academic portfolio & musings of a PhDad on
movies, fatherhood, social justice, and everything in between
movies, fatherhood, social justice, and everything in between
When I first started writing this post, I began with a story aimed at proving to you how much I like Spider-Man and comics in general, but I don’t want to take up too much blog space trying to establish my fanboyness, so I won’t. Just trust me. I like superhero comics, and I absolutely love seeing them in live-action. And Spider-Man doesn’t really have anything to do with this post, anyway. The story I was going to tell has more to do with how ridiculously slow dial-up connections used to be in early 2000s.
Now, about that blog title. I admit it’s a little clickbaity, and I feel dirty for using it, but I hope you’ll forgive me for that. A more honest title might have been something like “Here’s Something I Hope the Marvel Cinematic Universe Works on Improving, Please.”
I watched Captain America: Civil War, and really enjoyed it. But this is not going to be a review of the film. I’ve never been an adaptation purist, so I don’t really care that the film’s narrative is so drastically different from the Civil War event that took place in the comics. While I understand the sentiment of fans who feel wronged by the filmmakers, I don’t find that conversation very interesting. Talking about representation – and the lack thereof – is more interesting to me, and Marvel is slowly but surely working its way through that problem with upcoming movies focused on Black Panther, Captain Marvel, and – one can always hope – Black Widow. But that’s not what I want to talk about either.
Today, I want to share some thoughts about action cinema and hand-to-hand fight choreography, and how much better it could be in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Thought #1: Enough with the Shaky Camera
If there is one thing I really can’t stand in movies, it’s excessively shaky cameras. If there are two things I can’t stand, it’s shaky cameras and excessive cuts in action and fight sequences. I don’t want to write off ALL uses of the shaky camera aesthetic, because certainly there are times when that might add to the overall atmosphere and tension of a scene. However, I’ve found that for most examples of Hollywood action cinema, the shaky camera – along with its BFF, the fast cut – is essentially used to cover up the use of stunt doubles, special effects, and/or the lack of physical skill on the part of the credited performer.
In Civil War’s opening action scene, several of the Avengers are on a mission in Nigeria that involves chases through a busy marketplace where some of the bad guys are caught in hand-to-hand combat with the good guys. Obviously, I just saw this movie once, but I’m thinking especially of Black Widow’s confrontations with these guys. She pulls off some awesome moves. At least, I think she does. Because between the 20 cuts per second and the Widow’s hair being set to “stunt-double-face-blockage” mode, I couldn’t really see what was going on. At least not in the same way I can see what’s going on in, say, the fights on AMC’s Into the Badlands.
I get what filmmakers are aiming for with the shaky shakes. I really do. But there are other ways to add to the tension of a chaotic scene. I mean, I think I even remember shakiness in the sequence above when characters were just running. I get it. They’re in the middle of a crazy hectic situation. But let me actually see what they’re doing!
Having said all that, I do think the fight scenes that mattered more for character development, like the airport brawl, and especially the Steve & Bucky vs. Tony fight (GIF’ed below), were handled really well. Though I’m guessing the reason they’re able to have such a wide shot and fewer cuts in the latter has to do with how CG’ed the whole sequence is. If anyone has any making-of videos or images from the fight, please send them my way! Would love to see how they did it.
I’ve written before about the Chinese martial arts film aesthetic, and I’m definitely biased towards their use of wider shots and fewer cuts. I mentioned Into the Badlands – which I’ve also written about here and here – and I think it’s an example of a product that finds a nice balance between the crazy wide shots and minimal cuts of some martial arts films, and the crazy close-ups and fast-paced cuts of many Hollywood action films.
Thought #2: Black Panther Deserves a More Distinctive Fighting Style
Movies give you a very limited amount of time to get to know their characters. When you get an ensemble cast like the giant roster of Civil War, every moment spent with each character becomes even more precious, which means you want just about every single thing they do to tell you something more about their character. They way they dress, the way they walk, the way they talk, what they eat, how they eat, the way they sit, what makes them laugh, how they laugh; all of these things help define and nuance a character in small but meaningful ways.To the list above, we should also add: how they fight.
Each character’s fighting style in the Marvel Cinematic Universe complements and enhances what we know about them as individuals beyond any brawl. Or at least, it should. Black Widow has experienced life-long training as a spy and undercover agent. We see this in her highly efficient fighting style that makes strategic use of her typically smaller stature compared to her usual opponents, and in the way she uses the environment to her advantage. She gets the job done quickly and pragmatically, with little interest in showiness. Captain America is a New York boy. Although he obviously has superhuman powers and a shield that defies physics, his fighting style remains more classically boxer-like, with a clear preference for jabs, crosses, and uppercuts. He won’t back down until the other guy is down for the count. He’s got heart. Iron Man doesn’t really have any significant combat training. And while he may lack the finesse provided by formal hand-to-hand training, he will often use his advanced technology and clever improvisation to gain the upper hand in a fight. I think you see where I’m going with this.
Enter: Black Panther.
Black Panther is one of the few characters whose costume covers him entirely from head to toe. This means that once the costume is on, it doesn’t really matter who’s in it. To a certain extent, Chadwick Boseman doesn’t really need any training, and you could have the greatest martial artist inside the costume as long as his body type is similar enough to Boseman’s. Having a pro in the costume would also allow the filmmakers to shoot wider shots with fewer cuts, at least when the Panther is the dominant figure within the frame.
As soon as T’Challa burst onto the screen in costume, I was excited to see how they’d approach his fighting style. But man, I have to admit I was really disappointed. I feel like they missed a chance to make T’Challa’s style visually and culturally distinct from the rest of the characters. He’s from a different continent, different culture, and carrying on a warrior tradition that goes back generations! From my single viewing, it seems that except for the use of claw scratches in place of punches, T’Challa was pretty much using a kind of generic, Asian-inspired, cinema-friendly form of martial arts. Even if they did want to stick with an Asian martial arts feel, they could have picked a more animalistic fist style that would better reflect the “Panther” in his name. Alas, it was not to be.
But as always, I’m hopeful. Maybe they couldn’t do much because of the short amount of screen time T’Challa has in the character-packed film. I can already see some sort of training montage in the upcoming solo Black Panther film, so maybe my concerns will be addressed then. In the thick of the jungle. Against wild animals. Probably.
Thought #3: Henceforth, No Filmmaker Should Be Allowed to Make a Hand-to-Hand-Combat-Heavy Film Without Having Seen The Raid: Redemption
I finally watched Gareth Evans’ The Raid: Redemption a few months ago (I know, way overdue!), and it has affected me in a way few movies have. The action and fight choreography in this movie – made on a reported budget of $1.1 million – is indescribably good. That is, it’s so good that I don’t even know how to put its goodness into words. It expanded my expectations of what is even cinematically possible, and affected my viewing of almost every movie I’ve seen since. Since experiencing The Raid, whenever I’m watching an action or fight scene, I can’t help but think “Yeah, this is alright. But have you seen what they accomplished in The Raid?!?! With less money and resources?!?! You can do better!”
Again, I loved what I saw in Captain America: Civil War. Among the theatrical films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it’s probably got the best fight choreography. I limit my praise to Marvel’s theatrical releases because, have you SEEN Daredevil on Netflix? Interestingly, the worst Marvel fight choreography is also on Netflix in the otherwise excellently disturbing Jessica Jones. But that’s the subject of a whole other post.
Watch the brief – but brutal, be warned – clips from The Raid below, and tell me you wouldn’t want to see your favorite superheroes going at each other with the same intensity.
Born in Belgium. Raised in Brazil. Cultured in China. Corrupted in America.