What Do Our Action Movies Say About Us

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poster for the ExpendablesSylvester Stallone directs, co-writes and stars in The Expendables, set for release on August 13, 2010. The trailer starts with that stylized, deep pitched voiceover that comedians parody so often: “They... Are the World’s Greatest Mercenaries... The Only Life they’ve Ever Known... (blam blam blam!) is War... The Only Loyalty they’ve ever Had... is to Each Other...” It ends with a Metallica-esque power rock song, at high volume. In between there are bullets, explosions, military vehicles, muscles, knives, and bad guys getting shot to pieces by a bantering, wisecracking who’s who of action stars, past and present: Stallone (of course), Dolph Lungren, Jason Statham, Jet Li - even Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwartzenegger do cameos (Steven Seagal and Jean Claude Van Damme were both offered roles, but turned them down). Other high-testosterone presences in the film include the recently beefed up and tattooed Mickey Rourke, wrestler Stone Cold Steve Austin and UFC fighter Terry Crews.

One fan (with the tag “kickassmonk94”) posted the following on a discussion board for the movie:

“Lets face it there is no new badass action stars anymore, theres no new seagals van dammes arnies, stallones, bronsons...etc.


People go and see taken and say wow that was the best action movie ive seen and yeh ok it was a good movie but it would only touch the seagal and bronson vigilante stuff, mainly because more and more people dont know who these great badasses are.


Oh and violence , i havent seen a new film in years when someone got killed so bad it was just like "yessss" like seagal putting a snooker cue through someones neck hahah”


I agree with kickassmonk94 - the genre is different now. Action movies still bring in revenue by the tens and hundreds of millions of dollars, but they’ve changed. How? Why? Arnie aims a rocket launcherAnd what do those changes say about us as a society?


Action Movies in the 1980s


Let’s start with the decade The Expendables hearkens back to: the 1980s. There were successful action movies in other decades, and many other successful genres of film in the 80s, but I was a kid then. I remember what towering cultural icons Stallone and Schwartzenegger were. Like most moviegoers of the time, I took action stars and action movies very seriously. They were awesome. Everything they did was awesome. Then twenty-some years passed. And like everyone else in the movie theatre a few weeks ago, when the trailer for The Expendables played, I laughed. Are they still making movies like this, we all seemed to be thinking. Is there a punchline coming?


An important element of 80s action movies was how much the audience wanted to trade places with the hero, to do what he did, to have what he had. This was the desired effect. And this actually makes them works of pornography. Let me explain that by way of James Joyce as extrapolated by Joseph Campbell. In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Joyce’s protagonist talks about proper and improper art. Proper art is static - it brings the perceiver to a state of esthetic arrest. Improper art is kinetic - it fills you with loathing (didactic) or desire (pornographic). Campbell elucidates this:


“Say you are leafing through a magazine and see an advertisement for a beautiful refrigerator. There’s a girl with lovely refrigerating teeth smiling beside it, and you say, ‘I’d love to have that refrigerator like that.’ That ad is pornography. By definition, all advertising art is pornographic art. Or suppose you see a photograph of a dear old lady, and you think, ‘I’d love to have tea with that dear old soul.’ That photograph is pornography. Or you go into a ski buff’s house, where there’s a painting of a mountain slope, and you think, ‘Oh, to go down that mountain slope...’ That painting is pornography: your relationship to it is not purely esthetic: just perceiving the thing.”


two muscular arms clasp in midairBy this definition, 80s action movies are unashamedly pornographic. 


Muscles abound. Arnold Schwartzenegger is more famous for his physique than anything else. He rose to cinematic fame in Conan the Barbarian (1981), his muscled flesh on constant display as he wields a broadsword, grapples with monsters, climbs, swings, runs, battles and kills. Commando (1985) opens with long, slow shots of his muscles, likened on the movie’s internet movie database trivia page to the camera work and editing of Leni Riefenstahl. In one of the opening scenes of Predator (1987) he meets a very pumped Carl Weathers, the two clasp hands, their muscular arms cocked in an arm-wrestling posture as Arnie slowly, forcefully bends Weathers’ arm back, smiling and staring him down. Stallone as Rambo, muscular and firing a machine gunIn Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) the camera lingers lovingly on Stallone’s chest and arms in many scenes. Stallone co-wrote the script, and even though he isn’t credited as such, did most of the directing. And people bought it. The shirtless, headbanded Rambo became an icon of the era - parodied by some, but idolized by millions who flocked to the film.


