What was the last action movie you saw, and when did you see it? How did you feel about it, and how did you feel when it was over? If you’re anything like a lot of people, and it was a good action movie (sadly the genre can be a bit hit or miss), then you felt invigorated, a little less stressed out, and you had a smile on your face.
Yet why is this the case? Action movies are not exactly known for their deep looks at the human condition or heavily dramatic performances that most acclaimed films are. Yet people still flock to see when they come out (and they come out pretty regularly in one form or another), and they are getting made consistently, with both new franchises and old ones.
While we are not scientists or acclaimed film experts, we did look at what makes action movies so popular. Further still, we wanted to learn more about why people love them specifically. Is it people’s expectations, something about the movies themselves, or something else entirely? Perhaps people just like explosions (spoiler: many people love explosions, and the more and bigger the better).
While you should absolutely do some more research if you are interested in the field, here is what we found and what you can start with:
There are A-list celebrities everywhere, but there is something about the action star that feels like nothing else. You know them by name, can envision them in your mind, and only rarely does the role they are playing outshine the actor themselves. And this is not a knock on the actors, but a compliment to the charisma of the biggest stars.
Think of some of the biggest names. Chances are you remember the movies they’re in, but you might not remember the names of their characters. The names of their characters are irrelevant to many people, and that’s ok. You’re here to see an action movie starring Arnold (we don’t need to give the last name here) where crazy things happen with amazing firefights and spectacles. You care about the story, sure, but there is more than one way to look at a film. Sometimes the moments matter more than the context.
And if this were not the case, then studios wouldn’t pay millions of dollars to bring back stars for sequels. Effects are a flat cost, but stars usually cost extra as a series goes on. Studios know it is an investment worth making, at least in the movies we see getting made.
Most action movies want you to follow along with the hero of the film, whoever it might be. Many action heroes are to some degree relatable, or at the very least compelling enough to want to follow. Most films are biased in the direction of the protagonist, and the intention is usually that we are following along or there on their journey. You want them to win, you want to see them succeed, and you are emotionally invested in their struggles. To that end, you get an emotional payoff and satisfaction when you see the hero triumph (presumably) at the end of the film. And even if the ending is gray or bittersweet, you can still experience some emotional release from the ending. Think for a moment about how you felt at the end of some of your favorite action flicks.
Then add onto all that the star factor that many action movies are vehicles driven by an actor you know and love to see, whether for their looks, their charisma, or their history of great scenes and films before. Studios know what the average audience wants to see, and they make sure audiences get it. We’re already biased to like the character just by who is playing them in the film.
And since most action movies have at least a somewhat likable protagonist, with good qualities or morals, seeing them succeed feels like a victory for those values as well, whether they be love, family, or the like. More on this in the next section.
Alternatively, you can look at it another way in terms of point of view. Most of the time, viewers want a hero they can relate to on at least some level. They want someone to cheer for. And while there are plenty of anti-heroes in action movies with some unlikeable qualities as well, ultimately audiences can empathize with move action heroes. There’s a reason why so many of them are fighting to protect their home, friends, family, or country. They’re basic values that appeal to a broad audience.
Further making us connect to many action heroes (at least the more grounded variety) is that they aren’t necessarily invincible. Often they can feel like real people or at least real people within the realm of human limits. Think of Die Hard, Taken, or some other more “down-to-earth” action movies. Many of us feel like we could be just like them, unrealistic as this might be. We can’t don a mech suit and do battle with aliens. We can imagine ourselves getting fitter, learning useful skills, and protecting those we love.
And the more connected we are to the main character in the action movie, the better we feel when they triumph. Many other films don’t focus on this so much, instead, they want to make a different statement (and that’s totally fine and encouraged). This is good for thought, but harder for everyone to connect to the events on the screen, especially if the film has unnecessary problems.
Therefore, action movies live and die by their heroes, and that’s not going to change. It’s clearly found in other films with mass appeal. The formula works.
