Written by Andrew Tangas (TTT Subscriber Andrew).
“That’s your problem, you think you’re infallible! You think you can’t make a mistake. It’s a pattern with you! The rules are for other people! […] And what’s worse is you using blind luck to justify your playing god!” – Christopher Pike to James Kirk, Star Trek: Into Darkness
“The events laid out by CIA director Hunley also show a pattern of brinkmanship and a total disregard for protocol. From where I sit, your unorthodox methods are indistinguishable from chance. And your results, perfect or not, look suspiciously like luck. I’m afraid today is the day when the IMF’s luck runs out.” – Chairman of Government Inquiry on the Impossible Mission Force, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation
The Hollywood action hero. Arrogant. Reckless. Lucky. From James Bond, to Ethan Hunt, to James Kirk, and many others. These action heroes are as predictable as they are outrageous. The narrative arc of so many action movies runs thusly: everything is well; a crisis occurs; the action hero is faced with an insurmountable challenge to save everyone; the action hero performs a miracle to overcome the odds; all is well again. Most of the time, the action hero does so with an ace up his sleeve – he’s one ridiculous step ahead of his adversary. As such, the action hero always seems confident of the outcome, often overconfident and arrogant. When everyone else is panicking, the action hero remains calm. The action hero throws himself into situations of unthinkable danger, despite the warnings of others and the improbability of success. He is so arrogant that danger and failure cease to exist, leading to extreme recklessness. On the occasions when things do get hairy and the action hero gets a little nervous, a lucky way out always presents itself. It always seems so far-fetched, because, in reality, we know this would not be the case. The villain would not leave the room while the laser bore down on the hero, leaving him to flick a coin and perfectly sever the binds. The hero would not be able to ram a helicopter with a helicopter, survive the crash, win a fight on a cliff-face, and disarm the bomb. They are preposterous scenarios that entertain us for their absurdity.
However, it’s important to maintain some semblance of reality in these scenarios, otherwise the viewer becomes detached, and the action sequences have little meaning. The quotes at the top of the post are from action movies that seek to reinstall some sort of reality into preposterous action scenarios. If characters in the fictional world of the film question the antics of the action hero, it demonstrates to the viewer that it is not just them that think the scenarios are absurd. It validates this belief. It gives a frame of reference to the viewer in the fictional world. It tells the viewer that the action hero’s success is not guaranteed. That they have done what they have done not because they are better than others, but because they have been lucky. These narrative measures are always temporary. Once the frame has been set, the action hero now has the opportunity to prove again to the audience, as well as to the questioning characters, that they are superior. The audience now has doubts about the action hero’s ability, which makes their success more surprising and meaningful than it would have otherwise been.
But when you watch enough action movies, you become accustomed to the doubt. You know the arc. You know the tools the movie is employing to take you on the emotional journey required to provide you with the payoff. You start to see action heroes as the ludicrous and farcical characters that they are. The more you see of them, the more you realise how far from reality they are.
Well, that’s what I used to think. And then I realised that action heroes are real. I realised that there are real-life scenarios where all seems lost, but where the miraculous actions of superior humans make possible the impossible. Importantly, I realised that this is not just limited to one-off events, but that there are individuals in our world that can consistently achieve miracles. And it totally reframed the way that I think about action heroes.
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