ost action hero — Action films in the 80s and 90s were a special breed. Meat vessels in the shape of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone and Bruce Willis brandished problem-solving M60 machine guns, wiping out scores of faceless goons and dropping devastating puns while doing so.
Half of this would happen in slow-motion, illogical explosions would go off at random, and there would almost definitely be a car chase that cost two-thirds of the film’s entire budget. It was magical.
Those were simpler times, better times, when it was just a matter of good v evil, and it was always abundantly clear who the bad guy was because they’d have a maniacal laugh or take hostages or have a cat. But when patriotic heroes weren’t blowing up Russians in helicopters, the genre was really defined by one common enemy, something audiences could rally against and blame for all the wrongdoing in the world: capitalism.
One of the best examples is Paul Verhoeven’s cyberpunk classic RoboCop. Set in the near future, in a slightly more dystopian Detroit, the film saw an evil corporation take control of the city’s law enforcement, creating a police state. A robotic cop was involved, too.
This was depicted during a time of political confusion in the real world, particularly in the US. Ronald Reagan’s corrupt administration left people not knowing what to believe, aside from the fact that authority was the real villain. That was an idea that Hollywood soon popularised, much to the delight of governments everywhere.
They don’t make anti-authority action films such as RoboCop any more. By the turn of the 21st century, the action genre had lost sight of who the bad guys were, arguably because we now live in even more politically confused times. So modern-day plots have become convoluted and steeped in idealism.
The difference between good and evil is often a matter of perspective, and the traditional, one-dimensional villain has been replaced by complex individuals who demand – shudder – sympathy. (See Avengers: Infinity War’s knuckle-chinned antagonist Thanos, who wants to wipe out half of the universe, but only because he thinks it will help to solve the population problem.)
This also means the traditional action hero has been lost. Comic-book superheroes may now garner mass admiration, but they don’t fulfil the same “one person singlehandedly taking on the whole world with their bare hands” fantasy.
Classic Arnie films offer exactly that. In Commando, he defeats a corrupt dictator and his entire army to save his daughter; in The Running Man, he fights his way out of a death-match reality show; and in Total Recall he liberates mutants on Mars, where breathable air has been privatised.
Perhaps because we so often read stories of innocent people dying in terrorist attacks, mass shootings and chemical bombings, it has become impossible to believe in any kind of elite hero mythology. So now we rely on special effects and people in tights for escapism – visual chewing gum that gives the people what they want, but doesn’t enlighten them enough to start a revolution, bring down the fat cats and destroy Skynet.
If anything, action films today support the sort of capitalist societies people in the 80s and 90s feared. With the possible exception of Captain America: Civil War, and the fact that they continuously save the planet from destruction, what do the Avengers represent other than enforcers of the establishment, with their sickeningly rich leader and alarming sense of patriotism?
Even in the Dark Knight trilogy – which is of a different ilk from the superhero sub-genre – Batman’s aim is essentially to uphold the values of those we have learned not to trust. In previous decades, Bane would have been the hero trying to liberate the oppressed citizens of a dingy dystopia. If you forgot that he was trying to kill everyone, that is.
What modern action films share is that they all take themselves too seriously – even those that are meant to be ridiculous, such as Transformers and Fast and Furious franchises.
The latter is probably considered the natural successor to the Arnie and Sly era of high-octane, muscle-busting action, but even though it’s a series about very fast cars, it can’t resist toying with cyberterrorism, “Diplomatic Security Service” and nuclear warfare.
It has no idea what it’s meant to stand for, nor what it’s meant to be, other than large and loud – and it wishes it were half as iconic as Face/Off, Con Air or anything else with Nicolas Cage in it.
Anyone who’s seen Demolition Man will know that the golden age of the genre – the art form communicating a generation’s political fears by making people’s heads explode – is dead.
But many will argue that the Marvel Cinematic Universe and franchises such as Fast and Furious have made action films better than ever. They will cite broken box-office records as evidence, to which I’ll reply: “Capitalism won.”