The BEST - Part 2: Action/Superhero

To my 3.14159 followers, sorry this took so long. Smile

Previous articles in "The BEST" series:
The BEST - Part 1 - The Outline

Genre Recap:
Action/Superhero – Big budgets. Explosions. Special effects. Adrenalin. That type of action. Movies that are exciting. Movies built for the masses (and their wallets) with otherwise little merit to society. Or so we think. Perhaps some of the up-coming picks will prove otherwise.

*Reminder, selections are based on a combination of quality based on the genre’s criteria, as well as the film’s ability to define (or redefine) a genre.

The 10 Best Action/Superhero movies, in no particular order:

Die Hard (1988)
Probably one of the first movies that come to mind when talking about the action genre. Like some other films on this list, one of the key elements from the get-go of this flick is vulnerability. Before the chaos and excitement begin, we are introduced to a relatively fragile John McClane. He is traveling away from his point of comfort, to a town he is not familiar with, in the front seat of a limo (because he is not accustomed to sitting in the back). He is headed to LA because his wife has moved there with his children for work, and they seem to be on some form of “break”.

So emotionally, we have a strong, yet vulnerable, character. Like any good action movie, this must also be reflected physically, and Die Hard does this by taking away poor John’s shoes. So, of course, when the action begins, he has the save the day in bare feet.

And of course we have: explosions, one man vs. an army, and beautiful one-liners, with few better in action history than “yippee-ki-yay, mother-...(you know the line).” It all works, the bad guys get what’s coming to them, and everything falls into place for John, as he saves the day, gets the girl, and (presumably) tosses on a pair of shoes.

The Dark Knight (2008)
As much as I hate having something this recent on a top-anything list, few can debate the impact The Dark Knight had right from the gate. Breaking records all over the damned place, this flick proved that the action/superhero genre could be as deep in emotion and ideas as it is with explosions.

Especially recently, the superhero film has been flooded with relatively flat notions of what it actually takes to be a superhero. The Dark Knight picks this idea up in the beginning and warps it throughout the film, until it ultimate re-defines what a superhero is, and what lengths a person can go through to be one. Through self-sacrifice is nothing new to the genre, making one the villain for the greater good is, and gives the audience a whole new dimension of character to consider. Both in the film, and in the real world, if one were to make such extrapolations.

The Crow (1994)
A man and his fiancé are murdered. A year later, the man is resurrected to avenge the murders and right the wrongs in this decaying world. Arguably one of the darkest superhero flicks, The Crow is about revenge through and through. Until the end, no one is trying to save anyone here; it’s all about destruction: cold, raw, calculated revenge-murder.  And it delivers. But, unlike many similar films, it does so in a bitingly ironic way.

As the film progresses, the bodies begin hitting the floor, and the satisfaction with each fabulously ironic death begins to build, Eric Draven is confronted with the last living pieces of his former life. Though his quest remains unaltered, he finds the hope that he lost when he began his quest for revenge.

Though very much a Hollywood-ized version of the original graphic novel, the film carries strong themes of redemption and the value (or lack thereof) of revenge. Conversely, it also speaks volumes to the notion of closure surrounding crime & punishment, and our need for it to find closure. And, let’s face it, Brandon Lee and the entire The Crow film looks damn cool while doing it.

The Terminator (1984)
When The Terminator begins, the machine is teleported smoothly and cleanly to Earth. The human is dropped violently and vulnerably to the streets. The machine is a controlled, systematic, and invulnerable. The human is a frail mass of soft flesh and fragile bones. Thus begins one of the greatest pursuit-action films made. The premise is a simple man-vs-machine survival story, but the details make it spectacular. The machine is programmed to terminate, and literally can do or think of nothing else. The human is driven by survival and love, two primary characteristics of the human “condition” if you will, and he will, in turn, do everything he can to ensure the survival of himself and the woman he loves.

The action flows smoothly, and evolves naturally. It works because, unlike human vs human action films, the machine doesn’t care if it opens fire in a crowded discotheque. It just has to kill. Now. Adding to the excitement of this flick is the fact that we get to see the transition of the human-esque cyborg into a full-scale machine by the end. Ironically, this is when it develops vulnerabilities, starting with its “injured” leg/limp, to its exposed insides leading to the dynamite explosion, and ultimately to its flattening. Literally, and metaphorically, when it comes right down to it, a machine is nothing more than parts, and can be disassembled. A human has something more that gives it the will to survive, even under these insurmountable odds. It’s this layered commentary that makes The Terminator a must-have on this list, as both a best-of the genre, and a defining picture of the action genre.

RoboCop (1987)
RoboCop is like the exact opposite of The Terminator. Here, at the beginning of the vulnerability is the police force as-is. After the demolition of Alex Murphy, things change. Law enforcement gets tougher, and crime-fighting takes on a new meaning, with RoboCop kicking some serious ass.

