Reel to Real

Superhero movies are in danger of being the new westerns

“Black Adam” (Rated T)

Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Aldis Hodge, Pierce Brosnan, Sarah Shahi

Genre: Action/Fantasy

Where to watch: In Theaters

Dwight’s Rating: 2 stars out of 4

Westerns once ruled the movie roost.

From the very beginning of the film industry, omnipresent and immensely popular westerns even straddled multiple genres. There were melodramatic westerns, comedy westerns, musical westerns, psychological westerns, and there’ve even been a few that touched on horror and sci-fi.

Audiences seemed to have insatiable appetites for westerns – until they didn’t.

Many agree that the peak came in the 1960s, around the time that television emerged as an unquestionably unstoppable force.

A wave of western TV shows by the end of the ‘50s (like “Gunsmoke”, “Bonanza”, “Wagon Train”) became dominating ratings juggernauts for almost two decades and helped accelerate the decline of the big screen western.

Other than bigger budgets and large screens with technicolor, the western films didn’t offer much more than what viewers could get at home on TV from popular and better-developed characters, who found themselves in new and often quite contemporary and relatable adventures every single week.

With most of the big screen offerings, however, an article in “The New York Times Magazine” from November 2007 pointed out that “demand for westerns was consistently strong and undiscerning – hence its heavy emphasis on low-cost, formulaic plots.”

The article also noted that this combined with the television impact brought “market saturation and generic exhaustion.” Thus, by the 1980s, the western film was reduced to merely occasional nostalgic experiences once every few years, like “Unforgiven” (1992) or “The Revenant” (2015), or films set in modern times in the western tradition like “Hell or High Water” (2016).

Hmmm! “Market saturation and generic exhaustion.” Sound familiar?

I posit that the comic book-based superhero movie is today’s western, and is ultimately in danger of suffering the same fate as what befell this once-ubiquitous film genre.

The exact storm clouds are brewing. Exhibit 2,503: the new “Black Adam”, a spinoff of the actually quite entertaining “Shazam!” (2019).

Despite heavy promotion and a good cast, and with Dwayne Johnson, a star who’s the world’s current biggest box office draw, this DC Extended Universe film can’t overcome being “generic” and “formulaic”, and is obviously aimed at the “undiscerning”.

In ancient Kahndaq, Teth Adam (Dwyane Johnson) was bestowed the almighty powers of the gods. After using these powers for vengeance, he was imprisoned, becoming Black Adam. Nearly 5,000 years have passed, and Black Adam has gone from man to myth to legend. Now free, his unique form of justice, born out of rage, is challenged by modern-day heroes who form the Justice Society: Hawkman (Aldis Hodge), Dr. Fate (Pierce Brosnan), Atom Smasher and Cyclone.

Resurrecting ancient forces who go on to wreak havoc on the modern world has been a common theme of late for these films. DC’s own original “Suicide Squad” and many others have told similar tales.

Another overused plot device that seems to now be enshrined in the lawbooks governing all of these flicks: having individuals or teams of super beings, who initially don’t get along, violently clash with each other for long action sequences, only to realize (what the audience knows all along) that they need to join forces to defeat true evil.

I know as children many of us were obsessed with and frequently took part in “who would win in a fight between this one and that one” debates. But these exhibitions are getting tiresome, especially when they take up such large expanses of these always far-too-lengthy films.

Who is coming up with this stuff? And why are we getting photocopied plots?

After decades of the classic Caucasian North American male hero type, the studios seem to believe we’ll accept the very same stories but now with heroes of different races, ethnicities, nationalities, lifestyles and physical abilities. They also believe that if they fill these up with enough popular and good-looking actors, we’re bound to flock to theaters to observe anything they do.

With “Black Adam”, the conveyor belt method of superhero filmmaking apparently means different parts of the film are subcontracted out to different writers. Surely the relatively decent first few minutes of this picture were handled by different scribes from the team who took over shortly thereafter.

A new team – possibly the first team, once again – takes over in the middle, where we suddenly and refreshingly are treated to wittier banter and attempts at humor, allowing Johnson to showcase his talents – besides looking angry and smashing things.

But as soon as you can say “shazam”, it’s presto changeo, “New film! Who dis?” And we’ve got brainless non-stop “action.”

“Action” here means “snooze fest”. Sure, things look expensive, but there’s nothing that’s going to blow your mind and get you to say “Wow! How’d they do this?”

No, you’re more likely to say “Wow! WHY’D they do this?” As in, why’d they create something almost pointless, and so uneven and inconsistent, and actually boring?

A friend suggested that I shouldn’t watch these films if I feel so strongly about them. But that’s the thing, they’re not all this unnecessary and banal. There are great ones. The recent “Spider Man” reboot franchise has been delightful. “Black Panther” was fantastic. This year’s “The Batman” showed promise. The “Deadpool” and “Guardians of the Galaxy” franchises attempt to stand out. And “Logan” was one of the best ever.

But by the looks of things, we’ve hit the peak of this superhero genre.

In the best-case scenario, this would result in a scaling back in the frequency of the releases, and an increase in the quality.

Otherwise – and the most likely scenario – we’ll be just a few years away from the point when the announcement of a new superhero movie will elicit the same reaction when most hear there’s a new western on the way.

• Dwight Strachan is the host/producer of “Morning Blend” on Guardian Radio and station manager. He is a television producer and writer, and an avid TV history and film buff. Email and follow him on twitter @morningblend969.

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Dwight Strachan

Dwight is the host/producer of “Morning Blend” on Guardian Radio and station manager. He is a television producer and writer, and an avid TV history and film buff.

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