Weapons abound. Chuck Norris was world middleweight karate champion for six years and yet Missing in Action (1984) and its sequels showcase him being heroic with a machine gun, and he rarely fights. Stallone makes plentiful use of guns and fires a bazooka in Rambo: First Blood Part II. Schwartzenegger guns down 81 enemies in Commando. In Predator the character Blain (played by Jessie “the Body” Ventura) roams Jesse the jungle wielding a rotating six barreled gatling gun which, outside the world of action movies, is mounted on a helicopter and requires an electrical power supply to operate. When the movie’s titular alien kills him with a laser blast, another character picks up Blain’s gun, leading the team in mowing down the jungle with a storm of bullets, five of them firing at once, on and on and on.


Vehicles abound. Helicopters, everywhere there are helicopters. They bring allies and enemies. They drop off, they rescue, they abandon, they blow up. The Terminator (1984) features a motorcycle chase. The Indiana Jones movies are rife with cars, trucks, motorcycles, planes, boats, tanks, even a zeppelin. Top Gun (1986) has fighter jets taking off, landing, doing maneuvers, buzzing the tower, in simulated combat and eventually, real combat. Many action TV shows of the era featured cool vehicles: Knight Rider, The A-Team, Streethawk, Airwolf, The Fall Guy, The Dukes of Hazzard. There were chase scenes in every episode, set to upbeat music. The Transformers - vehicles that walk and talk (as well as fight, chase, fly and explode) - showed this enthusiasm in the world of toys and cartoons, with plenty of copycats.


Violence in these movies is exciting, and fun. In Predator, Schwartzenegger throws a machete, pinning an enemy soldier to the wall through the chest, and says “Stick around”. Roger Moore as BondIn Commando, after impaling a guy on a boiler, he says, “Let off some steam” - and this is a movie where he’s trying to rescue his kidnapped ten-year-old daughter. But why shouldn’t vengeance be fun? Arnie’s catchphrase “I’ll be back” is always said in seriousness, but repeating it from movie to movie reinforces the impression that these are the Further Adventures of Arnold, and he’s having the time of his life. More importantly, the phrase always signaled the audience to let out a cheer. Roger Moore’s James Bond wisecracks while gathering new technology, seducing women and killing. In For Your Eyes Only (1981) Moore rolls a car with an enemy trapped inside down a mountain, remarking, “He had no head for heights.”. Again, audiences whooped. Violence has no consequences for the hero. Martin Riggs, ace cop in Lethal WeaponAny beating, torture, accident or mishap can be endured and overcome. Blain in Predator, when it’s pointed out that he’s bleeding from a gunshot wound, says, “I ain’t got time to bleed.” No one firing a gun winds up with post traumatic stress disorder, even after taking dozens of lives. Rogue cops like Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson) in Lethal Weapon (1987)(and sequels) or Axel Foley (Eddie Murphy) in Beverly Hills Cop (1984)(and sequels) get yelled at by their superiors, but can always shrug off any trouble with a quick joke and the fact that when all’s said and done, they’re damn good cops - even when they execute the bad guy instead of arresting him.


The sexual politics of 80s action movies are rife with misogyny, male power and Sigourney Weaver in Aliensinadvertent homoeroticism. Women have minor roles helping the hero (Rambo: First Blood Part II, Commando) or as passive victims/hostages (Predator, Commando, Die Hard). Whether she’s dead or staying out of the way, the female lead never impedes on the male hero’s solo venture in the movie’s climax. A shining exception to this is Aliens (1986) in which Sigourney Weaver proves stronger, braver and more determined than a squad of marines. Grace Jones in A View to a Kill (1985) is another exception. One of the three Kryptonian villains in Superman II (1981) was a woman, but Supergirl (1984) bombed, as did Red Sonja (1985) - a sort of female version of Conan the Barbarian. 80s action movies were almost uniformly by, for and about males. The protagonists are men on a mission - the ultimate expression of masculine energy, as David Deida describes in his book Intimate Communion. They’re set against superior forces, but have the will, strength and tactical smarts (as well as the muscles, guns and vehicles) to pull off the impossible. The films seethe with the mustachioed villain in commandomasculinity. In Predator, when Blain’s offer of chewing tobacco is declined, he says “Bunch of slack-jawed faggots around here. This stuff will make you a god damned sexual Tyrannosaurus, just like me.” As described earlier, these movies relentlessly worship the muscular male body. And in a bit of costuming that’s bound to raise an eyebrow today, one of the main bad guys in Commando wears leather pants, a tight chain mail vest over a tight black sleeveless t-shirt, and sports a Freddie Mercury mustache. These same sexual images and roles (and strangely homoerotic costumes)(and glorified violence free of consequences) abounded in the world of professional wrestling, which exploded into mass popularity at exactly this time.


