The third episode of Agent Carter‘s second season features one of the more amusing bits of meta-humor to grace the Marvel Cinematic Universe in recent months: As part of the new season’s Los Angeles-centered storyline, Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) has followed the path of his real-life inspiration Howard Hughes by setting up his own movie studio, where Carter visits him during the production of a cowboy shoot-em-up where the ever ingratiating playboy cheekily offers her a role as an Old West love-interest. When Peggy (Hayley Atwell) replies that she’d rather play the gunfighter, Stark replies that he likes the idea – but audiences might not be ready for it. Replies Peggy: “Oh, but they’re ready for a film based on a comic book?”
It’s only then that we realize what movie Stark is actually making: An adaptation of Kid Colt, a period-appropriate western comic-book hero originally published by Marvel.
It’s a clever exchange, riffing on Agent Carter’s continued main theme of Peggy as a female action-hero ahead of her time and the commonly observed absurdity that somehow lady heroes are seen as more bizarre than the otherworldly goings on Marvel is already mining for films and TV shows. It also returns to the theme of how the MCU heroes are viewed by the popular culture of their own world, reminding us that fictionalized versions of Captain America’s exploits were (canonically, according to The First Avenger) retold in comic form and that Steve Rogers himself was starring in Captain America movies before he was allowed to join the war effort for real. But it also raises an interesting possibility in terms of the continued expansion of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s reach and the legacy of superheroes in the popular imagination:
Why hasn’t Marvel considered making a Western?
At first, the answer would seem fairly obvious: Though enormously popular for most of the 20th Century, Westerns are widely regarded as a dead or “niche” genre in modern Hollywood. The last attempt to revive the genre in big-budget blockbuster form, Disney’s now-infamous reimagining of The Lone Ranger, bombed spectacularly with audiences and critics and remains a source of withering criticism for Johnny Depp’s bizarre performance as the Native American sidekick Tonto. Most other modern entries tend to be lower-budget affairs aimed largely at older audiences or the “arthouse” scene, with Clint Eastwood’s pitch-black deconstructionist take Unforgiven having been recieved as a “eulogy” for the fading genre in 1992 and subsequent revivals like Tombstone and Open Range meeting only moderate success (even The Hateful Eight hasn’t been one of Quentin Tarantino’s bigger hits) and failing to kick-start a revival trend – a profound change for a genre that used to be the defining medium for blockbuster action stories and kid-friendly adventures.
However, over the years many pop-culture analysts have opined that the Hollywood Cowboy never really faded at all; instead, it’s been posited that the Western genre simply outgrew the limitations of its own setting, and that the particular strain of heroic storytelling associated with the genre evolved into other forms – like cop movies in the 80s and 90s and comic-book superheroes in the new millennium. In fact, fans and sympathetic critics looking to defend the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the broader trend of comic book-based blockbusters from accusations that the genre now constitutes too much of Hollywood’s production schedule routinely cite the onetime ubiquity of silver screen cowboys as a logical retort. After all, how can a handful of movies about costumed crimefighters each year be called “over-saturation” from an industry that at one point saw hundreds of cowboy adventures being cranked out by every major studio on an almost yearly basis?
There are, to be sure, some technical issues with that particular argument. For starters, production schedules of every genre were more packed in those days, and while Westerns were always big business they didn’t always command full sweep of lavish budgets and big star attention. But there’s a solid truth to the core premise beneath the genre-justification: When you strip out the genre-specific trappings of capes, cowls and magic hammers (or six-shooters, spurs and ten gallon hats) the line between the Hollywood Cowboy and the Hollywood Superhero becomes almost non-existent. Hopalong Cassidy and Roy Rogers were most assuredly the big-screen Superman and Batman of their day, and there’d be few inheritors to the late John Wayne’s cowboy-persona as America’s idealized self-image better suited than Chris Evans’ Captain America. So, then, if superheroes are basically cowboys, why can’t cowboys also be superheroes?
Marvel in particular has already proven that the global audience hunger for superheroic action is so fierce that moviegoers (and TV viewers) will accept a broad enough definition of “superhero” to cover a wide variety of genres: The Captain America, Iron Man and (soon) new Spider-Man movies occupy various realms of traditional comic book heroics, yes, but there’s also the playful comedy of Ant-Man and the high-fantasy of the Thor franchise. The Guardians of The Galaxy are thought of as “superheroes” even though they and they’re world are more accurately a cosmic space-opera in the vein of Star Wars. The Hulk’s solo outing was a monster movie. Doctor Strange is a – literal – wizard. The Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are spies and Jessica Jones is a hard-bitten neo-noir detective, but both are regarded as much a part of the MCU superhero-brigade as the more conventional costumed-hero Daredevil. If all these disparate characters and stories can be united not only in continuity but in box-office/ratings viability, why wouldn’t it make sense for Marvel to turn its attention to the genre that is, in fact, the cinematic ancestor of the modern superhero itself?
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