The thing about Golden Ages is we’re rarely talking about quality, instead just prevalence. Steven Spielberg caught a lot of flak in comment sections for daring to say “Superhero films will go the way of the Western,” as if for some reason this craze is impervious to the same natural decay all crazes, from the Dutch Tulip Bubble to the Wild West film, face.
Unlike the Superhero genre, sequels in Westerns were rare, and when they did appear they were most often able to stand perfectly well on their own two feet. You don’t need to have seen A Fistful of Dollars to make sense of For A Few Dollars More. You could skip one and not have any cause to worry. Somehow Superhero films have managed to convince us this is not so for them. If you miss Iron Man 3 how is The Avengers 2 or Ant-Man going to make a lick of sense? You’d better see them all lest you get confused. But beyond setting up future team-up movies, what really changes between these films?
On paper, the Marvel Cinematic Universe and its promise of never-ending cross-film set-ups and pay-offs seems like the ultimate business model, but when the status quo is never really shaken, those set-ups and pay-offs, inevitably, start to dilute in value. Just like the Dutch Tulip Bubble, which saw the then rare Tulip bulb at one point reach prices ten times the annual salary of the average worker, the more a product of worth becomes inescapable, the closer you get to the inevitable crash.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier came like a shot-off adrenalin to what was, even then, starting to get a bit stale. All of a sudden, we were given a Marvel film with a different tone and, best of all, a twist that was genuinely unexpected. Audiences, myself included in there, left Winter Soldier seriously speculating what the ramifications of that twist would wind up being. Turns out they’d amount to next to nothing, really. The government agency that oversaw the Avengers went from being called S.H.I.E.L.D. to just The Avengers, and the villainous secret society that was Hydra became S.H.I.E.L.D. and then was back to being called… Hydra, again.
What were the long-term effects of Civil War? While, to be fair, we haven’t had much of a chance to know for sure yet, my money is on not much. A story, no matter how many super-powered obstacles you pack in for the heroes to face, is nothing if the endings are virtually inconsequential. How many times can you see John Wayne inevitably bring justice to those marauding bandits? After a while it just gets a bit tired.
Just like we never saw the “End of the Western” absolutely, we won’t be completely bereft of superhero films either. There will always be Batman films and there will always be Spider-Man films, and added to that we’ll always get films like Logan and The Dark Knight. Just like Unforgiven or McCabe and Mrs Miller, just because your genre’s well past it’s Golden Age or, in the case of the latter, at least on its way out, doesn’t mean you’ve not got some great films to look forward to. You just don’t have to worry about watching John Wayne do the same thing for the thirtieth time in a row. Instead you can enjoy him as Genghis Kahn.