Now stress normally isn’t all the great. You know the effects of a long, stressful day at work. Worst yet, you might know the stress of an emergency, near accident, or anything potentially traumatizing. Long-term stress has its own set of issues and is a plague affecting many people. By this measure, stress isn’t all that great, and there are a lot of negative health effects in both the long and short term. It’s best avoided if possible.
What is surprising is that action movies cause stress, and much of the time they are designed to do so. By sympathizing with the characters on the screen and putting ourselves in their shoes, that stress only heightens. And there is a lot going on in the average action movie to cause stress. A real-world explosion and firefight would be traumatizing to most of us.
However, an action movie, probably by virtue of all the amazing and dangerous things happening on the screen, is a work of fiction and you know it at the end of the day. While some children and people with specific conditions might have difficulties separating the two, we always know even the most intense of action movies are not going to have the same effect as something real is.
Experiencing this short-term stress in bursts where we are in complete control of the situation. We can always leave if we want or turn down the volume or pause the movie if we are at home. We don’t have that control over a similar real-world scenario. And in action movies, the hero usually overcomes whatever trials they (and by extension the viewer) face. By overcoming that stress, it makes the viewer feel better, more confident, and have additional beneficial effects. It can work differently for different people, but the trend is common.
While we just talked about stress, there’s something else about action movies: they are relatively comfortable to watch. While we might be emotionally invested, there isn’t much risk involved. The hero is probably going to win at the end of the day, the events of the film are not going to harm us, and if it's too much we can always pause the movie or get out of the theater. It’s all reward, no risk, and it’s a lot of fun.
And it is not just the action movie itself a lot of the time. It’s the experience of watching the film for many. It might be that they are watching with friends and loved ones, having a great time bonding with them. It might also be the comfort of the theatre experience, either at home or going out to a large screen with (and hopefully with comfortable seating and some snacks to go with it)
And finally, some people just like something familiar, and some long-running action franchises absolutely serve this need. The Die Hard Series has tons of entries (more than some people can count), and the Fast and the Furious Series is on record to get even more and has launched many careers in the process. When a new one comes out every couple of years, the people will flock to them like they always have. It’s a tradition for many, whether alone or among friends and family. And due to their wide-ranging appeal, these films might be the default choice for groups of people who cannot agree on anything otherwise. And if it works once, it’ll work again.
In short, once something is set as a habit, including choices in entertainment and series, it won’t break so easily.
Something about an action movie just makes most people feel pumped up or excited. It might feel like tension to some people, and provide a thrill they can’t get elsewhere. But they might feel like this even if there’s no huge action sequence going on at the moment.
Yet why is this the case?
It could be the music, the perfect sound mixing, and the direction all working together in ways most people aren’t thinking about as they are watching the movie. It could be the general scenario of the action movie putting people into that mindset. It could even be that some people are looking for a reason to get pumped up and the action movie makes for a perfect excuse. In any case, action movies often have the ambiance needed to get people there, and that’s a major drawing point.
If we want to see amazing things, we turn to action movies. If we want great fight choreography, then we turn to kung-fu films for inspiration. While other films often have stunts or effects needed to tell the story, action movies make reasons for stunts to happen, and then they are the ones pushing the envelope.
And not only do these scenes excite us, but they are also a work of art in themselves. Where else are you going to see something like someone skydiving into a helicopter, hijacking it, and then crashing it into something only to jump out at the last minute? There is no limit to action movie setpieces, and over the top is more than welcomed by most fans. Adrenaline junkies appreciate it, audiences love seeing it, and the movies are better for them. And when the actors do their own stunts? That’s likely all the better.
If you want to investigate it further, just look online for compilations or lists of stunts or try to think of the moments of action movies that you can remember to this day. We are certain that there are a few that come to mind.
Something we have noticed is that compared to the past, there might not be as many “pure action” movies as before getting big billing, featuring a gritty but lovable hero facing insurmountable odds, but there’s more action in most of the summer blockbusters we see today. There are huge spectacles in all these films and there are always a few major fight scenes to keep the plot going.
