The bulk of this year’s action and sci-fi films did clever violence better than in previous years but generally failed to develop minority characters. I mean the frequently derided popcorn fare such as Fast & Furious 6, as opposed to the hallowed and equally problematic Chilean Sea Bass fare of films such as Captain Phillips: The Wrath of Khat. A great deal of my fascination with the former subset stems from a desire to see smart, setting-specific violence that draws upon the elements of cinema as much as it does its surroundings. More often than not, this is something beyond the bullet and therefore historically unspecific to the white male hand.
Occasionally, one witnesses Hollywood taking risks with its audience. A dog is seen shot to death on the White House lawn. The female protagonist in Pacific Rim is permitted to sport thick eyebrows. However one might spell subversive, instances of it are peppered throughout the many films written off as spectacular, unfathomably expensive failures. So while movies such as Olympus Has Fallen may possess the most useless rack focuses of 2013 (this one into a Christmas tree ornament), they can also turn out to feature strong, single fathers of color who takes care of their children, as in G.I. Joe: Retaliation. Or assertive and physically capable female martial artists and soldiers (as in G.I. Joe: Retaliation). It is possible for you to see a testosterone-driven film with a budget of $130 million that isn’t dependent on a single love interest (G.I. Joe Retali—you get the idea). G.I. Joe was also the only action film I saw this year where, among other things, the most sexually fetishized character was male (Byung-hun Lee as Storm Shadow).
There is a tendency to lament a lack of such representation as though it does not exist at all. One needn’t look hard to see why. Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts practically apologizes for her newfound superpowers in Iron Man 3. Star Trek’s Zoe Saldana plays what amounts to a petulant, subpar Klingon speaker in Star Trek: Into Darkness. While I failed to watch Red 2, Kick-Ass 2, 2 Guns or a handful of other numerically minded ventures, the change between how Fast Five treated its women (letting them design and implement strategies) and Fast & Furious 6 can be summed up in one line: “Woman, you don’t pick Shaw up like he’s groceries.” Villain or hero, if you are a woman in this movie you are going to die. Or almost die. Or are already dead but not really and you still might die. If somehow you manage to live, you will be very, very lonely.
Pacific Rim employs a similar sleight of hand. Visually, it’s a very dark movie, with many of the dull Jaeger (nuclear-powered robots) vs Kaiju (monsters from another dimension) battles taking place at night and/or in the rain. And yet by the end of the film, there is enough cooperation—between the cool, young American scientist and the dull, reserved British mathematician, between Raleigh the male American hero and Mako the female Japanese heroine, between the one father who is on the verge of death and the Australian father who is on the verge of losing his son—to make it feel as though, yes, America has won, but America hasn’t exactly “saved the day,” at least not alone. Except that it has (and won the girl, to boot).
As you’ve no doubt heard, the level of destruction we are meant to gloss over in these films is unreal. Not in the callous and manipulative way New York Magazine’s Kyle Buchanan and his ilk suggest, but in a blatant attempt to bridge whatever nominal gap exists between the summer blockbusters of today, and their typically morally liberated counterparts: video games. From the first-person-shooters of Olympus Has Fallen and White House Down to Man of Steel, Fast & Furious 6, and Star Trek: Into Darkness, an action movie no longer needs to exists as a progressive collection of scenes: It is, after its first act or cutscene, a formulaic series of levels. Sometimes you get to drive a tank.
After A Good Day to Die Hard, The Wolverine would have to be the worst action movie I saw this year. Despite it opening with three Japanese men committing seppuku, there is virtually no blood in its 10 hours other than that belonging to Wolverine himself, a plot point (though not scene) as lifeless as the Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman episode where Dean Cain gets a papercut. The Wolverine replaced superpower-based fights that even X-Men Origins: Wolverine got right with a mindless herd of Yakuza henchmen and chopstick lessons. It gave the Silver Samurai a few minutes of screentime and then killed him. It kept the line “The mutant has powers!” The female villain Viper was also condemned to the worst superhero costume in the history of cinema, and that includes The Specials.
I can only assume that all the blood that should have been in The Wolverine went to Riddick instead. Everything from the rocks to my eyes bled, because apparently there’s no greater conquest in a Vin Diesel movie than turning lesbian characters into willing sex partners with one’s Vin Diesely vim and vigor. It’s a shame since I was ready to rave about how Katee Sackhoff’s (Battlestar Galactica’s “Starbuck”) lesbian character was the best adult female action heroine of 2013. That is to say, the character beats the stupid out of men. When they hit her, she hits back harder. She is skilled with weaponry. When sexually propositioned by a scumbag, she answers, “I don’t fuck guys. I fuck them up.” It’s refreshing until she straddles an unsurprised Vin Diesel upon notification that the film has neared its end.
But no one consistently fared worse in action films this year than black men. In 2013, if you were a black man with a speaking role in a blockbuster movie, you were almost certainly in the military. (Remember the outrage at the National Guard’s Man of Steel advert? Imagine if the people who looked like you inside the film served as one, week after week.) What’s more, the black men also primarily acted as antagonizers to the (often) white female protagonists in these films—the people viewers were actually rooting for.
If I keep returning to women in action movies that’s because there is no reason for us not to have a star outside of adaptations. One who doesn’t keep dying in her films (e.g., Michelle Rodriguez). The numbers are dismaying.
Before The Hunger Games, the largest grossing film featuring an action heroine was from 1991, Terminator 2: Judgment Day; three out of the five top earners starred Angelina Jolie: Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, the remake of Mr. & Mrs. Smith, and Salt. Action-horror doubled as the past decade’s refuge for female leads with guns. The four Underworld movies combined had a budget that was still $37 million less than this year’s The Lone Ranger. The sum of all five Resident Evil films cost what it took to produce 2012’s John Carter, except that the former’s worldwide revenue is over $900 million versus John Carter’s $284 million (admittedly this is only a year on). Yet the critical reception of these film series has hovered near rock bottom. The highest approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes for any Resident Evil film was 34%. The highest rating for an Underworld film? 33%. Conversely, the most celebrated action and sci-fi films have housed the least present or competent female characters. Make a list of your favorites from the past five years? Inception? Looper? Star Trek: Into Darkness? Did the majority of women in those films do anything notable? Be a memory? Not know how to shoot a gun? Speak Klingon poorly? This??
So yes, on the one hand, hooray for surprising grenade necklace deaths in 2013. But it’s hard not to feel as though it must be nice to be the white guy in all these films (or Vin Diesel), and my, how great it would be to view something different. As it stands, there were more capable women in White House Down than in Oblivion, Iron Man 3, and World War Z combined, and none of them was interested in Channing Tatum.
If anything is to be mourned in this year of action it should be the continued collective dismissal of the medium shot during fight sequences. That and the much-discussed flattening of film scores, for this was the year where soulless aural accompaniment with allegiances to the lowest frequencies blurred into one. Do you remember what Star Trek: Into Darkness sounded like? Or Iron Man 3? Thor: The Dark World or Ender’s Game? World War Z? There are many who subscribe to the belief a score should not be noticed. It has resulted in films with the aurally thematic nuances of mud. It has also resulted in M83’s Oblivion score, Hans Zimmer’s Man of Steel score, and Ryan Amon’s Elysium score being among the most accomplished of this year’s offerings. That said, despite its critics, I hope Man of Steel—one of the year’s most divisive films—is remembered as the first time dubstep destroyed a city, for how the sound of the drop leveled Metropolis, not Kryptonians.
Rahawa Haile is a Brooklyn-based writer. You can find her on Twitter.