Hollywood Has Forgotten Its Own Lessons On Masculinity — And One Timeless Classic Proves It

[Screenshot/YouTube/Paramount via Rotten Tomatoes Classic Trailers]

Gage Klipper Commentary & Analysis Writer
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What makes a great superhero film?

Although filmmakers have lost sight of it, it’s not so hard to tell: a moral compass rooted in masculine virtue. 

America invented the superhero in 1938 with the first Superman comic, but its legacy has been lost in a matrix of franchise fatigue. With “hero” now flippantly used to describe anyone supporting the cause du jour, Americans have forgotten what true heroism is. 

The traditional superhero grew out of a distinctly American moment. Like America itself, Superman was larger than life, achieving feats unimaginable to the average human. His mild-mannered disguise concealed the constant tension between his extraordinary power and upright morality; he spoke softly, but carried a big stick. 

But the superhero ethos was not limited to those with preternatural abilities. It also permeated another film genre: the great American Western. 

This year marks 70 years since George Stevens’ now-classic Western “Shane” was released in Radio City Music Hall. By 1953, Americans had moved on from the war and were starting to raise families ensconced in the hopefulness and stability that the age of American supremacy had to offer. 

For those who wish to deride it, the film, like the era, is easily remembered as overly simplistic. Despite near-universal acclaim, today it is viewed more as a case study on individual repression or for its “deliberately epic” imagery than for how it dealt with moral complexities. Perhaps that is because modern critics seek to forget the message they no longer want to hear. 

To be fair, the plot is deceptively simple. Shane is a lone gunslinger with an eye for justice who rides into town one day out on the Wyoming frontier. He takes on work with the Starrett family — the unremarkable husband, the idealized wife, and their precocious, young son Joey — and gets drawn into their battle with the menacing ranchers who lay claim to the land. 

Shane is an archetypal hero who cannot abide injustice upon the innocent, but he also has the anti-hero characteristics of a man who cannot resist his proclivities to violence. Yet it is not a film about individualism, but a film about the greater good — it is not about self-repression, but self-denial. 

Skip forward six and a half decades, long after Shane’s classic status had been cemented, and we find his superhuman descendant slashing through the ossified caricatures of heroism in American film. Perhaps the best superhero movie in decades, “Logan (2017) — Hugh Jackman’s farewell to the X-men Wolverine character — pays explicit tribute to “Shane” as it navigates the same themes in a now-hostile culture. (RELATED: Hollywood Keeps Trying To Push The Same Tired Boundary … And Audiences Are Sick Of It)

Logan learns of his genetically-engineered daughter, Laura, who shares his trademark claws and aptitude for violence. She is being hunted by the laboratory that made her, and Logan sets out to transport her across the American West to safety in Canada. Despite his aversion to having fatherhood thrust upon him, he accepts his duty. 

In one scene, Laura and Logan spend the night with a family of modern-day homesteaders and help them stand up to the predations of a thuggish corporate agricultural company. If the parallels aren’t stark enough, they watch the famous final scene of “Shane” together: 

“Joey, there’s no living with a killing,” Shane tells the boy after his final showdown with the ranchers. “There’s no going back from one. Right or wrong, it’s a brand. A brand sticks. There’s no going back. Now you run on home to your mother, and tell her everything’s all right. And there aren’t any more guns in the valley.” Joey yells for Shane in vain as he rides away, gravely injured. 

At their core, both films are about being a man and the duty he carries. This is something that seems to have been forgotten in the interim as Hollywood evolved away from the stoic male hero. That is why “Logan” stands out from its contemporaries and “Shane” still holds weight today — there is continuity and truth in the titular characters’ masculine heroism. 

Being a man means caring for the next generation — not only for its physical safety, but for its moral formation. Both Shane and Logan know this, and they sacrifice themselves for it.  

Shane yearns for the domesticity the Starrett homestead offers. He finds meaning in the simple farm work, delights in teaching Joey to shoot, and appreciates the nurturing care of a woman. He has the opportunity to inherit it all when Mr. Starrett prepares to go off and fight the ranchers. But Shane stops him, knowing Starrett does not have the gunslinging skills to succeed. 

This is not because Shane cannot resist hopping into a fight himself or subconsciously wants to self-sabotage. It’s because he knows he is the only one who can stop the ranchers. He accepts his fate as a killer so that Joey can have the family life he deserves. He is denying — not repressing — his happiness for the greater good. 

Logan too, knows that a domestic life is something he can never truly have. He craves death and hates himself for what he is — “Nature made me a freak, man made me a weapon, God made it last too long” — but he bears his suffering for Laura’s sake. Like Shane, he finds meaning in using his exceptional abilities to save her. 

Yet both men are self-aware. They know they cannot truly be heroes because the means they use are evil. Even for the right reasons, there is no virtue in a life of violence and killing. They damn themselves so that Laura and Joey can be better than they are — the perennial aspiration between every generation of Americans since our founding. 

Shane’s final advice to Joey to “grow up to be strong and straight” resounds in Logan’s dying wish to Laura: “don’t be what they made you.”

This timeless moral truth — that manly virtue is inexorably linked to true heroism — has been lost in the contemporary superhero genre. Endlessly derivative spin-offs and sequels prioritize spectacle over substance and now oversaturate the market. 

Neither hero nor anti-hero, Iron Man and Dr. Strange, celebrate the idealized modern lifestyle; their heroic feats are a function of their own ego and individualism. Witty retorts and flashy showmanship replace the stoic virtue of self-denial. Alternatively, we have Ant-Man, Shazam, Kick-Ass; all lean into the trope of pitiable underdog. Their heroism grows from learning to embrace their differences; they are strong in their own ways. (RELATED: Hollywood Libs Destroy Another Piece Of Western Heritage)

With self-fulfillment as the only moral center, these films are just not all that compelling. 

Perhaps it is no coincidence that our modern culture fails to produce films that champion traditional manliness. We do indeed appear to no longer be a civilization that cares about its own progeneration. The younger generation castigates its ancestors as evil bigots and forsakes the very virtues that provided for its creature comforts. The older generation — those in power, at least —forget their generational obligations to teach and protect and instead applaud as their children seek to tear it all down. False heroism is but the tip of the iceberg — we are now a society committed to the subversion of truth in its entirety. 

Yet great art remains a beacon of truth, which is why heroism has retained the same moral dimensions across cultures and millennia. 

The guns in the valley are not only guns in the literal sense, but the brutality humans are so prone to spew at one another. True courage in the face of such brutality is what’s needed if society is to continue. 

Filmmakers must re-embrace this timeless vision if they ever hope to make another good superhero movie — but also because our culture is in desperate need of it. Once again, there are so many guns in the valley.