The American frontier is a formative myth, one that permeates popular culture.
The cowboy is an American icon, as much as the gangster or the superhero. The archetype embodies a set of ideals that inform the country’s perception of itself. Indeed, part of the charm of Logan is seeing that archetype evolution rendered explicit. If The Wolverine posited its central character as a lost samurai who had evolved into a superhero, then James Mangold’s follow-up positions the character as a lost cowboy in a western wasteland. The third and final film in this series has been described as “Unforgiven, with claws.” It is a label that fits. A brand that sticks.
Logan even offers its closing judgment on the character by quoting directly from Shane, a very literal example of the superhero genre quoting from westerns. Mutants are not just an evolution of mankind, they also represent a storytelling evolution. Of course, the western has been evolving for quite some time. Many prognosticators announced the death of the western some time in the seventies, perhaps coinciding with the loss of faith in American institutions (and perhaps mythology) coinciding with the twin blows of Watergate and Vietnam.
Of course, the western film never really went away. There were always westerns lurking in the background, even after Heaven’s Gate was erected as gigantic tombstone to the genre in 1980. Pale Rider, Silverado, Dances with Wolves, Unforgiven, Tombstone. However, the many of the more successful (and impactful) westerns of the era tended to have a very mournful and funeral tone to them. There is also something to be said about the success of playful or deconstructed westerns, from Young Guns to The Three Amigos to City Slickers.
Many prognosticators would argue that superhero films came to take the ideological place of the western, accessible entertainment for large audiences built on an American archetype. However, the twenty-first century found the western creeping back into cultural awareness. This took many forms; the neo-westerns of films like No Country for Old Men or Hell or High Water; the self-aware Tarantino scripts for Django Unchained or The Hateful Eight; the prestige picture charm of The Revenant; the cultural smash of Westworld.
There were any number of interesting observations that might be made about these films. Most obviously, there was a recurring sense of horror to these reimaginings of the American west, whether reflected in the human-like form of Anton Chigurh or the zombie movie aesthetic of Ira Glass’ journey back to civilisation. However, there was also a very strong apocalyptic vibe to these modern westerns. Many classic westerns lamented the death of wilderness crushed beneath the heel of advancing civilisation. Modern westerns seem to fear the opposite.