Hollywood seems to be appealing to 12-year-olds who want to see something—anything—go KABOOM! Captain America destroys a military hovercraft, Spider-Man stops a reptilian chemical cloud, Superman hurls General Zod through dozens of skyscrapers, Batman detonates a nuke over the river, and the Avengers fend off an alien invasion.
Marvel told the writers of Captain America: The Winter Soldier to give the movie the biggest ending possible, and it appears to have worked: the movie hauled in a monster $96.2 million in its opening weekend. The movie isn’t bad; it soars when operating like the Jason Bourne franchise, with Captain America on the run as a fugitive. In these scenes, the action is raw. When our hero is ambushed by dozens of agents in an elevator, we see him beat up every single one in close combat. But not even Cap can escape the dreaded generic climax of the modern day superhero flick. By the end, Winter Soldier has morphed into an orgy of explosions, flying ships, satellites, missiles, Nazis, and Robert Redford—not lost at sea, but lost in his first superhero blockbuster.
The genre has always had an aversion to spilling blood, unless you count anti-superhero films like Kick-Ass, The Punisher, and Watchmen. Take for instance Batman Begins, where the caped crusader tells Ra's al Ghul, “I won’t kill you, but I don’t have to save you,” before leaving him to crash in a runaway train. And in The Dark Knight Rises the Joker tells Batman, “You and I are destined to do this forever,” which is apparently why it’s OK give Heath Ledger such a flaccid, uninspired ending. Essentially, these are excuses as to why we won’t see our heroes engage in a violent fist fight to vanquish the supervillains. Bigger endings equal less blood and more things to explode.
Enter Captain America. Here’s a hero who can’t really do anything spectacular. The All-American blonde has big muscles and history’s most inefficient weapon. In his first film, the nostalgia-soaked Captain America: The First Avenger, the best action sequence was trapped in a five-minute montage. Winter Soldier doesn’t make the same mistake. The early fight scenes are brutal. Captain America boards a boat full of bad guys, and throws his shield like a sewer grate on a yo-yo string, knocking goons unconscious and sometimes slicing into the wall like a sharp blade. (Somehow, no one is decapitated.) The scene ends with a Street Fighter-like battle between Captain America and a mercenary.
Somehow, thoughtful combat sequences like this are an increasingly foreign concept—so foreign that they only show up in films like the superior Indonesian flick The Raid 2, which was released last month, and has been hailed as the one of the best action movies of all time. In an early scene, the hero Rama, a cop who goes undercover to infiltrate the mob, waits behind the locked door of a bathroom stall as dozens of prisoners fight to break in. There’s a moment of serenity before the lock bursts off its hinges; the prisoners pour in and are punched, kicked, tossed, and slammed into the toilet, and beaten into submission.
The violence in The Raid 2 is relentless. It’s brutal, fist-to-skull fighting that’s beautifully choreographed, yet impossible to predict. Plot-wise the movie wastes little time on exposition and includes just enough filler to move from one elaborate fight to the next: a muddy prison riot; a subway car bloodbath orchestrated by an assassin named Hammer Girl; a machine-gun car chase; and a showdown between the hammer-wielding vixen, her brother the “Baseball Bat Man,” and Rama. No one’s brooding about the curse of being a hero here, but does it matter?
What separates The Raid 2 from The Winter Soldier (and Thor 2, Iron Man 3, The Amazing Spider-Man, and most of the superhero movies today) is that the action is what matters. High stakes close combat, as opposed to mindless explosions—just another kind of violence—is what propels the narrative forward. When the audience can’t comprehend the scale of the destruction that’s about to occur—disable the satellites! shoot the missile into the wormhole!—there’s no incentive to actually pay attention to what’s happening on screen.
With several big-budget superhero flicks invading theaters soon—The Amazing Spider-Man 2, X-Men: Days of Future Past, Guardians of the Galaxy, The Fantastic Four, Avengers: Age of Ultron, and a May 2016 showdown for Captain America 3 and Batman Vs. Superman—what can Hollywood do to save the genre? For starters, leave the city crushing to Godzilla and Michael Bay. If it can’t fit in a comic book panel, it probably doesn’t belong.