Shea Hennum and Christopher M. Jones spend a lot of time arguing the rules of genre. So instead of letting them continue to distract us here in the imaginary Loser City offices, we forced them to get together and attempt to settle one of their biggest semantic conflicts: are superheroes action movies?
Shea Hennum: So, we were talking on Twitter recently about superhero movies. You contended that they were action movies, but I took umbrage with that. So to get the ball rolling, why don’t you start by making your case.
Christopher M. Jones: I think that by definition a movie with a plot and structure that’s necessitated by violent action, and which is about a particular situation which needs to be solved in this way, is an action movie. To me that’s what makes something like James Bond an action movie but something like City of God not necessarily so; the latter is using violence to remark upon broader themes, whereas in the former the action is a means unto itself. That’s not to say action films can’t use the action to remark upon different ideas, but a movie where the action does not or will not provide anything except its own satisfaction is without question an action movie.
If problems in the world of Iron Man could be solved without missiles and punching, it wouldn’t be Iron Man, it would be The Tony Stark Diary. Batman movies can wax philosophical about psychosis and national security all they like but at the end of the day, things only get fixed in Gotham City once Batman knocks the piss out of them. There’s no reason for superhero films to exist outside of the action and indeed, a superhero is a completely pointless figure if they’re not committing acts of violence. To wit, superhero movies are action movies.
Shea: Hmmm. I think that’s a fair point, but I would quibble somewhat with that definition of an action movie. Under that definition, Pulp Fiction would be an Action movie, because its various climaxes are centered around acts of violence. I don’t think that violence as a constituent part makes an Action movie, or that climactic violence makes a movie an Action movie. If you look at something recent like The Raid: Redemption, or The Raid 2, violence isn’t a feature–it’s the show. There is a clear distinction between something like those movies, and…say…The Avengers Episode Whatever.
Let’s take your Bond movie example for a second. I think we can both agree that those flicks are pretty much exclusively resolved through violence, but I wouldn’t actually consider any of them action movies. I think the violence in them is subjugated to the broader mechanics of spy fiction, and even though there is certainly action in them, I would lean more towards including it as spy-fi than capital-A Action. I would be more inclined to call the Bond movies “Blockbusters,” though, which was the semantic distinction that lead to this conversation in the first place.
Chris: I’m actually of the mind that the violence in something like Skyfall is definitely the star of the show, which is why everything else about that movie seems so poorly thought out. When a movie’s climax ends with a helicopter shootout over a frozen lake which then segues into a knife fight in a burning church, I can’t fathom that drama and characterization took center stage over the action in the audience’s mind, much less those of the writers and producers.
I think what differentiates the violence in something like Pulp Fiction (which, I’ll say, I don’t think has nothing to do with action movies, even if it’s not an action movie in it’s own right) versus the Spin-Kick Olympics of The Winter Soldier is that in PF the violence feels like an organic outcome of the movie’s various scenarios, as opposed to being constructed as a vehicle purely to carry the violence, as in the majority of superhero movies. As such the violence in that movie certainly isn’t subtle or understated, but it also isn’t such that it makes the plot feel like a thin excuse for throwing a rocket launcher party.
This is not to denigrate that aspect of action movies; all of my favorites, from Commando to Ong-Bak to Death Race 2000, make sure that all the non-shooting-and-punching aspects of the movie are secondary concerns. This is why I feel that Bond films and most superhero movies are generally just action movies with misplaced priorities. Even cold classics like Goldfinger are really boring whenever someone’s not getting hat-stabbed, and the dialogue in Spider-Man 2 might as well have been written by a gorilla trapped in a time loop for how long every stupid conversation in that movie drags on. Yet these movies are still governed by morally dualistic, violent conflicts that take up significant portions of each respective movie’s runtime. Just because the parts that aren’t action happen to suck doesn’t mean the whole thing can’t still ultimately be labeled as an action movie.
Shea: Okay, I think you hit on something there that I totally, totally disagree with. You categorize The Winter Soldier as something “constructed as a vehicle purely to carry the violence,” and I fundamentally don’t read that movie–or any of these movies–like that. There’s no argument that a lot of those movies, or the (attempts at) drama in them, turn on these explosion heavy set pieces, but those movies really function in any sort of way because they balance that action with other things.
Consider all those Marvel movies. All 20 or whatever of those things are basically the same movie, and Disney has boiled the production of them down to a formula. You cast some white dude named Chris, hire a couple style-averse TV directors who won’t ask too many questions; you have scene X here, you have your “save the cat” moment here, pew pew explosion here, and you sprinkle a couple stupid jokes throughout. I think all the “character moments” and humor and naked advertising-for-themselves in those things fall completely flat–and I would argue that the charm of the Chris du jour is the real star of those shows–but the attempts at them are just as important to whatever CGI circle jerk shit show they bust their nut to.