Enemies in these movies are fun to kill, especially if they’re brown. Arnold’s team in Predator approaches a guerrilla camp in an unnamed Central American country Chuck Norris in Missing in Action(Nicaragua, we can infer), rolls in and kills everyone in a matter of minutes. Chuck Norris gets blown from his armoured raft in Missing in Action by two Vietnamese soldiers who laugh like shrieking monkeys until Norris emerges from the water and lays waste to them with his machine gun, the camera angle switching back and forth from the dancing bullet ridden Vietnamese to the firing Chuck Norris (in slow motion) again and again. There are a few friendly foreigners. Rambo’s guide and love interest in Rambo: First Blood Part II is Co Bao (played by an actress with the spectacularly Asian name of Julia Nickson). Her lines are delivered without an accent, and yet the dialogue is written in pidgin English: “Just want to live, Rambo. Maybe go America. Live the quiet life. What you want?”. Remember - people took this seriously.


The political atmosphere of these movies teems with anxiety over the Cold War and Vietnam. There are Soviet agents in the guerrilla camp in Predator, and backing the Vietnamese in Rambo: First Blood Part II. In Top Gun, the Russians are referred to as “the other side”, and their pilots’ visors are tinted so we can’t see their faces, making them seem robotic and inhuman. Amidst movies like Platoon (1986) and Full Metal Jacket (1987) that questioned the validity of America’s role in Vietnam (and began to explore the real consequences of violence - a trend we’ll see grow in the 90s), Missing in Action and Rambo: First Blood Part II centre on rescue missions to reclaim American POWs still held tom cruise, top gun, the spirit of the 80scaptive by the deceitful, unrepentant Vietnamese. When John Rambo accepts his mission at the beginning of Rambo: First Blood Part II, he asks “Sir, do we get to win this time?”


All of these elements point to a general societal innocence. You knew where you stood in the 80s. America was good, the Soviets were bad. Technology was good. Wealth was good. Power was good. The other side wasn’t really human. It was virtuous and fun and cathartic for our heroes to kill them. Only cranks questioned military power and masculine might.


Action Movies in the 1990s


Things shifted in the 90s. The Cold War ended, the first Gulf War happened, and victorious America fell into a recession. The LA riots brought images of street violence into people’s homes (on the newly available CNN) and it didn’t look so fun. The bombings in Oklahoma City and at the World Trade Centre took some of the joy out of explosions. Writer/director Michael Davis had his script for Shoot Em Up (2007) - an old school bullet opera - ready in 1999, but after Columbine no studio was interested in putting out a movie with people shooting guns. Meanwhile popular culture broadened to include points of view from outside the mainstream. The Simpsons (1989 -)(on Fox - the first of many successful cable networks) took apart the conventions of the family sitcom and was funnier than any of the shows it satirized. Grunge and alternative music championed outsiderness. Kevin Smith’s movies and the music of the Barenaked Ladies championed geekdom. Distrust of the government and corporations grew, leading to the WTO protests in Seattle and the publication of the bible of anti-commercialism No Logo.

spiffy new cgi in Jurassic ParkAction movies changed emphasis. T2: Judgment Day (1991) and Jurassic Park (1993) were huge hits, and studios concluded the public wanted more of this spiffy new computer generated imagery rather than bullets and helicopters. A plethora of high-grossing effects-focused movies were to follow: Twister (1996), Independence Day (1996), Men in Black (1997) Armageddon (1998), Godzilla (1998) and The Matrix (1999).


Old school action stars tried to diversify, as the audiences seemed to be losing interest in the action movie stylistics of the 80s. Schwartzenegger did the comedies Kindergarten Cop  (1990) and Junior (1994). In The Last Action Hero (1993) he spoofed the action genre and scored a colossal flop. True Lies (1994) and Eraser (1996) were successful, but didn’t approach his previous hits in their cultural impact. Stallone did the comedies Oscar (1990) and Stop! or My Mom Will Shoot (1991) - both tremendous failures. His hits - Demolition Man (1993), Cliffhanger (1993) - came and went. Judge Dredd (1995) tanked. Bruce Willis was the decade’s leading action star thanks to Die Hard (1988) and its sequels, but he showed no fidelity to the genre, having come from the comedy/detective/romance/meta-television show Moonlighting (1985 - 1989), and scoring huge popularity doing the voice of the baby in Look Who’s Talking (1989). Many successful action movies featured lead actors who jumped genres from film to film - Keanu Reeves (Speed, The Matrix), Will Smith (Independence Day, Men in Black), Nicolas Cage (The Rock, Face/Off). The movies of pure action guys like Steven Seagal and Jean Claude Van Damme became increasingly obscure. Clint Eastwood went from spaghetti westerns in the 60s to Dirty Harry movies in the 70s and 80s - which made violence cool and righteous - to directing, producing and starring in the Best Picture winning Unforgiven (1992). In it he Eastwood in Unforgivenplays a former gunslinger who agrees to do one last killing for hire, to avenge a prostitute whose face was cut up by two ranch hands when she laughed at how small one guy’s pecker was. When Eastwood shoots one of them from a distance, the man’s left calling out for water, eliciting sympathy from his killer who yells at the man’s companions “give him some water, dammit!”. A teenager who’d tried to come off as an outlaw breaks down in tears after his first killing, in which he’d shot the other ranch hand sitting in an outhouse. In the movie’s finale, there’s no feeling of victory when Eastwood kills his enemies in an act of vengeance for the death by torture of his friend Ned (Morgan Freeman), just the pounding rain and some low, menacing music.


