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Action Movies: Why So Serious?

Looking back on 2013, I increasingly doubt that the action movies I grew up watching — Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jurassic Park, Die Hard, Predator — would ever make dollar one if released today.

It’s not that these films feel dated because they embody values and ideas from when they were made which are now out of date, but that today, viewers demand that action movies be serious or deal with serious real world issues.

Fun is out of vogue.

Festivus may have come and gone, but we’re still close enough to it that I have to air some grievances about my fellow moviegoers from this past year.

For me, one of the biggest surprises in 2013 was the weak performance of Pacific Rim. While it did pretty well overseas, it barely made $100 million in the U.S.

Everyone claims to love a popcorn movie, and that’s what Pacific Rim was.

In fact, it was a kind of throwback to Steven Spielberg’s summer blockbusters circa 1975 to mid 1990s: dazzling special effects, family friendly (not too violent, only a whiff of sexuality), straightforward plot, and no weighty themes.

And yet, viewers complained that it lacked substance, that there wasn’t enough character development, there were no plot twists, it was cliché, etc. 

It’s like everybody missed that in the opening monologue the movie declares that the best way to fight giant monsters is with giant robots, offering up no explanation for why that is. The whole premise is consciously tongue-in-cheek. It’s that kind of movie.

On the other end of the spectrum there’s Star Trek: Into Darkness, which is a hodgepodge current day issues: terrorism, drone strikes, the military industrial complex, counter-terrorism.

Now my issue here is not that the filmmakers want tackles these topics, but they treat them as a checklist, dealing with them on an entirely superficial level (e.g. Kirk deciding that a drone strike is wrong with no actual discussion — no pro vs. con debate). And the filmmakers then pat themselves on the back because they brought up something that’s found on the front page of the New York Times.

And of course, the movie includes the obligatory plot twist.

All of this wrapped together somehow makes Star Trek a dark, brooding, adult action movie (“dark” is even in the title).

As you can guess, I really didn’t care for it.

Iron Man 3 is driven and weighed down by similar script construction.

Like Star Trek, the plot takes on domestic terrorism and the military industrial complex without any kind of substantive discussion; Tony Stark suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (so now we’re comparing the trials and tribulations of a superhero billionaire to what soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan are going through?); and of course, there’s the plot twist.

Another 2013 action movie I have to take major exception with is Man of Steel.

It so concerned with exploring the realism of growing up with super powers and how difficult that is, that having it be an action movie is almost an after thought — the burden is so great that I’d think Clark would have committed suicide long before Zod showed up at Earth.

It’s a far cry from the 1978 film where Christopher Reeve breaks the fourth wall and smiles at the audience — because no smiling was allowed in Man of Steel.

But apparently, viewers wants this level of seriousness, no matter how contrived it is.

What really capped a year of disappointment for me was the complete box office failure of Machete Kills.

When I read user reviews where people complain about it having a terrible script because it reused the plot to Moonraker, I want bang my head against a concrete wall.

Just imagine if any of these people saw an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie from the 1970s and 80s — they’d be complaining about his acting.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. MC

    January 2, 2014 at 7:41 am

    I am thinking back to some of the relatively recent action movies I keep going back to, and they all have a funny side to them, some levity to the whole thing, or the people involved all seem to realize the inherent ridiculousness of the genre and just run with it.

    The movie that I thought was the textbook definition of being a light, gory, over-the-top action movie is 2007's Shoot 'Em Up… and then I looked up the box office for it and it sort of goes along with what you are saying.

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