And I think that’s our basic disagreement. I wouldn’t consider something like the Fast & Furious movies Action joints. To me, they are Blockbusters. An Action movie is beholden to just one master, but the Blockbusters, which absolutely include action, have to juggle those scenes with a quota on “drama” and “humor.” They obligate themselves to a number of different audiences, instead of just one. I think the obvious counter-argument to that is that: well, then, Blockbusters are just a sub-genre of Action. But I think you can say that by that logic, Blockbusters are also sub-genres of Comedy and Melodrama. Because of that, because Blockbusters function in all these different modes simultaneously, it has cultivated a distinct criteria that distinguishes it as its own thing. Its why the fights in these movies always look like melted garbage in a burning dumpster and no one cares. I mean, nobody really goes to see Guardians because the fights are cool, right?
Chris: This is a small tangent, but do you think that Westerns were a forerunner of the Blockbuster? Because I absolutely think they laid a tremendous amount of the groundwork for action cinema as a whole and I think Westerns fold in a lot of genre elements in the same way your Blockbuster classification does, from melodrama to slapstick, even occasionally to dashes of film noir where the neo-Western and revisionist Western are concerned.
This is sort of my problem with taking superheroes out of the action category, because if no one gets punched in a superhero movie it almost by definition is not one. To be fair, it’s not inconceivable and even quite likely that such a movie will exist in the near future. But could it be argued that a superhero movie without violence is simply a different kind of movie that happens to use superhero aesthetics, the same way I tend to think of There Will Be Blood as a psychological drama with some Western trappings?
To go further with that line of thought, wouldn’t a superhero movie without violence also disqualify it from being a Blockbuster? And if so, can’t it be said that if a Blockbuster without action isn’t a Blockbuster then this necessarily makes it a form of action movie?
Shea: Hmmm. So, to answer your first question: I do think so. Obviously, movies pre-Jaws weren’t really produced and sold at the kind of scale we associate with a modern blockbuster, but Westerns definitely have that quality that makes them fairly malleable. In that instance, I would say Westerns are defined more by setting, archetypes, and themes than a requisite combination of beats, but I do think Westerns laid the groundwork for the massive flicks that kind of exist–or can exist–in several different styles and genres simultaneously.
And I totally think you can take violence out of a superhero movie and have it still be a superhero movie. I mean, there are superhero comics that do it. With comics, I think you’d have to define the genre of “superhero” a little differently, because movies serve slightly different masters, but in both cases, superhero movies aren’t defined solely by their inclusion of violence. See, “Superhero” isn’t aesthetic; I would, however, argue that it employs a “Blockbuster” aesthetic, which it shares with things like Edge of Tomorrow, those Transformers movies, et cetera, et cetera.
I’ll agree that a modern blockbuster without violence of some kind–we have to include things like the mass destruction in stuff like Godzilla and San Andreas, too–is not really a blockbuster. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a sub-genre of Action. Using that same logic, you could say that a modern blockbuster that lacks comedy isn’t a blockbuster, and therefore blockbusters are sub-genres of comedy. I totally agree that the first halves of both propositions are correct and not mutually exclusive, but I think the second halves preclude one another–which is largely my point. Blockbusters require components of several other genres. That’s not to say that it’s sub-Action because it can’t do without action or sub-Comedy because it can’t do without jokes, but that it’s a distinct thing because it requires both (and then some), and it’s the co-existence of all rather than the existence of one that defines the genre.
Chris: The only quibble I have with that is that I think it’s exceedingly rare to find movies in any genre that don’t feature comedy to a degree; I like more your earlier mention of melodrama as a necessary component of a blockbuster. Petey Parker’s Pepperoni Pizza Perils in Spider-Man 2 are funny, and they’re designed to give you kind of a rush when you see him swinging through the city, but they’re also designed to make you earnestly empathize with his character in a way that, say, Arnold Schwarzenegger feeding a deer at the beginning of Commando can’t do. And I haven’t seen the F&F movies, but from my understanding there is a fraternity among those characters that the audience is welcomed into and invested in. That to me is evidence for your blockbuster classification: there is something of a flip in craftsmanship priorities regarding character vs action in like, Thor. No budding filmmakers are going to be inspired by that muddy-as-fuck frost giant fight scene in the beginning, but fan art for the scene where Thor first tries coffee is going to have a healthy output probably well into the 2020s.
So, okay: I do think the action requirement does still make the vast majority of superhero movies action films of a sort, but perhaps not so much that the action envelops the rest of the film’s content. I’ll call the punching and gunplay the sour cream and beans without which the big, sloppy carnitas burrito that is the Blockbuster Superhero Film could not nearly so easily melt its way into the viewer’s hearts.
Shea: I think beans are gross, but I’ll agree with that analogy. Is there anything else you wanted to get in here before we wrap up?
Chris: The beans are there for texture, not taste. Tough it out, Hennum!
Shea: Fortunately, I get the last word, and the last word is: fuck beans. Peace! We out.