Coinciding with this is the idea of corporatization of public interests, in this case, law enforcement. Because of a large private company, law enforcement is beefed up with this patented RoboCop. This speaks volumes on many levels of political and social commentary. Politically, there are clear parallels between the destruction caused by giving a private company a way into public security. Socially, as the man (Murphy) behind the machine (RoboCop) fights crime, he also fights to retain who he is, in this new body – man trying to remain man in a world of technology – seems kinda relevant today, no?

But as much as this probably should be in the science-fiction category, for the interplay of science, technology and humanity, it’s earned a place in action because of its brilliantly alarming shoot-outs, and car drama, ending with the absolutely spectacular death of bad-guy Emil Antonowsky (*spoiler* – falls in toxic waste, then get’s smoked by a car, exploding in a giant blast of mush and body fragments – classic stuff). The cold-blooded murder of Murphy is also particularly affecting, and, especially in the Director’s Cut, graphic. This makes the rest of the film that much more exciting, as he both avenges his murder, and rights the wrong in the city.

First Blood (1982)
The first Rambo movie is not at all what one would expect from a “Rambo movie”. Until the end, the action is pretty slow. It usually takes place in the form of jungle traps and jungley-survival/fight type stuff. It’s one man versus a small collection of enemy forces, as they hunt him down and he wipes them out, building his infamous reputation. No massive explosions or epic 40-man gunfights. But unlike most blockbuster action flicks, all the violence in this flick is meaningful and relatively organic.

What begins as a clash of classes, based on misunderstanding and misjudging a person, evolves into the story of a desperate man fighting for survival in world that doesn’t want him. The fight leads to a lush and (for all but Rambo) foreign jungle environment, where the one-man-army takes out a good supply of police forces. From there, we move to the city, and things get a bit more intense. But the core action still centres around the PERSON of John Rambo: a highly decorated Vietnam veteran, still suffering from flashbacks and PTSD. And the way he fights to stay alive in a world that would rather sweep him under the rug.

Social commentaries include the swift abandoning of the “war hero”, and the fight (literally and metaphorically) a nation put up against them upon their return. Nothing too subtle here, as the end- result is a literal micro-war. But a bit deeper, we’ve got the idea of law-enforcement vs. military. In the end, interestingly enough, civic peace comes when the military steps down and the police take over. There is a time and place for militaristic violence, and a time to set aside militaristic thinking and leave the world in the hands of civil servants.

The Running Man (1987)
To say there is a lot going on in The Running Man is an understatement. Traditionally Arnold Schwarzenegger starring in a Stephen King story is not the stuff rich sci-fi stories are made of. But, again, this flick as it all.

As a futuristic, quasi-sci-fi flick, it has meaningful reflection on society based on projection social observation of scientific advancement. In this case, media manipulation, reality TV and blood-lust (yes, this is why it’s in the action section, not sci-fi). In order to survive, Schwarzy is forced to take on a series of “stalkers” on publicly-broadcast network television, and kill them in bloody, brutal fashion for all to see. And bet on. And plan their lives around. With unabashedly brutal Arnold puns (hereafter referred to as “Arnolds”) after each kill, non-stop action and chaos, and the deliciously satirical Richard Dawson, there’s no real reason for action fans not to love this one.

One of the main reasons the core story works here is because we have a regular man (who just so happens to be built like Arnold Schwarzenegger who is set up, in a very public way, and forced to fight for truth, and his life. He is set against super-villains, who have weapons and technology on their side. Counter-evolutionary in this idea (that man evolved by developing tools/weapons to survive), The Running Man instead presents the notion that it is man’s wit and instinct that lead him to survive, and even overcome stronger, more dangerous enemies. Interesting stuff...

Predator (1987)
I’m going to be honest here: I am not a fan of this flick. So does it have a hope in hell of “winning” best action/superhero movie? Probably not. I will re-watch it, and ya never know. But what you do know is this is a powerhouse action movie that has a lot going for it. A Schwarzenegger vehicle, this one pits man against an evolutionary superbeast known simply as the Predator.

One cannot deny the sheer volume of splendid quotes, one-liners, and “Arnolds” this flick has (click here for more). And when you’ve got Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jesse Ventura, and Carl Weathers in the same 1980’s action flick, can you ever really be that bad?

Okay, so we’ve got the rambunctious jungle-warfare, and the assassin-style hunting of humans by some weird alien thing. But what else is going on here? The underlying ideas of this movie seem to be the exact opposite of the one above (The Running Man, for you bastards too lazy to skim up). Here, we see that in order to survive, one must use everything from machine guns, to choppers. This could be attributed to character, and the fact that, in the end, Arnold is still Arnold, and will likely come up short in a “battle of wits” with an alien. Moral of this one: use guns. Otherwise, you simply will not get to the damn chopper.

The Matrix (1999)
When The Matrix came out, everyone was thrilled because an action movie made them “think”. As such, this was originally on my sci-fi list. But I realized when I thought about the Matrix, the main thing that kept coming to mind was the state-of-the-art fight scenes, and the exciting momentum with which the flick was built upon. These are clearly the makings of an amazing action flick.

