The Art of Cinema Spectacle: Comic Book Movies and Kung Fu
I’m a fan of two different types of movie genre: comic book movies and martial arts films. I have been since high school when I saw 1989's Batman and watching reruns of 1975’s Enter the Dragon with my dad. Depending on where the movie came from though, there can be a crossover. Chinese martial arts films in particular are known for using wire work in their action scenes, as well as a staccato set of moves that at times seem more like a dance than a death match.
Many of my friends would often laugh at these obvious, fake scenarios. However, when watching a comic book film, even to this day, they will think it’s cool. Though there has been a clear evolution in terms of style and quality, comic book films at their core remain over the top stories. Their protagonist dress in weird costumes that only your crazy neighbor would dare wear, they fight in scenes that are choreographed and at times just as unbelievable as old style kung fu flicks, and their dialogue can be just as campy.
Going to the Opera
Chinese wire work goes back to a form of entertainment called Beijing opera. Coming out of the 18th century and like European opera, they were telling stories through performance and song. Part of that performance included fantastical move sets that needed artificial help to be accomplished. This concept was transplanted into martial arts films when Hong Kong began putting out Chinese period pieces in the 1960’s and 70’s. They were popular back then in the States with perhaps the biggest compliment being from the 1990’s hip hop group, Wu Tang Clan, taking their name directly from the genre.
However their main audience was in China and British-controlled Hong Kong, where such theatrics were generally more accepted since it was part of the culture. However, there was a major change when Bruce Lee began doing his films. While he was Chinese by race and birth, a good chunk of his life was still raised in America and he picked up on the western sense of practicality and no nonsense action.
Bruce also appreciated Japanese action films, which unlike their Chinese peers and even some western films, did not shy away from realistic violence. An opponent was not going to fly away from a sword chop, or dance on the tip of an arrow shot at them. Bruce brought this sense of realism into his films and he became hugely successful because of it. Since then, Chinese action films have started to become more and more grounded in realism, but still maintained some sense of spectacle. Even the recent Ip Man 3’s fight with Donnie Yen and Mike Tyson had some wire work done, though the majority of the battle was very realistic.
Still, Americans look at the wire work and we don’t see theatrics necessarily but ridiculousness. Maybe this is because it is taking place in a scene happening in the real world. Perhaps it’s because it’s Asian and we choose not to acknowledge just how close Chinese theatrics is to ours. Whatever the reasons, we judge their imaginative take on action lesser than ours.
Native and Ridiculous
The current western romance with comic book spectacle has been around since 1978 Superman, but has only recently kicked into high gear. American cynicism had no love for these as well because of outlandish costumes and the even more fantastical extremes of actual powers. Where as Chinese heroes might jump extraordinarily high or even have superhuman strikes, a western hero will fly, and destroy entire blocks while shooting lasers out of his eyes.
The current acceptance of these portrayals comes from a generation, generation X, maturing into and taking over Hollywood. Many of them were nerds and geeks. They grew up on comics and cartoons with superheroes. So when the opportunity came to bring their childhood fantasies to life, of course they would jump at it, and their peers embraced it because they remember the old media as well.
It is this familiarity that makes the comic book genre so popular and long lasting, though nay sayers have often predicted its downfall only to be proven wrong. The familiarity makes an unbelievable scenario digestible, if you can grasp the catch-22. Chinese wire work films are not as familiar. It’s another culture. So it is going to seem stranger on an emotional level, though intellectually, the two styles are both just as ridiculous.
As long as the illusion of practicality is there, we are more or less sold on it. Mutants created by genetic mutation, enhanced strength coming from a medical serum, or just wearing a armored suit are all ideas we can accept because it pretends to be grounded in reality.
The late 90’s Matrix trilogy tried to blend stylistic martial arts with technological reasoning. The serious acting and take on the story was something the audience could bite into. And because of that, it made some of the superhero-ish scenes with Neo more acceptable:
“It’s the Matrix, so of course he can do stuff like that.”
The spiritual descendant of this trend is this year’s Doctor Strange. A Marvel character who uses magic, there is no scientific or technological base for his powers in the comic books. So the movie grafted its supernatural elements to scientific principles of the multi-verse, and it worked. Wizards doing Tai Chi movements to manipulate energies from other dimensions became a ‘duh’ concept. Most of us have heard of the multi-verse concept to some degree, so our minds were already a fertile field.
The Never Ending Age of Heroes
I suppose then that the reasoning behind the two styles not being seen as similar is because either audience didn’t grow up on the other side of the ocean. More open-minded people may recognize it and maybe turned off by both, go with what they’re use to, or be drawn to both. Perhaps if future movies on both sides could repeat what the Matrix and Doctor Strange did, both sides can take a step in the other room so to speak and recognize the kinship.
Humans have always felt a need to spice up their culture with an element of the supernatural or superhuman, especially in their heroes. Whether we call them Ip Man, Chen Zhen, Captain America, Spiderman, Hercules, or Quetzalcoatl, there is some sort of impulse to have our heroes do impossible things. Perhaps it’s that expression in our films that is one of the things that makes us all human.