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What’s wrong with action movies? A case study

I understand that action movies don’t usually promote social change or make us examine our daily lives. The one thing they reliably accomplish is stress-testing romantic relationships within the 15-35 year old demographic, as the vast majority of girlfriends will have to make a tough decision after the 6th or 7th time their significant other asks them “did you see that sh*t, bro?” in a crowded theater.

That’s OK, because 99% of the movies that are supposed to challenge the viewer are the same smug lecture from on high that deigns to inform the unwashed masses that things like racism and war are bad. Therefore, if I’m going to stuff a Fanta™ bottle filled with gin down the front of my jean shorts and pony up $8, I’m perfectly happy putting it towards watching a hero serve the public good by committing as much spectacular property damage as possible.

I like that the directors of dumb action movies can keep a perfectly straight face when the explanation for their hero’s fantastic abilities includes phrases like “martial arts,” “advanced science,” or “bonked with a magic rock.” It’s all part of the unspoken intellectual contract between the director so lacking in self-awareness that they’d actually make such a movie, and the viewer with enough time and personal history as a latchkey child that they’re willing to watch it.

Unfortunately, the movies coming out these days don’t even seem to make an attempt at explaining the massive plot holes and paradoxes they present. There’s barely even any talk of slipping on an enchanted banana peel or getting a lapdance from a radioactive stripper. And the villains are uninspired goons that wouldn’t stand a chance against a particularly hot cup of coffee, much less a proper superhero. The match-ups are terrible, the story-lines can’t even charitably be called bare-bones and… you know what? Just between you and me, I think the magic is going out of the relationship.

Here’s just a few examples of what I mean.

Spider-Man 4: I’ve seen all of the Spider-Man movies, and I’ve done it despite the fact that Tobey Maguire might be one of the most useless actors alive today [1] . I like to think that says something about how much time I have on my hands my level of commitment. But even I blanched and sucked air between my teeth when I read that John Malkovich has been cast in the upcoming sequel, as a villain called The Vulture [2].

The Vulture is an elderly man with wings super-glued onto his shoulder blades, and his primary superpower is the ability to fly. That would be incredible for somebody like you or me, but in the superhero world, flying is like being able to dunk on a 4 ft. Playskool hoop. Almost every hero can at least fly, and none of them finds it necessary to look like their mother had an affair with the mascot from KU. It’s like director Sam Raimi cares less and less with each movie:

* In the first movie, the bad guy could fly, he had super-strength, he blew up buildings with his missiles, and he had a untreated personality disorder.

* In the second movie, the villain was a husky, shirtless middle-aged man wearing a trench coat in the middle of summer. But when you added his intelligent, vaguely sexual, evil metal tentacles and a complete lack of self-respect, you had a fairly functional super villain.

* In the third movie, the bad guys were a) a guy made out of dirt, and b) Topher Grace. Sure, the dirt man could grow in size and bonk things, but his greatest weakness was water, and it’s practically impossible to take a super-villain seriously when they can be defeated by children playing near a fire hydrant. And it’s even more impossible [3] to take anybody seriously when they’re Topher “Sh*tshoes” Grace [4].

All of that is still better than giving somebody’s grandfather the power of flight and telling them to go scare the hell out of an entire city. Spider-Man doesn’t really need to anything in this case, because The Vulture is just a minor threat to air traffic controllers and, possibly, the owners of new BMW’s, depending on his fiber intake. This won’t even be so much an ass-kicking as a great chance for a YouTube video. …Is it even legal to hit an elderly person in a chicken suit?

Iron Man 2: I know – another comic book movie sequel. The fact that I haven’t yet made it to a movie without a number in the title sort of obliquely proves my point. In the first “Iron Man,” we met a brilliant, spoiled inventor who was forced to realize the horror of his own creations when he was captured by a militant terrorist organization. In keeping with his newfound, peaceful ideals, he built a metal suit and turned himself into a walking, death-dealing special effect from Ozzfest. After escaping, he built himself a stronger, streamlined fire truck-colored suit and used it to mete out justice according to his new ideals. An unfortunate side effect of this decision, however, is that absolutely everything within a 1 mile radius of him usually gets destroyed. From what I can tell, Iron Man’s philosophy seems to be that crime hasn’t really been stopped until you’ve collapsed a highway overpass on top of it.

The villain in “Iron Man 2,” unfortunately, won’t take nearly that level of effort. Look at him:

Now I’ll grant that he looks menacing. He’s willing to use what seem to be whips made out of actual lasers. He’s also angry, obviously spends a lot of time brooding, and has way too many tattoos to bother with sissy things like shirts. If he were fighting (or, more likely, robbing) you or me, he wouldn’t even need laser whips. Or regular whips. He wouldn’t even have to take his belt off and snap the ends together or anything; he could just sort of point at me and grunt, and I’d already be apologizing about how “my wallet might smell faintly of urine, sir, as it seems I’ve had something of an incident. You’re really a very intimidating gentleman [5].”

Unfortunately for both of us, though, I’m not Iron Man. I’ve provided a picture, though – let’s compare the two, shall we?

This just isn’t going to be a fair fight. Mickey Rourke is bringing a lot to the table, but he has overlooked some crucial elements – the most important of which is a helmet. He also seems to have made the questionable decision to forego any sort of body armor. Threatening the world while shirtless is admittedly badass, but it also leaves you vulnerable to things like mall security with tasers, catching a nasty chill, or bullies that aren’t afraid to twist a nipple until it just pops off like a cheap radio dial.

Iron Man, on the other hand, has covered his entire body in futuristic armor that doesn’t look as though it was slapped together by stoned lift workers at AutoZone. Mickey Rourke simply doesn’t stand a chance, and we all know it. This is going to be nothing but one long, disturbing, ass-kicking in a movie that was just supposed to be fun; in short, it’s going to be this century’s answer to the disturbingly brutal boyfriend/girlfriend fight from “Footloose.”

Sherlock Holmes: I understand that there’s a certain market pressure to “update” and “modernize” concepts. Words like “reinterpretation” are flung around casually; when they were first conceived, they may have meant something, but now they’ve simply become codified Hollywood-speak for “We’re going to add a rap-rock soundtrack and/or parkour.” Modernization is a cure-all to make everything less boring by making it 6 times dumber, and frankly, I’m surprised we haven’t already seen a bass-thumping, martial-arts reinterpretation of David vs. Goliath [6].

[1] I really don’t know why I limited it to “actors” and “alive today.” I could literally take a shovel, raid the nearest grave, put a funny hat on the corpse, and I’d have already achieved something more worthwhile than “Seabiscuit.”

[2] I was initially surprised he would take on a role this dopey, but then I thought to myself — Oh yeah. ConAir.

[3] I don’t like to think about the fact that I have a college education when I write things like “even more impossible.” Next up: “impossiblest.”

[4] I don’t know much about morality or the existence of an absolute good, but something deep inside me just knows that waiting for Topher to use a port-a-potty and then tipping it down a steep slope is the right thing to do.

[5] If I bring any two things in the world to high-stress situations, it’s a) a wonderful sense of manners, and b) something I like to call “the octopus reflex.”

[6] Actually, the more I think about this, the further it moves away from “joke” and toward “probably going to happen.”