The Post-Covid Action Hero

It is a little presumptuous to say we are in the post-covid period. New variants still sprout up quicker than we can weed them out; we are not out of the woods yet, but I naively hope we can see the forest’s edge emerging from between the distant dark-leaved birches. Culturally, what covid’s lasting effects will be aren’t clear either, but in many facets of the media its corrosive fingers can be felt nonetheless. One of these affected branches is the action genre; that great cultural marker. I am not the first, nor will I be the last, to point out the phases in which these movies can be divided, both stylistically and thematically. The John-Wayne-strong-silent-type Westerns faded away as Schwarzenegger’s-impossibly-larger-than-life-unkillable-god-action-romps came into fashion. Then Bruce Willis’, bare-footed, bleeding, swearing, wife-loving John McClane resurrected the fragile, emotional, but strong willed action-man by way of Die Hard. He was then in turn replaced by Keanu Reeves’ sunglasses-and-sleek-leather-backflips in The Matrix, who was relieved by Matt Damon’s visceral, quick-cut realism in the Bourne series, only for Keanu to go unto the breach once more in John Wick, which shifted the genre stylistically towards wide shots clearly revealing ultra-talented stunt-work and thematically towards a middle ground between bleak realism and the unkillable Gods of days gone by. One could spend a lifetime unpicking this garbled mess of progress and try to figure out how certain action-movie-trends were influenced by certain cultural developments. Instead, I will work backwards. How did the genre deal with Covid? More specifically, how did it process our collective descend into loneliness, isolation, depression, and any other mental illness that had been thoroughly suppressed until months of meek sunlight filtered through dirty glass and social interactions filtered through Zoom pushed it to the surface, to grow and fester in the warm glow of our phone screens?

The answer is deceivingly simple: like us, our action heroes have grown a little mad. Not unlike Die Hard resurrecting the simple fact of our physical fragility, so does a new crop of film mercilessly remind us of our mental breakability. The Liam Neeson led action-drama Memory is a fine example of this. Up till this point Neeson’s action catalog has certainly dabbled in acknowledging his bodily limits, but only now do his movies show his psychological weakness. Here, he plays Alex Lewis, a no-nonsense, disciplined hitman with Alzheimer slowly descending into forgetfulness as he walks the inevitably blood-soaked road to his violent end. Another solid example is The Terminal List, a series with Chriss Pratt showing off how well he can play Navy Seal. Despite Pratt’s usual funny-man routine, this series can’t help but give him brain cancer, causing hallucinations on top of his wife and daughter being murdered. The Terminal list was based on a book from 2018, yet the decision to serialize it now is an interesting one.

Perhaps most damningly, the 2022 incarnation of Batman is easily the most depressing he’s ever been. Casting Robert Patterson because of his roles as despicable anti-social lunatics and having his Batman turn from the brooding, ever-cool God-like figure he once was, into a suicidal outcast, socially so inept he can hardly speak without hiding behind the safety of a bulletproof bat-cowl, listening to Nirvana locked in his basement, emerging only to eat unhealthily and squint in the sunshine he hasn’t seen in days. He is angry, rash, and deeply, deeply sad. Batman for the corona-era. He has never been more relatable.

Allow me a small tangent as I textually open the curtains, clean my room, think happy thoughts, and try to turn this piece towards a more positive direction:
The wild flourishes of Italian Baroque were fought with the cold, clean lines of Classicism, whose unemotional flat perfection was torn down with the explosive passion and near blind reliance on feelings of Romanticism. Modernism’s confidence in its own rightness and newness collapsed under the massive weight of postmodernism’s claim to the unknowability of reality, a weight we are finally letting roll from our shoulders, trudging with new lightness into the warm and loving arms of post-postmodernism. While all these examples are shameless oversimplifications, my point still stands: any cultural movement worth its salt warrants a counter movement. Perhaps a revolt even certifies the validity of a movement, marks its end, and with it marks its existence. A sentence can only be understood after you have reached the period. Following this logic, the post-covid-action-phase must have a corresponding retaliation for any legitimacy. Luckily for me and this burgeoning new genre a countermovement is already here in the form of 2022’s Bullet Train.

Featuring an aggressively mentally healthy protagonist who incessantly recites therapeutic platitudes like ‘let this be a lesson in the toxicity of anger’ and ‘hurt people hurt people’, the film is, in every regard, the absolute antithesis to the aforementioned post-corona bleakness. Brad Pitt, having an absolute blast waltzing through this breezy but oddly meaningful script, plays a character who isn’t just psychologically doing well; he is getting better. He is going to therapy, he corrects himself when mansplaining and apologizes in an honest fashion. He attempts diplomacy before violence, appreciates earnestness, and is self-aware about his shortcomings. He is quite literally the most well rounded action hero ever put to screen; gone are the dead-family-revenge-tales, the ‘one last murder and then I’m out’-gangsters, the death-and-destruction dominator, the menacingly-murder-everyone-macabre, the dementia-riddled dourness and the ‘I’m vengeance’-growls of yesteryear.

Interestingly, beyond a character level, the film can also be classified as a harsh turn away from the darkness of the previous depression-flicks. It is bright and colorful, features glossy pop-song-covers, and doesn’t take itself too seriously, but just serious enough to say something meaningful and constructive nonetheless. In an interview Brad Pitt explained why he decided to star in the film; he believed the world needed a fun and positive film like this after the collective, global dreariness of covid.While I don’t believe my little theorized genre of post-covid-action-movies will bear much weight in the larger phases of the action-genre I listed in my slightly rambunctious introduction, it is an interesting little microcosm of cultural cause-and-effect nonetheless. Furthermore, I do desire this small series of silver-screen entertainment to have some lasting effect on Hollywood. I like the grim side of action cinema, The Batman is easily my favorite incarnation of the caped crusader so far, but a little more life, a little more pep in their step, won’t hurt action heroes or the audience in awe of their antics. So let us hope that, as we climb out of the dark pit covid’s isolation dragged us all down into and we emerge out of the long shadows of its dark-leaved birches, a new action hero will rise: one that still slaughters with violence as decisive and creative as the brushstrokes of a baroque-master, but also one that is an pacifistic feminist who takes risks to help others, who is not afraid to ask for help or therapy, understands sociopolitical issues, and accepts the unknowability of fate and future, without letting it overwhelm him. While Brad Pitt has looked cooler, sexier, and more suave in nearly every other film he’s ever made, I’ve never wanted to be him more than in Bullet Train.

Written by Arthur Mulder


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