Some new players on the scene explored action in new ways. Quentin Tarantino made Mr Blonde in Reservoir Dogsviolence both cool and horrible. His characters were badasses who could banter about an unrelated subject before going in to commit a crime, but when Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen) slices off the tied-up cop’s ear in Reservoir Dogs (1992) he doesn’t crack any jokes. The moment is so brutal, even the camera looks away. John Travolta’s character in Pulp Fiction is not only a handsome, well dressed, articulate hit man, he’s a heroin addict, and his glorious end is to get shot down with his own gun, coming out of the bathroom, thanks to nothing other than bad luck. And Tarantino was just as praised for his dialogue, music and unconventional storytelling techniques as for his action sequences. Jackie Chan catapulted into American filmgoing consciousness with Rumble in the Bronx (1995), which is more a comedy than an action movie. As with all of Chan’s movies the focus was on his stunt work and creativity in using props and his environment to choreograph dizzying fight sequences that amused as much as they astonished. The outtakes in the credits for Rumble in the Bronx show him break his ankle in a stunt, and later fit a sock painted to look like a sneaker over his cast, and get back on his feet, acting and directing a day later. Compared to that, what’s so impressive about a guy spraying bullets from a machine gun? 



xenaWomen were still mostly relegated to passive roles, but made some inroads on TV with the cable shows Xena: Warrior Princess (1995 - 2001) and Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997 - 2003), both finding strong cult followings.


With the US victorious in the first Gulf War there were no movies about evil, sadistic Iraqis. The only widely seen movie of the decade on the subject was Three Kings (1999), which shows the racism of American soldiers and questions the army’s mission. America didn’t have Russians to vilify anymore. The enemies in the movies I’ve been citing were either non-human (dinosaurs, aliens, robots, tornados, asteroids and monsters) or American white guys. A growing tide of political correctness made any blanket condemnation of non-whites objectionable. But why? Images of real violence came into peoples’ homes on the news in previous decades, but didn’t have these results. The spirit of the age seems to have been changing. Perhaps even growing up. More on this in the conclusion. But first...


Action Movies in the Oughts


The action movies of the Oughts (or the 2000s, whatever you’d like to call this last decade) continue these trends.


Tobey Maguire, action starAgain, actors from other genres play leads - Christian Bale (Batman Begins, The Dark Knight), Matt Damon (the Bourne Trilogy) Tobey Maguire (the Spiderman movies), Robert Downey Jr. (Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Sherlock Holmes), Nicolas Cage (Gone in 60 Seconds, National Treasure), Will Smith (I Am Legend, Hancock). New action stars, like Jason Statham, star in one obscure B-release after another. Martial arts stars like Tony Jaa and Jet Li (following in the steps of Jackie Chan) have minor but devoted followings. Schwartzenegger scored a last few bombs with End of Days (1999), The Sixth Man (2000) and Collateral Damage (2002) before focusing on politics. Stallone’s Rocky Balboa (2006) and Rambo (2008) were moderate hits, but didn’t approach the success of the franchises’ earlier movies, and Get Carter (2000) and Collateral (2002) were huge flops. Bruce Willis’ character gets told by the villain in Live Free or Die Hard (2007) that he’s “a Timex watch in a digital age”. The film did well, but wasn’t a phenomenon. Jean Jean Claude Van Damme, in the very sincere JCVDClaude Van Damme made the surprising JCVD (2008), in which he plays himself, an actor in third-rate movies with a life of substance abuse problems, five divorces and an estranged daughter who doesn’t want to talk to him. Through bad luck he gets caught in the heist of a Belgian post office, and at one point does a seven-minute monologue to the camera (in a single unedited shot) in which he admits what a failure he is as a person, and tears visibly. He even reveals that his real last name is Van Varenberg.


Christian Bale, armoured up in Batman BeginsCurrent action stars are in good shape but they aren’t steroid monsters. Superhero movies usually keep their heroes costumed in elaborately armoured suits anyway. Keanu Reeves wore a long leather jacket through most of the Matrix trilogy. The fit bodies of the Spartans in 300 (2006) were prominently displayed, but their muscles weren’t enough to save them in the movie’s finale.


