The coming summer months will bring the world numerous new installments in the action genre, and the masses will love it. There’s a lot of spectacle involved in the action genre, with flashy explosions, fierce battles, and the ability of a few misguided characters to destroy everything they encounter. The scene is undeniably exciting: Some character is flying down the highway in a dangerous, reckless car chase, or engaging in an intense battle that viewers watch with eyes as huge as flying saucers.
But then I realized that I’ve seen that exact dynamic play out countless times, often repeatedly within a movie or episode. It seems that whenever I watch something from the action genre, it becomes so saturated with uninspired violence and chaos that I really don’t care what the result turns out to be. I don’t care if you get into yet another fight with adversaries over some ill-defined or ultimately inconsequential conflict. I don’t care if you level a city to defeat some alien bent on destroying humanity for some unspecified reason (looking at you, Man of Steel and Avengers). That scenario turns the plot into a paper tiger, a mindless backdrop over which to throw (hopefully) compelling characters and witty one-liners, which support the sequences of action and make the story entertaining.
I resent when a story insists on using obvious tactics to stun the viewers, or drag them into a story by preying on their emotions to compensate for a story without substance. This tactic often assumes the viewers will be so floored by the story that they will miss the fact that all the pomp and fuss amounts to a hollow notion of goodness or justice. If a plot requires that the characters are moved past the point of words and resort to gratuitous destruction to resolve a conflict, it had better be done mindfully. By skipping over why any of the following action matters beyond a vague sense of “saving the world,” the viewer misses what it is about the world that’s worth saving.
Some viewers may even tune out of the story entirely, finding the violence, intensity, or morally repulsive problems that drive some plots to be too much to consider. But carefully constructed displays of jarring or unpleasant material can give viewers deeper insight into what a theme or character is trying to convey, which can create a truly gripping experience. That said, some action-genre material just aims to appease the viewer with an artificially exciting world for the sake of commercial success, which perhaps doesn’t scream “insightful” or “able to satisfy existential angst.”
But the action genre remains prolific, and does have redeeming qualities. For anyone familiar with the cult film Heathers, the premise of that movie involves blowing things out of proportion with extremes to get attention and assign gravity to one’s actions. Grand displays can be a pointed way to explore the lengths characters will go to fight for something important to them. The action genre, however bombastic, can remind us that people have real agency in the world.
Society and individuals are plagued by inaction. Whether it’s mere procrastination or getting stuck in one’s own web of indecision, it seems that inaction pervades life more than anything else. The majority of viewers are faced with a lifestyle that closely resembles “the daily grind,” and consuming a story that is filled with more immediate and large-scale conflict is an appealing form of escapism. But life is not a condensed story that crafts the perfect situation to expedite the resolution of unquestionably important issues. It doesn’t contain deafening sound effects and CGI to alert people of what to do or when to do it. Subtle battles are fought by individuals everyday, regardless of whether they move at a more painstaking pace than the epic clashes of metal and determination that are found onscreen. And superhuman abilities or elaborate conspiracies are not a prerequisite toward chasing something compelling.
So take the action genre as an extreme, magnified version of what can be undertaken in life, and something that bolsters the idea that people can overcome grand battles in their own world. Or, you could probably just use the genre as a show to marvel at over a bag of corn-derived snacks, and escape a mundane world with sensational spectacle.
Featured Image By Village Roadshow Theater