Consider the singing cowboy, in his natural habitat: the silver screen.
Settled comfortably on his best friend’s saddle as they advance across the western landscape, he strums an acoustic guitar and serenades the sunset, singing in a mellow voice about the trail, the sky, and his undying affection for his horse and his sweetheart, in that order. He’s the hero of the movie, so naturally he puts the guitar down once in a while; he chases rustlers and fugitives, rescues honest homeowners from sinister plots to steal their ranches and kidnap their pretty daughters, and otherwise pursues justice on the open plains. At sixty-one minutes per, with anywhere from six to eight musical numbers, it’s hard to say whether a singing cowboy movie is an adventure story punctuated with songs, or a concert film interrupted periodically by galloping horses and gunshots.
This film genre — which popularized country/western music across the United States, just when we’d developed a hankering for it — first caught on in early 1935, when recording star Gene Autry appeared in a 15-part western/sci-fi cliffhanger serial called The Phantom Empire. In the serial, Autry played a cowboy singer who operates a radio station/dude ranch, where his daily schedule of live performances is disrupted by the discovery of the secret underground world of Murania, which rises up to challenge the surface world with robots and ray-guns. With his next film, released in September 1935, Autry transitioned into a more traditional Western setting in Tumbling Tumbleweeds, which included seven songs shoehorned into a story about murder over disputed water rights.
Over the next three months, Autry made three more singing cowboy movies for Republic Pictures, and then eight more in 1936. In the next two decades, he starred in a total of 93 singing cowboy films, and then he moved to television, where his show ran for five seasons, and spawned a 26-episode spin-off starring his horse Champion.
And Autry wasn’t the only one: Republic found another star, Roy Rogers, who made 89 singing cowboy films from 1938 to 1951, and Grand National signed Tex Ritter, who made 76. Between Autry, Rogers and Ritter, the two studios made 23 singing cowboy movies in 1939 alone. Just imagine leaving a movie house in late 1939, having seen your 22nd singing cowboy movie of the year, and thinking to yourself, boy! I can’t wait to see the next one.
I mean, not you, obviously. You probably haven’t seen any of these movies, and there’s a better-than-average chance that you didn’t even know this genre existed until I brought it up. And that’s why people who make superhero movies sit bolt upright in the middle of the night, haunted by the sound of a strumming guitar echoing across the prairie.
Because if singing cowboys could rise and fall so dramatically as a force in American cinema, then how long can we keep up an appetite for people with capes and hammers and spider webs battling alien menaces from the beyond in increasingly intricate, overlapping storylines that never resolve anything because they’re always setting up the next chapter?
These days, superhero movies haven’t completely choked the theaters the way that singing cowboys did, but Disney, Warner Bros. and Sony are certainly giving it a try. There were six superhero movies released each year from 2016 to 2019, and two-thirds of them ended up in the top 10 on the box office charts. The biz slowed down production during the covid pandemic, but quickly got back into full swing, and now there are nine superhero movies planned for release in 2022. And if the studios ever manage to get the rendering time down on footage of enormous flying metal snake monsters, then the sky is the limit.
Hi, by the way. I’m Danny Horn, and Superheroes Every Day is my blog about the history of superhero movies, where I’m going to look real close at the last 40+ years of films from the funny papers, and see if I can figure out what they are, how they work, and why they took over our lives.
I’ve recently finished a big project called Dark Shadows Every Day, where I wrote about every episode of the 1960s vampire soap opera Dark Shadows, which you’ve probably never heard of either. At its height, Dark Shadows was the strangest and most interesting television show on the air, featuring vampires, witches, werewolves, time travel, seances and parallel universes, all pulled together into a daily afternoon soap opera structure, assembled by crazy people at top speed with no budget.
Writing more than a thousand blog posts about a show like that changes a man. Over the years, I’ve learned a lot about serialized narrative, which these days is practically the only kind of narrative that we have. And when I finished with Dark Shadows, I wanted to do it all over again, but tracking a bigger and more complicated pop culture story — and the development of superhero movies is the biggest and most complicated story that I can think of.
So here’s how the blog is going to work.
I’m going to look at live-action, feature-length, blockbuster-style theatrical movies featuring characters from DC and Marvel Comics, starting with Superman: The Movie in 1978, and continuing from there in release order.
For each movie, I’ll be moving through the film in detail, talking about both the story itself and the behind-the-scenes history, as well as the complicated relationship between the movie and the source material, and how it fits into the larger story of blockbuster movies and American culture, with lots of diversions and points of interest along the way. Basically, I have a lot to say about these movies, and I plan on saying it all.
I want to start off strong, so for our purposes, the story begins in 1978 with Superman: The Movie. That means I’m not going to feature the earlier pre-blockbuster material: the 1940s serials featuring Batman, Superman and Captain America, the 1951 Superman and the Mole Men film/TV pilot, and the 1966 Batman film/TV spinoff. I’ll be covering all of them, one way or another — in the Superman: The Movie posts, I’m planning to touch on a lot of the pre-’78 Superman media — but I want to focus on the big, world-rattling films as the structure of this story.
Now, this is not specifically a blog about Superman, but I’m afraid it’s going to be pretty Superman-heavy for a while. I’m writing about these films in US release order, and five of the first seven modern comic-book films are Superman-related. Here’s how I make it out:
#1. Superman: The Movie (1978)
#2. Superman II (1981)
#3. Swamp Thing (1982)
#4. Superman III (1983)
#5. Supergirl (1984)
#6. Howard the Duck (1986)
#7. Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987)
#8. The Return of Swamp Thing (May 1989)
#9. Batman (June 1989)
… and so on, reaching Spider-Man at #17, The Dark Knight at #36 and The Avengers at #47. (Here’s the full list.) By the end of 2021, Spider-Man: No Way Home will be movie #93, and then the deluge of 2022.
Now, with all the posts that I’m currently planning to write for the 1978 Superman, you might ask how I’m going to get anywhere near movie #2, never mind the 100+ after that. The answer to that question is that I don’t know.
But as Lex Luthor once said, “Some people can read War and Peace, and come away thinking it’s a simple adventure story. Others can read the ingredients on a chewing gum wrapper, and unlock the secrets of the universe.” My plan is to start reading chewing gum wrappers, and see what happens.
— Danny Horn