I think this might be a good time to let go of the movie badass. Badass is dead.
This occurred to be while I was watching the recent mega-release Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, a prequel film that revealed how the Rebellion captured the plans to the Death Star just in time for 1977’s Star Wars. The team who stole the plans to the Death Star consisted of several all-new additions to the Star Wars canon. Each character was given the most rudimentary of motivations, were all robbed of levity (the wise-cracking robot notwithstanding), and were all amazingly competent when it came to fighting and combat.
Why did the filmmakers spend so much time showing these characters fighting, and so little time showing them interacting, having human conversations, and growing as characters? Why were these characters so thin?
I realized that this wasn’t an oversight on the part of the filmmakers, but was yet another instance of a horrible Hollywood habit at work: to many filmmakers – and to many audiences – “badass” is the same as “character.”
This, of course, isn’t true. A rich, well-rounded character – or even just a basically appealing one – is usually constructed of various recognizable human facets, a good deal of charm, maybe some humor, maybe some angst, or maybe just something we can relate to. A badass, meanwhile, has but one or two character traits: they are unflappable in extreme situations, and they are well-prepared to take action.
Badasses serve a valuable function in action movies, of course. They are vicarious avatars for the audience. Many people dream of being more physically powerful, and are allowed to live through those dreams by witnessing a James Bond or an Indiana Jones takes care of business without losing their cool. Who doesn’t want to be as charming and as capable as James Bond? He’s not terribly deep or rich, but we admire him for his smile and his reflexes.
But James Bond first hit the world many decades ago. Time has passed, and now we’re in a weird world where “badass” seems to be the default mode for any action movie character. And there are so many action films now that one can come to the conclusion that “badass” is all we have left. Now, it seems, everyone is capable in a fight, everyone knows not to panic when bullets start flying, and everyone is proficient in all forms of combat.
Here’s a bit of writing theory for you: A character is not what they do. A character is who they are. If you’re constructing a character for your action movie, and they are well-trained in martial arts, maybe include a scene where they explain how they feel about that. Or why it’s logical that they would be trained in weapons. Depict, in their very fighting style, who they are. Did they learn on the streets? In the military? If they were in the military, why did they go in? Hire an actor that can communicate who that person is. Have your various characters talk to one another about things not related to the plot. When all they do is fight – no matter how cool – then that robs them of humanity.
Rogue One was especially bad in this regard because it took things from Star Wars that weren’t ever meant to be “badass” and filtered them through the modern desire for it. Darth Vader was only ever a dark wizard soldier. He was intimidating enough with his coldness and powers to choke you from across the room. Years of fandom, however, eventually changed the popular perception of Darth Vader from a mere character into an all-powerful badass. At the end of Rogue One we see Darth Vader killing many people with his sword and his superpowers, and it’s a badass sequence. But the character is a villain. A horrible murderer who wiped out literally millions – if not billions – of lives just as a bargaining tactic. Is this the type of character we want to be “badass?”
Audience’s desire for “cool” has led to an endless string of action movies with cool heroes, badass fighters, and ever-unexplored character work. When was the last time you saw an action hero who wasn’t wholly capable? Who still had things to learn? Who was unsure of themselves in the midst of a fight? Or – imagine that – didn’t want to fight at all, and used their smarts or other skills of cunning to avoid fighting?
An action movie fight is only going to be as interesting as the characters in it. If we get to know who the fighters are, we care about them both, and the outcome of the fight actually has stakes on their personality, then we’ll love the fight even if it’s isn’t choreographed like a hyperactive kung-fu flick.
We need to learn to move past our desire for “cool” and for “badass.” Because “cool” and “badass” are all we currently have, and they’re not the same as character. Perhaps then, we’d have a greater variety of action movies, and we’d run the chance of encountering a new icon we can rally around. I’d rather have that than more of the same.
8 Action Movie Heroes Who Make ‘Badass’ Boring
Top Image: LucasFilm/Disney
Witney Seibold is a longtime contributor to the CraveOnline Film Channel, and the co-host of The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon. He also contributes to Legion of Leia and to Blumhouse. You can follow him on “The Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.