The Problem of Scenery over Choreography

All Scaled Out: Why Most of This Summer’s Action Films Have Kind of Sucked

I’m writing this because I think our complaints about recent action movies are all wrong. We complain about the lack of character development, the plot holes, and the tone of general disregard for humanity, but most of my favorite action movies of the eighties, nineties, and early 2000s all displayed varying degrees of that. Those critiques may be valid explanations for why most of our recent blockbusters aren’t high art, but they don’t explain why they’ve become so boring. I think the problem is actually something much simpler, and it goes way beyond “Check yr brain at the door, artfag!” as I’m so frequently told.

You’ve seen the scene probably a thousand times: a big car chase winds through city streets, crashing through fruit stands, fire hydrants, and a giant plate glass window that two guys just happened to be carrying across the street at that exact moment. It was a common enough action movie staple to be parodied by Mel Brooks and the Zucker brothers, and was used over and over semi-earnestly by Michael Bay in The Rock, among others. It’s a surefire crowd-pleaser. Or at least it used to be. Because if this summer’s big budget offerings are any indication, at a certain point, action filmmakers seem to have forgotten that the shattering plate glass was supposed to be the icing, not the cake. Where the focus used to be the chase, or the fight, now it’s the stuff that gets broken along the way. They’ve been putting scenery over choreography. It’s not that action itself is the problem, it’s that the point of view is all wrong.

Watching the climax of Man of Steel, a movie that started out with a pretty promising origin story, it was impossible not to be struck by how boring the “climactic” fight sequence was by comparison, something mentioned in almost every review. And almost every big action movie this summer – Iron Man 3, White House Down, Pacific Rim, The Lone Ranger – has had similar problems. With Man of Steel, most of the harshest critics couched their criticism of this in terms of humanitarianism, or in faithfulness to the source text. “Superman isn’t supposed to kill! Superman would never let that many innocent bystanders die!”

While it feels good to rip something on humanitarian grounds, because you get to paint yourself as the Mother Theresa of film critics, I’ve never particularly cared how many people die in an action movie. I honestly don’t think other people care that much either. Arnold kills at least 100 faceless henchmen in Commando and I’m fine with that, the more gruesome the better, especially if he gets in a really sweet burn as they’re falling to their deaths. The root of the problem, I think, is that in racing to see who can create the “biggest scale,” all these scenes became more about the stuff breaking than the people fighting. Those critics are right in the sense that prioritizing smashing CGI buildings over the characters fighting is a bit dehumanizing, but I don’t think that makes the movies immoral, or “wrong”, just… boring. I can’t feel empathy for a building.

It probably started with Independence Day, and it’s not hard to imagine why. I can still remember having my mind blown by that exploding White House in the trailer. But 17 years later we’re still blowing up the White House, and it’s goddamn boring now. We’ve blown up buildings, monuments, cities… what’s next, continents? Planets? It doesn’t sound that interesting. We’re all scaled out.

Movies have been breaking the first rule of the human interest story, so brilliantly outlined in Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole (1951) : That people care more about one guy trapped in a mine than a hundred, more about 50 rattlesnakes on the loose in people’s homes than 1000 in the desert. All of this summer’s action movies seem to be based on the faulty idea that people care more when the scale is bigger, which we’ve known isn’t true for at least 60 years. Maybe the excitement of what could be done with CGI made us forget.

Even Iron Man 3, which I ultimately liked based on the Mandarin reveal and the general Shane Blackiness of it, had the big set piece that they chose to put in the trailer and use in almost all of the marketing – the scene where the helicopters fly in and shoot Tony Stark’s house into the ocean with missiles. And that’s probably the most boring scene in the movie. It’s a house falling in the ocean. Where’s the blood and guts? Are we really supposed to care about a house falling down? Not to mention, Shane Black himself already did that one, back in Lethal Weapon 2. (DIPLOMATIC IMMUNITY!)

Watching this summer’s action films, I actually had to ask myself, “Jesus, do I just not enjoy action films anymore? These used to be my favorite.”

But watching The World’s End made a lot of things clear. Enjoying the extended action sequences in that so thoroughly made me ask myself “why is this so entertaining when almost every other action sequence this summer has been so dull?”

It wasn’t that I was more invested in the characters, though obviously that’s important. While the characterization is a lot better in Edgar Wright’s movie, as to be expected, the action is so tongue-in-cheek and deliberately silly that you’re not overly concerned with the outcome of the fights. It’s far from realistic, both on a macro and micro level. But because it’s so much more focused on choreography than it is with smashed up scenery, it’s actually visually interesting to watch again. Stuff gets smashed, sure, but it’s all secondary to the back-and-forth, balletic dance between the characters. Oh right! That’s what was interesting, the drink, not the glass it comes in. Edgar Wright shrinks the action back down to a bite size that you can actually chew on again.

While I think banning CGI would go a long way toward eliminating this problem, our government seems much more focused on wars, and the economy, and sending dick pics to their mistresses than on our nation’s action movies (THANKS, OBAMA). It’s a sad state of affairs, really. But in the meantime, I’d like to think we can hope for this phenomenon to reach a tipping point, where we’re no longer expected to pee our collective pampers over another fake city getting destroyed, or another protagonist trying to suicide bomb another big laser/portal to another dimension pointed at Earth.

And when people like me criticize, know that we’re not bashing action films for not being My Dinner with Andre. We’re not expecting thought-provoking character studies here. All we’re expecting is a nice punch to the face, or a car screeching around a corner, and we were hoping for a little more than 30 minutes of shattering fake glass.

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