Here’s Why Action Movies Deserve To Be More Than Just Superhero Movies

Oscar season is right around the corner, and we’re bound to hear the hottest of takes about the state of cinema. Just recently Quentin Tarantino has said that this period of time is the worst to make films in. Matt Damon also commented on the state of the industry no longer having faith in the mid-budget film due to DVD sales no longer being a trusted form of revenue.

Every year, cinemas continue to be entirely booked out with superhero movie screenings, while other films continue to get pushed to the side. But what’s this? By god, it’s Top Gun: Maverick with a steel chair!

For those living under a rock, Tom Cruise‘s latest film Top Gun: Maverick was a huge landmark blockbuster this year. Arguably one of the most fun action film experiences in cinemas in recent memory, this film helped showcase why audiences are still craving solid action movies to this day. After running for 29 weeks in Australian cinemas, it became the biggest crowd-pleasing movie of this year and grossed over $1.4 billion USD at the global box office.

Despite releasing at the tail end of lockdown restrictions, where COVID anxiety was still high, the film managed to defy all expectations and drag everyone to the cinema. In fact, the film ended up bringing all demographics out, with some going up to five times just to see it on the big screen. To quote the wonderful Harry Styles, it was a movie that felt like a movie.

But why was this film so special? And how did it defy all expectations? Well, that’s something for smarter people than me who most likely have marketing degrees and a whiteboard, and I don’t have either in this economy. But to take a stab at what’s already been reported, it comes down to the film coming out at the right place at the right time.

From slick practical effects to filming away from a green screen and genuine character arcs, Top Gun: Maverick showed that audiences will come out for straightforward action films that evoke that classic 80s movie nostalgia while modernising it. I mean hell, the film even had an absolutely stacked soundtrack with Lady Gaga writing a song for the film!

The film is full of familiar elements, not only drawing on themes and story beats from the first film, but also from some of the greatest action movies ever. However, it was that familiarity and nostalgia that helps with the film’s widespread appeal.

What really helps Top Gun: Maverick is its straightforwardness. There is no unexpected cameo you need to Google at the end of the movie, and no post-credits sequel setup. You go into the movie and you get everything you need out of it. Even when characters from the previous film show up, they’ve organically been hinted at and introduced separately from prior source material that the payoff feels earned just based on the sequel’s own merits.

In an age of cinema where movies feel like setups for the next big sequel in a long string of movies, Top Gun: Maverick reassures you that you don’t need to do any homework. Which is good, because that’s for nerds like me.

That’s not to say that if you were a fan of the original you won’t get something out of watching the new one. Observant fans may have noticed they finally fixed that typo in the original Top Gun’s opening crawl from “insure” to “ensure”.

Image: Top Gun

But what does Top Gun: Maverick‘s success say about action movies as a whole? Well, hopefully, a lot of things. For one, it hopefully reminded audiences who hadn’t been to theatres in a long time why it can be so great to experience huge action blockbusters at the cinema.

Despite “action” being such a broad genre that it really cannot be boxed into one specific movie. It’s kinda like rock music. You have your classic rock, your alternative, punk, blues, etc. Whether it’s a young adult movie with a young cast rising up to fight the dystopian society, or a gangster film with lots of bad accents but tense and bloody shootouts, we can already start to see the genre stretch.

We may also think of supernatural films with zombies, blown-out CGI fests with people escaping natural disasters or dinosaurs, alien invasions, martial arts, or a scene where someone says “Mr President”. The list is endless. But still, we all implicitly understand what to expect in an action film.

So where does the superhero film come into how we define an action film? “This one is a heist film” or “this one is a horror film” are maybe comments you’ve seen floating around the internet when a superhero film has attempted to diversify into another genre.

Superhero movies, in their own way, begin in another genre “outside” of the superhero movie. However, when that third act comes, and we see the blue laser beam shooting to the sky, we’re all reminded that this is still just a “superhero film” and the genre-bending was just a wolf in sheep’s clothing to hide that we’ve already seen the same movie before.

We’re also starting to see what some critics have started to call “the Marvel-fication” of certain series. Perhaps in the past we viewed superhero movies through the lens of the action movie, but now we might have it reversed.

If audiences are now anticipating action movies to play out like superhero films, then Top Gun: Maverick completely flips that on its head. Top Gun: Maverick is an action movie through and through, and wears that on its sleeve.

To rely on another Tarantino controversy lately, the feet-loving director said that there are no more movie stars, it’s the superheroes that are famous. But again, the star power of Tom Cruise as Maverick in Top Gun showed that this is not exclusively true.

Action movies aren’t totally blameless for the rise of superhero movies overtaking the genre. There was also an abundance of what film critic Matthias Stork called “Chaos Cinema”, or what we might better know as “jump cut action sequences” ruining movies for a period. These are where scenes are shot with shaky cam, and the edits are filled with so many snap cuts, it’s difficult to understand what is even happening in the action sequences.

So many action films were guilty of exploiting this technique. We all know a film that has so many frenetic cuts for no reason that leaves us feeling seasick for no reason. Contrast this with Top Gun where we get to see the pilot’s faces during these action sequences and the takes are long shots following the jet planes that are clearly well choreographed. We’re able to sit in these action sequences and take them in without an absolute assault on our senses.

Action movies live and die through their climactic fight scenes. Because fight scenes became so chaotic, audiences gravitated to the spectacle superhero films offered in their action as the sequences were easier to follow and didn’t leave us feeling ill. The trade-off however is sometimes the action looks fake and plastic.

The superhero movie has dominated the box office for the past decade now, and we’re starting to see how these franchises soft reboot themselves with a new roster of heroes. We see a lot in Superhero films, even now, that are entirely re-inventing their rosters with a new lineup.

To lean on the cynical side, as someone who watches a lot of superhero films and follows what comes out of press junkets, it’s unavoidable to know how long an actor’s contract is for these characters, so we can predict if a character will die or be written off at the end of a series as the actor might be too tired to continue playing the character, or they’re suddenly too expensive now. This parasocial relationship becomes a subtext to the film, like a trailer or movie poster, informing audiences on what to expect in the film.

Top Gun: Maverick was so successful with audiences because it fixes so much of what audiences didn’t realise was wrong with the action blockbuster. It’s a breath of fresh air in a sea of spandex, green screens and sequel bait. Not to say those things aren’t good at times, but the over-influx has clearly been wearing on audiences.

The action film is one of cinema’s longest and most celebrated genres, and it’s so good to see a film like Top Gun: Maverick return to its roots and show everyone why action films can be exciting crowd pleasers, and that standalone films with widespread appeal can be massively successful.

Top Gun: Maverick is streaming now exclusively on Paramount+, so be sure to catch some absolutely perfect action movie goodness. And while you’re there, suss out some of Paramounts other great action movies available.