A mysterious stranger possessing keen investigative skills and powerful combative abilities arrives at a small, seemingly normal town in order to bring an evildoer to justice. What plot did I just describe? Man of Steel? The Dark Knight? It’s certainly a tried-and-true action movie trope, and also happened to be the plot of the 1955 Western Bad Day at Black Rock. A common piece of contemporary film criticism that I frequently come across is the comparison between the popularity of modern superhero films to the Westerns of yesteryear. As we screened Black Rock the other day in class, I couldn’t get this comparison out of my head.
In Black Rock, a crippled war veteran named John MacReedy (Spencer Tracy) arrives at the titular town searching for a Japanese farmer named Komoko. Upon his inquiry, MacReedy realizes that there are less-than-legal circumstances surrounding Komoko’s disappearance, and MacReedy’s discover that town boss Reno Smith (Robert Ryan) is to blame puts a target on his back. This general plot arc establishes a kind of “heroic figure against the world” dynamic that also pervades contemporary superhero movies. One scene in particular really made the comparison prevalent in my mind: when MacReedy is inexplicably revealed to be a karate expert as he is assaulted while eating his lunch. While the action piece proved exciting, and incredibly dated, it also catered to the idea that MacReedy has all the tools needed to enact justice available to him, just like the superheroes of today.
So then, why are superhero movies derided? Critics of the genre argue that they are simplistic, formulaic tales meant to get bodies in seats and to sell money. Yet when the same critics look back at Westerns they decry that they are “American epics” and “staples of classic American cinema.” However, I argue that these movies, Black Rock included, are just as formulaic as today’s Avengers. There isn’t a problem inherent with this, as I enjoy both genres a great deal. Particularly in regards to a class about heroes in film, these types of movies offer us the purest, simplest version of that character. I just think that superhero movies shouldn’t be derided simply because there are so many of them today; people didn’t seem to mind when Westerns pervaded the market throughout the 20th century. –Cal Hoag
I definitely agree with you that this film was very predictable in the story line and it was something I have seen before in many different forms. I however found the plot in this movie to be rather slow moving compared to modern day hero films such as the marvel films. I myself am not a huge fan of the western but again that is just my taste. Going back to the topic of discussion last Monday which was the Mulvey article on the “Male Gaze” and Scopophilia. I was looking for this in the film and I could not find any examples of it, did you see any that I might have missed? The female character in this film was not objectified in any way that I can think of besides the betrayal at the end but I could be wrong! Let me know your thoughts! I also thought the beginning of your post was hilarious because it is so true about movies such as this and the predictable story line.
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