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Why superhero action scenes often feel so lifeless

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A look at what goes wrong when superheroes collide

The video at the top of this post by media critic Nerdwriter1 focuses on the shortcomings of the action scenes in DC films, but I think the points being made in the video are actually broader than what you see in the movies of a single cinematic universe. Just because the Marvel films get it right on a more consistent basis doesn’t mean that they don’t also stumble just as often. Marvel is better at action, but not perfect. And you should definitely watch the video before we move on, because there are a number of good discussions to have here.

Ready? OK, let’s do this

Creating worthwhile action scenes in superhero movies is an issue of pacing, character and comparative power, and Zack Snyder is able to deliver a satisfying sense of weight when he’s at his best. One of the best examples of an action scene that shows off the power of both Batman and Superman is the Batmobile chase from Batman v Superman.

We see what Batman can do against normal human beings using normal weapons, and this gives us the sense of a brutal, unstoppable force. And then Superman ... stops him. The scene provides a series of escalations that helps you to understand what these characters do, both to other people and to each other, and it’s done with an effective amount of violence and menace.

That’s one of the insights that I think Marvel understood early on: Showing what superheroes can do to regular people and objects, versus what they can do against each other, is a much more effective way to give your action scenes a sense of power. Captain America’s ship infiltration in Winter Soldier works so well because the character is having a light-hearted conversation with Black Widow while absolutely wrecking enemy soldiers without a second thought. And each of the hits looks like it hurts. The tension between how much these human bodies are getting mangled — and how little Cap actually has to pay attention in doing so — gives us a sense of his power while also making him a bit scary.

We can empathize with those soldiers because — even though it’s unlikely we would end up as evil henchmen ourselves — we wouldn’t stand a chance against Captain America. Those blows must feel like getting hit by a sledgehammer. It’s not the punch or the shield that delivers that message; it’s how far the human bodies fly, and how much we believe the impact when they slam into something else.

And that’s what’s lost when superheroes fight each other, or supervillains. The battles in Avengers: Infinity War often felt toothless because it’s hard to know how hard Spider-Man would have to be hit for the blow to actually wound him. When a character who feels invincible slams into another character who feels invincible, there isn’t anything at stake. It’s not a situation that welcomes empathy.

When a superhero is actually hurt, it always seems to happen because a dramatic beat needs to take place, not because of a blow that would obviously overpower that character. In many cases, characters are knocked out of combat by punches or attacks that don’t even feel as powerful as things we’ve seen them shrug off in the past.

There’s no good solution to this problem, outside of explicitly stating the abilities and weaknesses of each character in combat and then seeing what each blow would actually do, which would limit the flexibility of each movie to set up situations that the plot needs to move forward. But we can feel when a movie handles superhero action well, and we know when it feels limp. It’s not even a critical assessment; this is a reaction you feel and understand instantly. Let’s hope everyone learns how to do it a little bit better.