Modern action heroes rarely use guns. Part of Batman’s mythology is his refusal to use firearms. Spiderman seems to get by without them, as do his nemeses. Iron Man can fire repulser blasts from his hands and chest, and missiles from a compartment on his forearm, but very little action in Iron Man hinges on gunfire. The trailer for Punisher: War Zone (2008) shows the hero hanging suspended from the ceiling, spinning in a circle, firing a gun in each hand. The movie bombed. The Matrix trilogy involved a fair bit of gunplay, but the best remembered elements of those films involved innovative camera-work, special effects and hand to hand combat.


The big action movies of the Oughts were mostly rated PG-13. Stallone’s and Schwartzenegger’s movies in the 80s were always Restricted (along with those of Messrs. Norris, Seagal, Van Damme and Bronson), as was Die Hard. Studios realized they could make more money if they scaled down the violence a bit. The imdb trivia page for The Expendables says there’s a PG-13 version and a Restricted version, and they’re testing both out to see which will make more money. The thirst for revenue began trumping the glory of flying bullets.


Entire nations of people aren’t villainized or killed anymore. In the Star Wars prequels the battle droids from the Star Wars prequelsmowed down enemies are robots or clones. In the Matrix trilogy they’re computer generated pseudo-people or giant sperm-like robots. In the Lord of the Rings movies they’re orcs (although they’re allied, at times, with masked “Easterners”). In Transformers (2007) and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009) they’re robots. Arabs don’t come off too well in Taken (2008), but it was a minor film - and this is in a decade with America at war with two Arab nations. There’s plenty of frustration in the American psyche crying out for purging, but movie makers don’t seem to want to paint any nation’s people as less than human. There are evil Arabs in Iron Man (as well as good ones, who the evil ones want to torture and kill for no stated reason), but the chief villain is Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges), a white American corporate guy, who finagles control of Tony Stark’s company from him and whose main expression of evil is continuing to design, produce and sell weapons. Mickey Rourke plays the villain in Iron Man 2 - a Russian, but one who’d been imprisoned for fifteen years by his own government for selling plutonium to Pakistan. Unlike Russians in 80s action movies, he’s not a representative of the state, but a renegade motivated by a personal vendetta.


Tony Stark goes through moral development in Iron ManMoral development appears as a theme in many current action flicks. Iron Man showcases its main character’s journey from hedonistic Maxim cover girl screwer and military apologist/profiteer to peaceful idealist and defender of the weak:


Tony Stark: I never got to say goodbye to my father. There's questions I would've asked him. I would've asked him how he felt about what his company did, if he was conflicted, if he ever had doubts. Or maybe he was every inch of man we remember from the newsreels. I saw young Americans killed by the very weapons I created to defend them and protect them. And I saw that I had become part of a system that is comfortable with zero-accountability.


Press Reporter #1: Mr. Stark! What happened over there?


Tony Stark: I had my eyes opened. I came to realize that I had more to offer this world than just making things that blow up. And that is why, effective immediately, I am shutting down the weapons manufacturing division of Stark Industries.


Can you imagine Stallone or Schwarzenegger saying those lines? Furthermore, in his quest to reform himself Tony Stark doesn’t renounce technology, wealth or American cheeseburgers - he integrates the positive aspects of his old life into a newer, more responsible one. In Spiderman (2002), Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) is spurred to heroism by his guilt over having stood by when the thief who went on to kill his uncle ran by him. Christian Bale in The Dark KnightHe renounces his crime-fighting duties in Spiderman 2 (2004) in favour of having a life of his own, only to resume them when moved to protect others and do what’s right. Batman Begins (2005) shows Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) overcoming his lust for revenge and his youthful criminal rebellion by refashioning himself with discipline and idealism. The Dark Knight (2008) climaxes with a version of the moral quandary known as “the prisoner’s dilemma”: the Joker rigs two crowded ferries with bombs, announcing to each that they hold the detonator for the other ferry. If they blow the other ferry up, theirs will be spared. If neither blows the other up, both will explode at midnight. We see the passengers struggle with their situation, and neither kills the other. Think about that - the turning point of an action film hinging on the willingness of average people to sacrifice themselves for strangers.


females fighting in Kill BillWomen are still often relegated to roles as helpers, victims and hostages, but there have been a growing number of exceptions. Kill Bill Vol. 1 (2003) and Kill Bill Vol. 2 (2004)
feature an ass kicking female protagonist and multiple female (as well as male) antagonists. X-Men (2000)(and sequels) has powerful women amongst the heroes and villains, and Mystique (Rebecca Romijn) is far more adept at hand to hand combat than she ever was in the source comics, fighting Wolverine - an absolute icon of masculine power and ferocity in the world of Marvel superheroes - to a Scarlett Johansson is anything but a damsel in distress in Iron Man 2standstill. Angelina Jolie played an adventurer in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001) (and sequel), an assassin in Mr. & Mrs. Smith (2005), she trains the protagonist in Wanted (2008) in hand to hand combat and gunplay, and promises to kick ass in the upcoming Salt (2010). Scarlett Johannsen singlehandedly takes out ten security guards in Iron Man 2 in an elaborate martial arts sequence, comically contrasted with barrel chested Jon Favreau taking the same amount of time to barely beat one. Other female headed action movies include Underworld (2003) (and sequels) Charlie’s Angels (2000) (and sequel) and Resident Evil (2002) (and sequels). On TV there’s Alias (2001 - 2006), Fringe (2008 - ), Lost (2004 - 2010) and Heroes (2006 -).


