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Cowboys, Assemble: The Superhero Movie Vibes of Tombstone

Tombstone is a Western through and through, but there's an over-the-top quality that makes it almost mythic.

By Matthew Jackson
Doc Holliday and the Earp brothers walk together in Tombstone (1993).

Tombstone opens with a cinematic kickstart, a jolt to the senses that's also meant as a merging of the classical and the modern in terms of both the movie's style and its approach to storytelling. Against a black backdrop emphasizing the diminished aspect ratio, we see silent snippets of film depicting the old West, intercut with silent-styled snippets from the film we're about to see. Shootouts, cattle drives, and more play out on this small screen, giving us a grounding in the mythology of the West as a narrator speaks. 

Then comes the famous shot from the classic 1903 silent film The Great Train Robbery, a foundational piece of Western cinema that remains a key part of the journey that eventually led to films like Tombstone. We watch as an actor aims his gun directly at the camera, and fires, and then suddenly we're in this film's world, watching in widescreen as a sweeping score follows horsemen galloping across a desert plain. 

Even beyond the obvious continuum of Western cinema from 1903 to Tombstone's premiere 90 years later, there's a clear message here: We are not watching reality. We are watching a movie

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That sounds like an obvious statement, but the longer you watch Tombstone -- directed by George P. Cosmatos and starring an absolutely committed Kurt Russell -- the more you realize that what you're seeing is not a direct, realistic depiction of exactly how dirty and violent and compromising the American frontier was in the 19th century. What you're watching is a piece of near-mythic cinema that tells the story of heroes, villains, justice, devastation, and triumph. In other words, if you like at it the right way, Tombstone is a genre film that brings superhero movie vibes to the Western genre. 

As the film opens, Wyatt Earp (Russell) is in the midst of a classic action and superhero movie evolution. He's done his time as a lawman, become a legend in the West, and now all he wants to do is settle down with his brothers Morgan (Bill Paxton) and Virgil (Sam Elliott), make a little money, and live the good life. He's determined to stick by this promise to himself and his family, so much so that even when he arrives in the town of Tombstone, Arizona, he refuses offers to take on any peacemaking duties, preferring instead to look for mining claims and gambling opportunities. 

But Wyatt's old ways aren't entirely gone, as we see when he forces out a bullying dealer at a local saloon in an effort to make business better for the owner (and earn some money himself), and when he comes face-to-face with various other bullying types in town. Unfortunately for the Earp brothers, one of those bullies is Curly Bill Brocius, the leader of the Cowboys gang who essentially control all interests in the town, doing as they please and enacting violence on anyone who crosses them. Curly Bill and his gunfighting enforcer, Johnny Ringo (Michael Biehn), aren't used to people crossing them and getting away with it, but the Earp brothers are a different animal altogether, and a clash is inevitable. 

Historically speaking, Tombstone is a retelling of the real-life events leading up to and following the legendary Gunfight at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona, but while events happen in a way that roughly aligns with reality, the film is usually less interested in accuracy and more interested in style points. One of the first things we see Wyatt Earp do in the film is scold and even whip a man at the railroad for mishandling a horse, and his status as a man with a taste for violence that he's trying to suppress is something that eats at him throughout the film. It's a classic Western conundrum, the story of the man who swore off violence only to find that a violent world won't turn him loose, but it's the way Tombstone plays in that space that makes it into something different.

Wyatt Earp (Kurt Russell) points a gun in Tombstone (1993).

Beginning with those opening shots of classic Western silent cinema and continuing right through the magnificent, dramatic color palette Cosmatos deploys throughout the movie, Tombstone takes on a look of high drama, and that continues through to the narrative. In virtually every case, when Cosmatos, Russell, and writer Kevin Jarre have the opportunity to present a more boring factual version of events or the more legendary spin on things, they choose the latter. Earp's eventual wife, the actress Josephine Marcus (Dana Delany), appears in outfits that, by some accounts, were embellishments on her past made decades after the fact. The gunfight at the O.K. Corral unfolds like a dramatic Hollywood shootout rather than a Wild West skirmish, moving with such an action movie sensibility that it seems each combatant has an infinite number of shots in their guns. It's all heightened, very deliberately, and that extends particularly to the story of Wyatt as a movielong arc.

We've already talked about how Wyatt spends the early part of the film running from his violent past, dead set on hanging up his gun and badge forever like Gary Cooper in High Noon. It's a firmly Western idea, yes, but the way Cosmatos shoots the film, and the way Russell plays the character, positions Wyatt not just as a lawman trying to go quiet, but as a legendary hero wrestling with his true nature. You can see the same kind of thing in stories about an aging Batman or a an Iron Man who's trying to be a family man instead of a brilliant avenger. There's a sense, whether Josephine is eyeing Wyatt for the first time or Wyatt's dear friend Doc Holliday (Val Kilmer) is describing Earp as a kind of folk hero who stepped from the pages of a pulp novel, that Wyatt is a larger-than-life figure trying to crawl into a box that's simply too small for him. Then the violence comes directly to his doorstep, and Wyatt takes action.

By the end of the film, as Earp and his friends as riding out for one last charge of justice and glory, Tombstone is holding nothing back. It's as much a comic book movie as it is a Western, a story of avenging legends in search of justice, and that makes it both a fascinating piece of its own genre and a crossover hit that'll please movie fans of all stripes.

Tombstone is now streaming on Peacock.