready to deflate yet.
* With the exception of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in the Sixties.
** As uniquely American as possible when half the creators of the first superhero, Superman, was Canadian. Joe Shuster hailed from Toronto, Ontario, and elements of that city can be seen in Metropolis.