Following in the steps of Tarantino, various movies make violence seem simultaneously exciting and horrible. Casino Royale (2006) rebooted the James Bond series to widespread acclaim. It opens with a thrilling free running/parkour chase, but later we see Bond tied up and tortured by his enemy, having a thick-knotted rope smashed against his balls. Anyone wanna trade places with him? The main character looks goofy in his costume in KickassIn Kick-Ass (2010) the main character not only looks goofy in his costume, he gets stabbed in the stomach and hit by a car so badly he’s hospitalized for months. He encounters what seem like genuine superheroes Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage) and his daughter Hit Girl, who can battle a dozen opponents and win. But Big Daddy is caught by gangsters (thanks to Kick-Ass’s ineptitude), severely beaten (blood comes out of his mouth when they bash him in the crotch with a club) and then burned alive. Maybe not so coincidentally, this last decade has also seen the rise of mixed martial arts fighting and ultimate fighting, where there’s none of the theatricality (and falseness) of professional wrestling, and none of the formality of boxing or traditional martial arts. To fans of these contests, violence is simultaneously fascinating and brutal.


Recent action movies are often based on comic books and graphic novels, which sets them in a larger than life world of their own. Sin City (2005) was filmed in black and white, with Mickey Rourke as the unrealistic (but exciting) Marv in Sin Citycertain props and articles of clothing featured in colour, constantly reminding the viewer that it takes place outside the regular world. Mickey Rourke’s character is grotesquely made-up, and at one point leaps ten storeys down the shaft of a stairwell and survives, making it clear we’re in the world of fantasy. 300 was entirely filmed against green and blue screens, giving every shot its own mythic reality. In Watchmen (2009) Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup) dispatches two robbers of a bar by causing their bodies to explode, using his character’s supernatural ability to manipulate physical matter. The blood-and-guts-sprayed patrons seem more traumatized by the rescue than the robbery. The camera lingers on the bones of a disintegrated arm, swinging disgustingly from the ceiling. This is the action of a costumed hero - clearly not something you’re likely to encounter in your everyday life. But if you did, would you want to? Isn’t it better for action to stay on the page or the screen?


a screen shot from CounterstrikeSo do these changes in action movies signal that we’ve purged ourselves of the impulse to inflict violence and enjoy it? I don’t think so. Look at the hugely popular genre of first person shoot-em-up games like Counterstrike, Halo, Call of Duty, Modern Warfare, Left 4 Dead, Gears of War and Borderlands. Gangs of adolescents and teenagers swarm into internet cafes and play these games as a group, talking excitedly and laughing as they go on missions and shoot the bad guys (many of whom wear turbans), exhibiting that same glee my friends and I felt watching Predator or Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. And it isn’t just younger guys playing these games, according to the Entertainment Software Association, the average age of a gamer is 35. And that brings us to the crucial subject of interpretation. Which also brings us to the Integral Philosophy part of the essay.


The Integral Philosophy Part of the Essay


Anyone watching a movie or TV show, or reading a novel, or playing a video game is going to interpret it through his or her cultural and moral framework. Researchers Lawrence Kohlberg, Clare Graves, Jean Gebser, Carol Gilligan and others have studied how moral development follows a set pattern, both in individuals and in cultures. Everyone is born at the moral equivalent of square one. The earlier a stage, the more narcissism we show. The later the stage the more compassion we show. There’s no skipping stages. The lines between stages are blurry. And to say that someone’s at a given stage means that’s where they are most of the time. On a good day, they might think, feel and act with more understanding and empathy. On a bad day, or at a bad moment, their lower self might be in the driver’s seat. Here’s a quick rundown of each stage and a description of how someone expressing that stage would view action movies.


Levels 1 & 2 - Archaic. These stages describe people who can’t distinguish where they end and the rest of the world begins, hence a baby covers up her own eyes while playing peek-a-boo, thinking she disappears because she can’t see anything. Someone expressing this stage watching an action movie probably wouldn’t have a clue what they were looking at, much less how to interpret its themes.