Think about a lot of the Marvel Cinematic Universe films, for instance, or practically any superhero film not trying to deconstruct the genre. There’s tons of action in any of them, at least in some form, though it might not follow the formula of the classic action movies. Most of the films try to incorporate other genres or ideas into the filmmaking, but will always be some action setpieces to keep audiences on the edge of their seats.
And it's not just superhero movies. Most sci-fi and fantasy films have some element of action to them, and there are plenty of animated features that employ action (perhaps age-appropriate) scenes to keep audiences engaged as well. The idea of the “action-hybrid” is a common one, even if we do not think about it as such. This is likely to remain popular as the years go on.
Also, the term “action movie” casts a wide net, and can be difficult to define. You can tell what action is for sure, but how much action is needed to make an action movie? What are the vital components? With all the famous action movies you can find common ground, but everyone has their own personal favorite, and we wouldn’t have it any other way.
While any of the reasons above could be the main reason people love action movies, in truth, it’s a mixture of them. And people aren’t often thinking about the reason they’ll like it, at least not in-depth. When was the last time you went into a movie anticipating the scientific and psychological reasons you were hoping to enjoy it? It’s usually a bit simpler than that when it comes to people’s opinions. It’s fascinating to think about, of course, but action movies are often about feeling, not thinking, as you’ve read thus far.
Yet with all this talk of how much people love them, how successful are action movies? What does the box office bring in? How do people feel about them?
Note that the question of what constitutes an action movie can vary from source to source. With that in mind and taking info from IMDB, here are the top ten action movies in terms of US gross box office income. You’ll notice that the category of action is broad as discussed before, but no one can dent the action elements in the following films:
These films bring in billions when you account for worldwide revenue, and they just keep topping each other. Looking at an international list might change the order up some, but ultimately the same trends persist. Action movie blockbusters remain the tentpoles of the industry, and they aren’t going anywhere.
In terms of critical success, that is a bit harder to determine on a grand scale, and for the most part, we will refrain from doing so. What critics look for in an action movie is subjective, and the same goes for audiences. There are some obvious bombs, of course, but if it meets what an audience wants, then the critic's opinions don’t matter so much, do they? A prestige drama might live or die by ratings, but action movies can be their own thing.
Since we first started to see action movies hit the big screen regularly, we have to wonder if they have changed much at all. Sure, the base idea of an action movie will always be the same, but has the average action movie shifted over time? Has the way we viewed conflict or tension shifted, and is it better or worse for moviegoers as a whole?
In our opinion, it depends on how you look at it. While there are certainly some similarities and throwbacks to the classics from decades ago, more stylish filmmaking and a wider view of the genre certainly have shifted public perception. We certainly did not have this many superhero movies 40 years ago. Many critics bemoan the overuse of CGI in many cases and want to return to practical effects, but there is still amazing filmmaking in the genre, and no amount of CGI can make up for a lack of imagination. There are flops for sure, but the successes far outweigh them.
We are also optimistic about the future of the genre and optimistic about the current films coming out. They’re open to more people than ever, and more people have access to more action movies than ever before. We also need to remember that when we compare today’s films to the classics, that’s exactly what they are: the classics. We don’t remember the middling action films of five decades prior. We have the mediocrity of today in front of us. Keep that in mind before the nostalgia takes too much hold.
What is true, however, is that directors and special effects specialists (or video effects specialists) have more options open to them than ever before. What is real was never a limitation, but now practically nothing is a limitation with a bit of creativity (and perhaps a large effects budget). This is the one major change we would like to point out: the potential and possibilities are there for action movies that will blow everyone’s mind. And it’s only going to get better.
Action movies can be a great time and a bit of mindless fun to enjoy at home or at the theater. Most people think they’re better when enjoyed with friends, though some might want to take everything in by themselves, without distractions. In any case, we hope that you have a better understanding of the genre from this and that you take some time to find a movie, feel your heart race, and enjoy one of the best films in the genre.