Clearly more than (or trying to be more than) just an action flick, with none-too-subtle philosophy/religion/theological symbolism tossed in for fun, this movie opens with a bang and never lets up. You knew I had to spit out lame action clichés at some point, right? But it’s true. The action in The Matrix, with its ground-breaking “bullet-time” effects, and delightfully mesmerizing wire-fighting, is remarkable. The core story is designed in such a way that the action doesn’t feel forced or contrived, allowing the lightning-fast, rapid-fire fight scenes to keep coming in a strangely organic (there’s that word again) way. It’s important for the action to not feel contrived, and in a world literally filled with contrivities, The Matrix makes this work, and work well.

I’ve nothing film-nerdy to write about this one, since it’s all out there in some form or another. Google “Matrix symbolism” for more on that. Like the film itself, this overt symbolism has almost become a cliché. But, like the movie itself, it’s still fun to check out from time to time.

Hard Boiled (1992)
When it comes to pure gun-fighting action/explosion films, few I have seen compare to this one. John Woo proves he is one of the best at the action genre with classic slow-motion explosion dodging, double-crossing crooks, and about 2 billion rounds of ammo.

When it comes to pure, over-the-top, contrived, super-action there isn’t much like this one. *minor spoilers start* At one point, near the end of the film, we have our hero racing out of a building, seconds from exploding, with a baby wrapped in his arms, and his leg on fire. *minor spoilers end* In terms of complete bullshit fun, does it get any better? I would suggest no, as is implied by the tone of the preceding rhetorical question.

What makes Hard Boiled most interesting though is that on the surface, it seems relatively flat. Especially in light of the previous paragraph, with baby-saving, and bad-guy shooting and the like. But right from the beginning, we’re shown that the characters are complex. In traditionally un-super good guy fashion, as Chow Yun Fat disarms the introductory “bad guy”, he actually holds a gun to his head and shoots an unarmed man, in relatively cold blood. Are these the actions of a pure, good superhero? Think about it... 

Honourable Mention:
Speed, Commando, Lethal Weapon, The French Connection, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Face/Off, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. And Battlefield: Earth (for Mikey), Kick-Ass (for George – sorry, can’t even jokingly put Snakes on a Plane here Smile ).

Lastly, I am holding a final spot on all of these lists for any omissions, so if there is something that MUST be on this list that I have overlooked, leave it in the comments section and I will take a look at it before the final "Best of the Best" announcement.

Comments 6
George Prax's picture

So you'll jokingly put Battlefield: Earth, but you won't put Snakes on a Plane, which was purposely bad? Tongue

Anyway, I love the list. No coincidence that Arnold makes it on here several times. Say what you will about the guy but he's incredible at what he does, and it shows. I dunno if I would have put the Running Man in there, just because it strays heavily from the actual source material. I would have probably put Commando in it's place, my favorite Arnold movie.

I would have killed you if you didn't put The Dark Knight, Die hard, and First Blood in this, btw. Especially Die Hard, which I think might the movie we've managed to talk about the most since the site opened lmao.

One thing I would criticize is how many sci fi flicks are in here, seeing as it has its own category, but I get that there's a lot of overlap. Anyway, great job and I'm looking forward to the rest.

Justin Traviss's picture

Yeah, that was a joke. I haven't seen Battlefield Earth (tho its on my DVD shelf) and I didn't mind Snakes on a Plane. Sam Jackson will forever be The Man, no matter what Smile )

I was really surprised with the sci-fi too, since my original list included NO sci-fi, not even The Terminator, but I kept weighing the action with the sci-fi in those flicks and it keeps coming down to what stands out the most, and in these PARTICULAR sci-fi flicks, its the action. The perma-chase in Terminator, the gruesome (and surprisingly plentiful) bodies blown to bits in RoboCop, the heavy visuals of The Matrix, and the fight for survival in The Running Man.

In retrospect, might be one or two too many, but with most of my current sci-fi list the difference in criteria between what makes it on this list and what is on that list is kinda evident. Sometimes. Smile

George Prax's picture

I totally agree with you, you can't really take any of them out the more and more you think of them. And I'm pretty sure a few of those wouldn't come close to making the sci fi list anyway.

Speaking of which, if you don't have at least one Star Trek movie on your sci fi list, I'm going to disembowel you Tongue

Justin Traviss's picture

Stay tuned folks. Disembowelment, live, only on Better With Popcorn!

Jonathan Szekeres's picture

Good list, but a few are missing.
Most notably Leon (The Professional)

Justin Traviss's picture

Leon (BEFORE the horrible Hollywood recutting) is a great film, but its not really something I think of when I think of action/superhero. With the exception of the ending, its a lot more about complex relationships revolving around crime, drugs and "gangster shit" moreso than action itself. As such, watch for its likely appearance on my "Crime" list. Smile