SupermanLevel 3 - Magic. At this stage there’s still a fuzzy boundary between the perceiver and the outer world. Inanimate objects are imbued with human intentions. Certain words have magical powers. The ego believes it can manipulate the world, just by wanting to. In his book One Taste (where you can find more detailed descriptions of all of these stages), Ken Wilber cites Saturday morning cartoons as an example of this - superheroes can fly, move objects, conjure anything out of thin air simply by wanting to. For someone expressing the magic stage, Spiderman really does have super powers, Superman really can fly. There’s no thought given to the fact that superheroes aren’t actually real. Anything is possible.


Level 4 - Mythic. At this stage a person has realized they can’t suspend the laws of physics, but a supernatural being can on your behalf, so pray to them and they’ll get you what you want. Deeper implications and metaphors don’t register. Literal interpretations and surface meanings are embraced. Moral questions are reduced to black and white differences. There’s an “us and them” mentality - either you follow the true god, or you’re going to hell. Most 80s action movies have these moral sensibilities: America is good, the Soviets and Vietnamese are bad. It’s virtuous when they’re exterminated. Power is good (when it’s ours), giant muscles are good (when they’re ours). Even though modern action movies usually don’t present these values, someone expressing mythic consciousness would see them anyway. The Spartans in 300 are good, the Persians deserve to be slaughtered. Kill ‘em!! It’s awesome when Uma Thurman slices off her enemies’ heads. Yeah!!!


Dr Manhattan in WatchmenLevel 5 - Rational. People expressing this stage want evidence and empirical verification. The world of spirit doesn’t exist, because you can’t see it or measure it with instruments. There are no gods, and no breaking the laws of physics, no matter how strongly you want to, or who you pray to. Someone expressing this stage might watch action movies and be annoyed by plot holes and inconsistencies. Dr. Manhattan can’t manipulate objects just by thinking about them, because that’s impossible. 300 is historically inaccurate. If Spiderman really did somehow acquire the abilities of a spider, his webs wouldn’t shoot out of his wrists, but from his anus. Most 80s action movies have these sensibilities in terms of the physical world they present. The hero is powered by muscles, guns and helicopters, not by a magic amulet given to him by a god.

Level 6 - Pluralistic
. People expressing this stage of consciousness believe no one is better than anyone else, hierarchies are bad, everyone’s allowed to have their say, and no one should ever dominate anyone else. A pluralistic person would have serious problems with the way minorities are portrayed or the way entire cultures/nations are painted as evil. the hero & villain in Iron Man - both white corporate guysThey’re wary of generalizations and stereotypes. They’re capable of a degree of self-reflection that previous stages don’t express, and this makes them more sensitive to psychological nuances. Also, the villain in Iron Man is a corporate arms manufacturer, which fits with their new idea of who the bad guys really are – rich men in suits, ruining the planet. But notice that this is still a mythic impulse painting in black and white, ie - all corporations are bad, especially big ones. A pluralist might miss the point that Tony Stark doesn’t renounce the corporate world and its capacity to engineer cutting edge technology, but seeks to take the best elements of that world and use them for good.


Level 7 - Integral. People expressing this stage see value in all the levels of development, Gerard Butler in 300realizing they each have something to offer, each is stage appropriate. Each of us is born at the earliest stage and transcends and includes the previous stages as we develop. Someone expressing integral consciousness doesn’t reject violence in movies, but can integrate the impulse of an adolescent male (at the mythic and rational stages) with the mature understanding of a rational and pluralistic adult. They’d see these same action movies and know that it’s okay to let your inner twelve year old get his rocks off in a fantasy land where no one actually gets hurt, where the rage is scripted, and with none of it being mistaken for anything that would happen in the real world. And the grown-up gets to stay in charge when the movie’s over and participation in the much more nuanced real world resumes.




So why did action movies change in these ways? Because we seem to be growing up as a culture. A bit. Gradually. When the sensibilities of previous generations seem mysterious to a native american in The Searchers, 1956us, it shows we’ve outgrown them. 80s action movies seem outdated and jingoistic to us now, but many movies of previous decades seem even more so. Native Americans are soulless marauders in Stagecoach (1939) and The Searchers (1956) (played by caucasian actors). The gentlemanly British officers in Bridge on the River Kwai (Best Picture winner for 1957) casually refer to the Japanese as “nips”. Now images of Stallone or Schwartzenegger cracking jokes as they gun down Russians, Vietnamese and Nicaraguans draw laughs of astonishment. The majority of us don’t identify with those sensibilities anymore. We can stand outside of them and look at them.


Action movies have gotten more complex - a hallmark of psychological development. It points to a growing cultural sophistication. And why is our culture growing more sophisticated? In much of his work Ken Wilber talks about how evolution unfolds in an upward direction. In the physical world first there were atoms. Then molecules. Then cells. Iron ManThen micro-organisms. Then more complex organisms. In human development, first there was the simple need for immediate, individual survival. Then came care for the family. Then for the tribe. The village. The nation. The religion. And eventually for everyone.
We’re still struggling to reach that last stage, with many false starts as we go.


