You may or may not have grown up with a Dad who loves Westerns. I did, and so I got an early education in John Ford thanks to John Wayne’s laconic take on the Western Hero. There was something about The Duke that seemed big, besides his frame. Like Elvis or The Beatles or Spielberg the first time you encounter a figure like Wayne he’s presented to you as a legend. Obviously these legends have the careers to back up the status but the initial impression of them as a legend will seal the deal and you will forever after be unable to think of them fully as people.
Here’s where the disconnect happens with Superheros on screen specifically from my point of view. John Wayne was my Dad’s guy, a lot of Dad’s guys. His presence in a movie would assure you would laugh and cheer. There’s a moment in one of Wayne’s films, maybe McLintock maybe Sons of Katie Elder (nope, it’s Big Jake) where some cowboys are about to hang a sheep herder (the two sets never got along thanks to sheep chewing the grass too low for cows to eat it). Wayne sees this going on from a distance, his rifle drawn. He decides he’s not going to get involved, it’s not his business. Then one of the cowboys kicks the sheep herders son. “Aww why you’d have to kick the kid?” Turns out it’s the last mistake those no good cowboys would make.
This kind of good guy might seem quaint nowadays, the kind that might act tough but has a strict moral code that wouldn’t allow for something like kicking a helpless kid while at the same time being practical. Being a man of action involves a certain amount of practicality in avoiding danger while at the same time being able to handle pretty much anything that goes along with it.
And that’s the problem. Superheros can obviously handle anything that comes along. If you’re a bad guy and you’re in a movie called Batman or Iron Man you should pretty much just give up. We all know how this is going to turn out so why not back off the whole ‘I’m gonna blow up the world’ thing and think about leading a quiet life on a remote island somewhere. Wayne’s characters are superheros in this regard, we know he’ll get the job done and we know he’s on the side of right or will ultimately come around to it. What exactly the right is is supplied by the audience. But he accomplishes the job without superpowers. His greatest ability is his screen presence, which is frankly undeniable. You can’t take your eyes off him when he’s on screen by virtue of who he is, or what he means to an audience.
You can’t help looking at Superheros because they’re the ones who are dressed the silliest. You will tend to pay attention to the guy who can shoot lasers out of his eyes or can punch through walls. And there’s a neediness there, “If you think other screen badasses are badass well just look at me then! Watch as I blow a lot of stuff up in my cool armor with my cape and all my other bullshit. I can beat up a million guys. A million!” There’s always going to be this silliness with superheros, unless you grew up in the gap between baby boomers, Gen X, and whatever the modern generation is called. Growing up in the cracks of this you get a sense of all sides.
My main sense is that our parents’ screen icons were grander than our present day ones because they don’t have to scream and explode to get our attention. And though its been compared to Rio Bravo, The Avengers is not a film that could exist without lots and lots of explosions whereas Rio Bravo can just have its characters sitting around sharing the air. That’s not to say The Avengers is bad because there are very few quiet moments. It’s totally entertaining but it will never be Dad Cool, which means it will never have a quiet authority that extends beyond the whirligigs on the screen. If you put any of these actors in another film they won’t carry the gravitas of their persona with them. Also, not a bad thing. The actors in the film are actors after all. Samuel L. Jackson would come the closest but now there exists such a phenomena as the Christopher Walken effect where you spend a lot of time parodying your screen persona as opposed to relishing in it.
So onto Die Hard, the modern day Western of my youth. Yippee ki-yay mother fucker. Wayne never got to say mother fucker on screen, to the best of my knowledge, but we wouldn’t want him to. Sure he can say hell and damn but only for emphasis. He’d never make explicit reference to the sex act and certainly not in such a negative connotation as incest. John McClane is the modern John Wayne, of the late 80’s modern day. So he can be a bit more dirty, a bit more extreme, going by the culture. But his screen presence is a direct descendant of Wayne’s, as explicitly stated in the text of Die Hard. When accused of thinking himself a cowboy like Wayne McClane jokes that he was always more of a Roy Rogers fan. And that’s the charm of McClane. He is like our Dads, would have watched the same movies, but he’s a realist. He doesn’t want to be in this situation at all but he’s got no choice. His wife is in danger so he risks his life for her. What a guy!
But if McClane had superpowers he wouldn’t be so interesting and certainly not as charming. The iconography of Die Hard, guns, a blood and sweat stained undershirt, a roof exploding, are exaggerations of a somewhat recognizable world. It’s a dangerous world that someone like McClane understands, he’s not blind to the danger and the danger seems very real. It’s a danger that is also held up by means of Cinema: truly well choreographed action with cuts that make sense with geography we understand that flows together beautifully along with a really great matte painting of an elevator shaft. I’m a sucker for matte paintings. The badassery of McClane is achieved by him not wanting to be a badass, by being forced into it. This is a lot cleaner than being granted great power so you get a silly costume and go beat up faceless bad guys because you have to because what is the point of being able to shoot lasers out of your chest if you don’t show it off?
This is why superheros on screen will always seem a bit silly to me. It doesn’t negate the possibility that you can have a superhero movie that Dads will like. Judging by the billion dollar box-office of The Avengers and The Dark Knight I’m sure plenty of Dads were and will continue to be in attendance. But a part of me will always see myself trying to explain to my Father why Iron Man is so cool because he can do this and this and this. John Wayne only needed to be John Wayne, only needed to house a world-weariness underneath which was humor and a sense of what is right and what is wrong. Superheros are too amped up for the screen. They’re meant to burst off the page, e.g. anything Jack Kirby has done. Watchmen would have done well to be made ten years from now, when it could have commented on a more established superhero genre. Reading Watchmen you felt like, “This is what it would be like if superheros were real.” I didn’t get that sense at all watching the movie version because it couldn’t have evoked the icongraphy, the archetypes, of the superhero as the comic did. Maybe if it started out with a Cassavetes style realism that then exploded outwards into Superpowered madness there could have been a stronger sense of the dichotomy of the imagined and real world. Or maybe not.
Wayne’s one-liners will still make my Dad laugh. These superheros of the modern cinema have plenty of one-liners but they feel snarkier, sillier, more self-aware. “I’m not wearing hockey pads” is funny. “Why’d you have to kick the kid” is funnier and comes with a head nod of recognition. Don’t piss off the Duke.