Subgenres of Action Film Genre
Over the decades, the core action film genre has spawned numerous subgenres. Many films now combine one or more of these subgenres for deeper subtext, and great opportunity to blow things up.
Each of the subgenres features the core action elements of the strong hero and the exciting effects, but it also has a more specific focus so that you know going in how it’s likely to end.
The superhero is a larger-than-life hero who stops all manner of villains and rights all manner of wrongs. Film superheroes of old were fearless and motivated only by their duty to mankind. Modern superheroes are more well-rounded and usually have an emotional wound, often a lost love, from which they continue to suffer. Captain America is a shining example of this subgenre.
Where would we be without James Bond to save the world? The spy movie is usually focused more on the exploits of a super-intelligent man, rather than a super-strong man. The spies are usually one-step ahead of the villains, but always find their way into danger. They usually also find their way into the arms of a willing woman. It’s the kind of character Tom Cruise loves to play. Have you noticed that he is always running to avoid catastrophe in all his roles? That’s because most of those roles are spy action movies, such as the new Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol. Then there’s the comedy side of the subgenre with films like Johnny English Reborn.
Any action film featuring Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan character fits the bill here. Now the every man must battle to save the world from certain doom. In a popular twist, the every man must battle to rescue the world from the evil that has already befallen, as in I Am Legend. For example, Contagion examines the worldwide panic caused by a deadly virus.
No one does action-adventure as well as Indiana Jones or The Mummy. These movies may feature some explosions, chases, and fights, but they’re more focused on recovering the lost item. They often feature the hero, or sometimes a ragtag band of heroes, swinging from ropes and running from danger he’s bungled into. There’s also usually a female love interest who holds her own amidst the action. Check out Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows for a nice sample of this subgenre. The Girl With the Dragon Tatoo is the first installment of a new action-adventure series.
Movies about assassins can also be dramas, but they’re more frequently action movies these days. These hired killers may be motivated by revenge, but more often they’re motivated by a paycheck. The movies may also involve spying, but the spying is a means to an end, not an end in itself. Underworld: Awakening is an example of an assassin movie with a sci-fi twist.
Revenge movies are similar to assassin movies, in that killing the villain is the goal. In this case, the assassin is bent on vengeance and usually isn’t working for a spy agency/criminal underground/secret organization. He’s one man against the world. Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance is a perfect revenge movie with a little bit of unlikely superhero thrown in.
Cops and crime go hand-in-hand. Since cops carry guns, they’re also perfect action movie heroes. Safe House isn’t the first, and won’t be the last, in a long tradition of crime action movies.
Thrillers not only treat us to heart pounding action, they also include several good scares or psychological chills. Though some may deem it a horror movie, Paranormal Activity 3 is the latest in a long line of thrillers.
Star Wars and Star Trek franchises are both perfect examples of the futuristic/sci-fi action film subgenre. Both present ample opportunities for explosions and pathos. They also present opportunities to question our current society and the direction it’s heading, without getting too heavy to spoil the fun. Super 8 is one example of the lighter side of sci-fi that includes some action-adventure.
These days it’s not enough to take the kids to the movies. Now they want to be thrilled, too. National Treasure is one example of the family action movie. Unlike adult action fare, family adventure movies feature larger casts of heroes, less blood, less gunfights, less sex, less gore, and more emphasis on finding the treasure. The Adventures of Tintin is another example.
Most movies in the action genre combine one or more elements from various subgenres. I don’t foresee the day when we’ll have the cop/thriller/futuristic/family action film, but you never know what Hollywood might come up with next.