We live in a time of great flux. Within living memory our sensibilities have changed noticeably - in action movies, as I’ve been arguing, and in other areas as well. Environmental consciousness used to be the hallmark of a crank, as was skepticism toward the goodness of mass produced food. We’re far from perfect as a culture and as a species, and quite certainly many sensibilities of our current action movies will astonish future generations. But we do seem to be making some halting steps forward as we expand our conception of who’s important, who deserves care and consideration, and how we feel about anyone being punched, kicked, chased, stabbed, laid waste to with a hail of bullets or blown to pieces by a perfect shot from a bazooka.

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  • Comment Link Paul Duke Friday, 11 June 2010 15:39 posted by Paul Duke

    Fantastic stuff T.J! Glad you included the one photo of Scarlett Johansen assuming the now-cliched pose (used by every female ass-kicker in EVERY recent action film) of "just flew through the air doing flips and kicks and now have to land in a striking way that says "I am graceful and not done with you-bring it on."

    One leg hunched, the other extended out to one side, one hand lightly touching the ground, one extended out toward the back. So graceful, so elegant, so powerful, so fucking unbelievably overused and unoriginal-see 1970's and 80's Shaw Brothers Hong Kong kung-fu films.

    Great essay T..J.

  • Comment Link TJ Dawe Saturday, 12 June 2010 23:54 posted by TJ Dawe

    Thanks for your comments, Paul. Any chance of you posting a url to a youtube clip of a great scene from a 70s or 80s Shaw Brothers Hong Kong kung fu film (with or without a woman in that pose)?

  • Comment Link james Tuesday, 06 July 2010 08:10 posted by james

    Looks like we might be collectively "regarding violence" as a species. We might have our movies while the bush people--if there are any left--have their dreams.

    In any case, since this is the first time in history that all of humanity is aware that we are all in the same room together, I still hopefully have some hoped-for hope.

  • Comment Link Dr. Toller Saturday, 10 July 2010 18:48 posted by Dr. Toller

    This essay is sweet. It's like I can read about people punching each other really hard and still be intellectual.

    While I agree that there has been some noticeable moral progress in spectatorship from the 80s to now, I think there are two things to note:

    The first is that because the progress you are talking about is largely a trend and doesn't preclude some of the 80's-esque movies from being produced and succeeding, the progress that has been earned is very precarious. Although it may solidify earlier, the more pluralistic view is still only in its infancy in society, and thus is threatened by cultural products that propagate an us vs them mentality.

    The precariousness of the moral development that's been gained makes me hesitant to be optimistic. Your argument does seem truthful, that action movies have shifted towards a more intelligent understanding of their violence. And the large-scale trend to question violence does seem like a relatively new development, at least in the modern West. However, have their not been other time periods when these values have existed? Or in other societies? I think that while we may be gaining ground in refusing unadultered enjoyment of violence, we are likely losing ground in another aspect of pluralistic thinking (e.g. in the area of video games, or in our refusal to change our destruction of our environment).

    Great article. It does make me hanker for some good ol' punching.

  • Comment Link Christopher Carr Friday, 16 July 2010 16:31 posted by Christopher Carr

    I may be mistaken, but I believe Stallone has a 'weak chin'. Discuss.

  • Comment Link RL Murray Monday, 28 January 2013 23:57 posted by RL Murray

    Nice essay. I am defo level 5. I am a Brit who cringes at movies that were basically pro british propaganda. The Italian Job (original), Bridge over the River Kwai, all the bonds before Daniel Craig. Feel embarrassed just thinking about how the audiences in Leicester Square lapped all of that garbage up.

  • Comment Link TJ Dawe Thursday, 31 January 2013 02:22 posted by TJ Dawe

    RL - I'd be interested in hearing your description of the difference between the Daniel Craig Bond and previous Bonds. I touched on the subject pretty briefly in the essay.

    And glad you liked it, by the way.

    I remember really liking Bridge Over the River Kwai when I saw it however many years ago. The overt racism was a little off-putting, but the performances and direction were simply brilliant.

    Folk singer Phil Ochs was a big fan of John Ford/John Wayne westerns (and other movies they made, like The Long Voyage Home - based on a Eugene O'Neill play, about sailors). Ochs made a career of protest songs in the 60s, and yet never lost his love for the Ford/Wayne patriotic epics, stating in the patter introducing a song in a 1968 live performance that they were great at what they did, despite being right wing, reactionary and not particularly intelligent. The audience laughs, thinking he's taking a dig at these figures from the right, but he seemed to be able to separate their politics and even the politics of their films from their achievements in making films that moved him, and many others.

    I suppose that's a way to appreciate Bridge Over the River Kwai, and other movies of that kind, if they succeed on levels unrelated to their propaganda.

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