Violence in Action Movies: Destructive or Indispensable?

It seems with every new cinematic release, we as a society struggle with the complicated relationship we have with movies of the action genre.

“The violence is horrific!”, “This is not appropriate for children!”, and “My, oh my, what low brow entertainment”, many would scream from the passive partisan ranks, and they might have a point.

Superfluous and gratuitous violence, sprinkled liberally throughout action films today, would, in recent times, be considered horror quality spectacle. From John Wick’s placement of his pistol on the temple of his latest victim (effectively giving his victim a forty-five-caliber lobotomy), to Sin City’s depiction of the bad guy’s genitals being ripped, barehanded, from his body, blockbuster movies are littered with such cases.

For myself, a mild mannered, single father, electrician who studied to be a pastor in my early years, I shy away from horror movies like an agoraphobe might avoid the Grand Canyon.

Why? Simply put, it’s the efficacy of the imagery. Images that, once seen, I find nearly impossible to extract from my mind and memory. Many of today’s action movies, with the incredible advancement in CGI, make-up, and other practical effects, are almost too good in depicting brain matter becoming a Jackson Pollock painting.

There has to be a reason why these movies are still here and seemingly growing more popular. Even before Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, the Original Action Heroes, wowed silent movie goers with their REAL, death-defying stunts, we need not look too far back to discover humanity’s intrinsic desire for spectacle.

Tournaments held for British nobles to test their metal and manhood in jousting and the sword. Strong men in circuses. Names of renown such as Louis Cyr or Angus MacAskill, wowed audiences and, in the case of Cyr, even royalty, with their death-defying feats of power and strength. Houdini lived out, in front of live audiences, his own version of an action movie and the public ate it up en-masse.

The Great Arena in Rome bore bloodthirsty spectacles that “the mob” attended without reservation. The killings of wild animals, Christians fed to lions, and even gladiators had occasion to fight to the death. How appropriate (or perhaps ironic) that one of the most iconic lines in the history of Hollywood belongs to Ridley Scott’s Gladiator.

Image courtesy of MagicalQuote

Even the Olympics, that today finds numerous countries participating in, has its own origins birthed in blood and spectacle. Boxing, the brutal, mano et mano “sport”, gathers millions of viewers both ringside and on pay-per-view. MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) is our own, modern version of the gladiatorial games.

The drama of modern-day sport is watched by tens of thousands in arenas and millions upon millions on television. North American Football players clad in modern-day armor compete for the survival of their team to pursue the Championship (or damsel in distress).

If this does not equate to an “action movie” by today’s standards, I am at a loss as toof what to call it. History? Yes. Great tradition? Certainly. But is encouraging the pursuit of pushing mankind’s limits to be “Hendiatris Citius, Altius, Fortius”, or as a leading sports brand would no doubt say, “Faster. Higher. Stronger.”, a bad thing? Are we beyond the days of the civilizations who lived these modern movie tropes as a matter of course, or are we denying what we really are?

We cannot deny our past. We cannot deny the roots of mankind’s place in history. Denying our need to be “Faster, Higher, Stronger” acts only to neuter any kind of pursuit of bigger and better things.

It was because of humanity’s often ugly and brutal traits that ancient warring nations pushed our development into metallurgy. Wars made medical advancements and techniques possible, helping generations step tentatively into a brighter future.

Now don’t get me wrong here. I am not advocating that we should go to war to get to the next level of human consciousness. Far from it.

What I am saying is there is a basic need within us all, perhaps even at a genetic level, for us to be tried in the crucible. Iron sharpens iron, no?

It is the conflict we experience, the struggle between the higher and lower brain, that should remind us that we will, as a species, survive. Why? Because no matter how shiny and technological the future looks, we cannot, should not, shake off what got us to the dance in the first place.

So, what do we do with the more barbaric aspect of this genetic predisposition? Why do we have a drawer in the house for bits of string and key fobs, but not for bloodlust?

Although laws and moral codes help to direct the barbaric fire that burns within us all, it cannot definitively be corralled, nor contained. It cannot be controlled. At least, not completely. It can, however, be partially focussed in general directions.

Faster, Higher, Stronger.

Action movies, it seems, are an effective way of channeling that desire. Watching the depiction of revenge by John Wick, for example, satisfies a primal urge within us all to see justice meted out. And not just meted out, but delivered “with extreme malice”. Why? Because it’s not authentic without emotion. That’s the key ingredient when it comes to quenching this particular thirst.

We, as a species, need to see good triumph. We need to believe, especially in this current climate, that the lofty concepts we made for ourselves are real. Deep down in our collective souls we want good to win. We want justice for the wronged. We need this elixir to feed our inextinguishable human spirit.

We, as Homer Simpson once declared, demand satisfaction.

Painters, sculptors, and musicians of our past created inspiring works of art that made the people then and now stand in awe. They derived inspiration and even in some extreme cases, illumination from the exposure to it.

Is this why action movies are so popular today? Possibly. Do action movies inspire? In some cases, definitely. Are action movies harmful to society? Possibly, as anything is when harnessed unwisely.

This author’s thought is this; action movies are representative of our civilization, our culture and our collective need to be: Faster, Higher, Stronger.


This article is written by Eric Antonsen celebrating the cultural impact of the action genre in cinema & TV, and promoting THE LONDON ACTION FESTIVAL taking place in London from Wednesday 21st – Sunday 25th June. Sign up to the newsletter to receive all news, updates, and Early Bird ticket release.