Macho-to-macho. Wait, that doesn’t sound right… (Courtesy of The Bosnian Dragon.)
Notice anything wrong with it? Ignoring the editing for a moment, put yourself in the shoes of an average film-goer in 2014: Captain America, up until now, was the goofy, lighthearted paragon of righteousness, as evidenced by Captain America: The First Avenger. People had been hearing stories that the follow-up film would be darker, and boy was it ever! So when this reveal was made, it was a big turning point.
So, let me ask again: notice anything wrong with this scene?
If your answer is still “yes”, you’re failing my social experiment. Because I don’t see anything seriously wrong with at all: it has narrative cohesion. It has three acts-the initial attack, the moment where Captain America goes for hand-to-hand combat, and the reveal and escape of The Winter Soldier-and flows as an action scene. The stakes build properly. There’s real threat of death, as evidenced by Black Widow getting shot in the arm. And it’s suspenseful. You can argue that it’s pedestrian compared to other movie fight scenes, but, again, nothing inherently wrong with it.
I bring this up because, as I’ve stated before, the MCU films are the punching bag of film snobs for everything that’s wrong with modern filmmaking. It’s as if the criticism is rooted in envy over something “generic” being incredibly successful. Today’s topic, the fluidity of action scenes, is no exception.
Let’s define what makes a “good” action scene. Based on personal experience, the action scene can be divided into two parts: the action, and the scene. The former is pretty self-explanatory, but the latter is really no different than any other scene in general: it must be triggered by the grander plot, it needs an arc, and the characters have to be influenced by it in some shape or form. There’s no one “right way” for this work, since films are subjective, but those components have to be there.
And that’s what’s being ignored when critics point out that the MCU “lacks good action scenes”. Because while the “action” part might not be the greatest, the “scene” part is still serviceable. In the case of the aforementioned highway fight, it’s pretty straight-forward: Captain America, Black Widow and The Falcon are ambushed by The Winter Soldier while trying to escape with a HYDRA rat. The rat is thrown into oncoming traffic, the car that everyone is in is destroyed and the three are left to fend The Winter Soldier off. Staying in hero mode, they try limiting civilian casualties, leading Black Widow to get shot in the shoulder. No sooner does The Winter Soldier attempt to finish her off when Captain America comes in for the brawl and rips off his mask, revealing his old friend, Bucky. Confused, The Winter Soldier then creates a distraction to get away, with Captain America, Black Widow and The Falcon now at the hands of HYDRA operatives. End scene.
I didn’t need multiple viewings to get that either. If anything, multiple viewings have only strengthened my ability to enjoy it, as I could pick up on details I might’ve missed the first time around. Details like what was on Black Widow’s phone screen when it exploded, or how The Winter Soldier initially looked around confused when his real name was called out, or even how the music cue during the fight was The Winter Soldier’s theme. These all enhance the fight. So, again, what’s wrong with this scene?
I’m not sure why it’s a problem that the action is a little shaky, especially given that it still functions as a scene. And to use a counter-example, let’s take a “technically better” action scene from a movie released the same year and rip it apart:
Hoo boy! (Courtesy of Ross Irving.)
From a technical standpoint, there’s nothing wrong with this scene: it’s shot well. It’s choreographed well. There are stakes involved. John Wick, the protagonist, shows he's vulnerable by taking bullet wounds and injuring his leg from being tossed from several storeys. It’s constantly energized, and critics loved it.
Except there’s a problem: you don’t learn much because it lacks intimacy. The entire scene is about John Wick trying to locate the son of a mafia boss (seen running with a towel around him) for having murdered his dog, but by scene’s end nothing’s really been accomplished. All it’s been is a showcase for bullet-laden action with several, interchangeable henchmen, which, to be honest, is kinda boring. Though, granted, the entire premise of John Wick isn’t all that exciting, so…yeah. Moving on.
You see my concern? For as much as I’ll cede that most action movies these days have shaky action, streamlining action doesn’t automatically solve the problem. Because most action movies have far bigger problems than bad action: they also suffer from bad writing and acting. And besides, an action movie can still function if its action scenes are bad, as evidenced by Batman Begins, if its writing is solid. The same can’t be said for the reverse, no matter how much people might try arguing otherwise.
This reeks of yet another attempt to discredit the MCU simply because it’s popular. That’s not to say that it’s flawless, as we’ve recently seen with Iron Fist, or even that the critiques aren’t legit, because no franchise is immune to criticism. But unless that criticism is tinged with an understanding that said franchise has an objective separate from your personal taste, then all it is is snobbery and elitism.
Besides, if the MCU’s action sequences are that “off-putting”, then perhaps this one from Captain America: Civil War will help with that:
See? The MCU has coherent action scenes too! (Ignore the edits, it was all that was available on YouTube. Clip courtesy of Movies Den.)