This past weekend I had the pleasure of viewing two fantastic action movies–Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol and Captain America: The First Avenger. As luck would have it, following the vein of my previous Attack the Block/Super 8 Double Feature of Awesomeness a few weeks ago, this recent Double Feature helped illustrate a new trend in action movies that I had not yet noticed: the self-aware, humorous action movie.
I’m not saying that action movies are often lacking in jokes or moments of levity, but rather that movies like Captain America and Ghost Protocol present a unique sense of humor from their action movie cohorts–one that stems from the film’s sense of its place in its cinematic lineage. These are movies that acknowledge their place within their respective genres and franchises. Captain America is littered with small references to superhero movie (and comic book) tropes–some it maintains with straight-faced devotion, while others are referenced for comedic effect. In plot and character development, Captain America appears to be a paint-by-numbers comic book film: our hero, Steve Rogers, is out to defend the little guy; something tragic helps encourage him to fight for right, and he goes ahead and starts kicking ass and taking names.
Yet coinciding with this well-known superhero rhetoric is a running gag about the tropes of the superhero film. My favorite scene in the movie is when Steve chases a Nazi agent to the waterfront; the German agent takes a young boy hostage and then throws him into the river. The angle of the shot, as well as my knowledge of superhero movies, told me instantly that Steve would have to chose between capturing the bad guy or saving the little boy. It’s the kind of Impossible Choice we see again and again in superhero films: whether it’s Batman’s choice between Harvey Dent or Rachel (The Dark Knight), or Spiderman choosing between saving a subway car of people or Mary Jane. Yet in Captain America things don’t go as I assumed: when I expected Steve to jump into the water and save the child, the camera instead panned down to the kid treading water, remarking “No! Go get him! I can swim!” And just like that I knew this was a movie with a sense of humor, and a sense of its place within a genre/style of films. It played with (and foiled) my expectations to great effect.
Ghost Protocol is similar to Captain America in that it acknowledges its cinematic roots; this is a spy movie that let’s you know it’s part of a franchise and a generic cycle. You could even say the film rewards spectators for knowledge of the franchise, since the more you know of the sundry ‘Missions Impossible’, the richer your experience of the film. Indeed, the film’s opening credits are an homage to the television show’s credits sequence, and immediately say “Hey, we’re part of something here. Remember this?” The film is full of little references to its predecessors. As my friend Trey suggested in his review, this opening serves to “show how Mission: Impossible can continue to be relevant as a franchise while staying true to its 1960s roots.”
The opening is just one of many references the film makes to its predecessors. I couldn’t help but chuckle a little when Jeremy Renner’s character (William Brandt) ended up in a situation eerily similar to the well-known “NOC List retrieval” scene in the first Mission Impossible. In both sequences a character is dropped down into a dangerous location that is governed by extremes in temperature; in the former film Ethan is lowered into a temperature-regulated CIA room housing the NOC list, while in the latter Brandt essentially cannonballs into a sweltering server room. In both sequences, the respective IMF agent hovers above dangerous territory–Hunt to the floor of the room, whose touch would result in his capture, and Brandt an inch away from scalding hot computer equipment. Both agents dangle above certain danger, and then…their sweat becomes a focal point of the scene. Whereas a close-up of Ethan’s dripping sweat tells us he is in imminent danger, a close-up of Brandt’s sweat shows it fall to the servers, where it sizzles. It’s as if the cinematography says “Remember this? Ah, but we changed it up a bit.” It’s a ‘wink wink nudge nudge’ to spectators devoted to the franchise.
In addition to the inclusion of references to the earlier films, Ghost Protocol also pokes fun at the archetypes of the genre. The film refutes the Spy Thriller concept of the finessing spy–the James Bond types who are all stealth and speed, effortlessly conducting espionage under the watchful but unseeing gaze of other governments. In Ghost Protocol these silent spies are replaced with athletic, aggressive spies who struggle to accomplish their mission. Hunt’s body is brutalized throughout the film–he consistently slams his head into walls and bangs into objects, and all of his high-tech gadgets fail him at his moment of need. This is not seamless espionage–this is guerrilla warfare, but the imperfection of it is presented as part humor (at Ethan’s expense) and part reality check. The film seems to suggest that being a spy isn’t all tuxedos and smooth execution–brute strength and sheer force of will are all that get the job done. Espionage ain’t easy, bub.
Ultimately I think this kind of self-awareness leads to reinvention, reinterpretation, and revitalization of genre. By playing with its source material, these films ask the viewer and filmmaker alike to analyze the generic form and encourage its development and maturation. They also make for a damn good time–I certainly enjoyed these films more than their basic shoot ‘em up brethren. Ghost Protocol and Captain America are action movies with the added bonus of another level of enjoyment–a cerebral pleasure that comes from knowledge of what has come before. Here’s hoping that The Avengers will continue this trend of comedy-infused, self-aware action films.