On a rainy weekend last year, after realizing that my viewing queue had run dry, I started plumbing the depths of my streaming services in search of the shows and movies that are buried behind the subpages and subdirectories of bloated streaming platforms. This is how I stumbled across a show called Warrior on Max (though at the time the platform was still called HBO Max).
I didn’t leave my couch all day. The show is set in 1870s San Francisco and follows Chinese gangs, brutal Irish cops, and corrupt politicians as the different factions attempt to survive in America. It’s based on the writings of Bruce Lee, but is largely its own story. And while it isn’t exactly prestige TV, it’s well-made, has some fascinating things to say about race in America, and, most crucially, has some of the best fight choreography I’ve ever seen.
As I kept watching the show, binging my way well into the second season, I realized that I had actually been starved for fight scenes. Not CGI-filled laser beam battles, but emotive, story-driven, visually interesting fight choreography. Duels that used their surroundings and involved characters with unique, personality-driven fighting styles. Warrior felt like stumbling across an oasis in the desert when I didn’t even know I was thirsty. I began to wonder exactly how long it had been since I’d watched a really good fight on screen.
Andrew Koji and Dean Jagger in Warrior, Season 2 [Photo: David Bloomer/Cinemax]
The simplest answer, it turns out, is about 15 years. In 2008, The Dark Knight and Iron Man created two competing versions of the type of movie that would swallow the box office over the next decade. And as big CGI-filled blockbusters became the dominant form of entertainment in America and, quickly, the world, as well, fight choreography went out the window. There are exceptions, to be sure: Here’s to you, John Wick, Captain America: Winter Soldier, the first season of Netflix’s Daredevil, and Kingsman: The Secret Service. But those represent just a tiny fraction of the movies and shows that are pumped out every year; a good fight scene has, generally speaking, become a lost art
But we’re now at an inflection point, where we’re beginning to realize how flattened our action entertainment has become thanks in large part to the rise of the factory-like output of studios like Marvel and streaming services like Netflix. There’s a chance that the next wave in entertainment is actually one back towards the grounded, acrobatic, and often brutal on-screen fight scenes we left behind. And the question is not whether Hollywood’s biggest players will get on board or not, but which ones can do it fast enough to stay relevant.
Fight choreography in big blockbusters and popular TV shows wasn’t exactly a long-standing tradition in the U.S. before the superhero takeover. Patrick Willems, a popular film essayist with close to half a million subscribers on YouTube, tells me that it wasn’t really until The Matrix arrived in 1999 that American audiences started wanting the kind of fight scenes you’d see in niche cult classics like Eastern Promises and They Live! or Asian cinema like The Raid and Oldboy.
“The Matrix was the first movie—or the first American movie—to get Hong Kong stunt people and martial arts trainers to actually train actors and choreograph the fight scenes,” Willems says. “Then there’s a straight line after The Matrix. Even though the style was very different, the [Jason Bourne] movies have really visceral fight scenes where, you know, they trained Matt Damon to fight and were just way better than they would have been a few years earlier.”
Willems points to the jaw-dropping success and subsequent cultural memory-holing of 2000’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, a Chinese-language martial arts film that crushed the box office and was nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars that year, as proof of how quickly American audiences embraced and then forgot about the type of fight scenes that had long been popular in Asian cinema.
Less than a decade later, however, Hollywood pivoted to The Matrix’s other defining innovation: CGI—and, more specifically, CGI superheroes.
And a curious thing about our last decade of computer-generated fight scenes is that it has mirrored the vanishing sex scene, as well—something audiences are slowly, on the margins, beginning to demand again.
Last November, in a viral essay titled, “The puritanical eye: Hyper-mediation, sex on film, and the disavowal of desire,” writer Carlee Gomes argued that there’s been “a general shift toward Puritanism,” both in our entertainment and our society. Gomes writes that the conglomeration of studio monopolies and the death of the mid-budget erotic thriller reflects an insidious commodification of pleasure in late-stage capitalism, which seems hard to dispute. But what if the death of the sex scene and the death of the fight scene are connected? And what if both are connected to, as Willems put it, death of the physical living actor?
“I do wonder because, you know, everything is always cyclical and goes through phases,” Willems says. “I mean, hey, this was a year where Oppenheimer made almost a billion dollars and has two sex scenes.”
But it’s not just a craving from audiences for physicality, whether it’s violent or erotic. Another important dimension to consider here is the return of Asian cinema, though in ways that aren’t exactly as obvious as they were in the early-2000s.
Julia Alexander, the director of strategy for audience measurement firm Parrot Analytics, says that the influence of anime and Korean dramas, particularly on streaming, is clearly having an impact on American action properties.
“These anime-style fights, which are heavily martial art-inspired, and obviously, nearly impossible to do in real life . . . [American studios are] trying to replicate it,” she says.
She says Netflix’s recent live action One Piece adaptation was a good example, which features as much cartoony CGI stretching and shark people as it does classically choreographed battles.
Emily Rudd as Nami in season 1 of One Piece. [Photo: Casey Crafford/Netflix © 2023]
“The major trend has been to follow these big CGI blockbusters, which are based less on physical acting, and more on technical improvements,” she says. “But I just think we’ve reached a point with audiences where they’re looking for something more realistic.”
And as a recent Bloomberg piece reported, there’s likely more where that came from, with Japanese producers hoping to follow up the recent global successes of movies like The Super Mario Bros. Movie, Godzilla Minus One, and The Boy and the Heron. This could be the start of a large-scale Japanese IP boom the likes of which we haven’t seen since the 1980s. This means more anime adaptations are clearly imminent and, with them, comes a very different style of on-screen action.
“Hollywood follows trends,” Alexander says. “You’ve got major successes in movies like John Wick, you’re seeing the rise of Korean film, which has a lot of really great fight choreography. And so I do think fight choreography and films with intense fights are once again on the rise. But we won’t see the result of that for another couple of years as studios chase the trend.”
It’s possible that this slow return of both fight choreography (and sex scenes) is what’s adding to the perception of superhero fatigue permeating Hollywood right now. Suddenly, there are other options and viewers are responding to them. To say nothing of the endless and forgettable direct-to-streaming action romcoms (Ghosted, Shotgun Wedding) and all of those movies about hitmen or spies who also turn out to be parents (The Family Plan, FUBAR), which aren’t superhero films, but feel soulless in similar ways.
Most recently, all of this culminated in the very negative early fan reactions to the much-hyped Marvel show Echo, which premieres this month. Last week, footage from the upcoming Disney Plus show hit X, the website formerly known as Twitter. And fans weren’t nearly as excited as Marvel seems to have imagined they would be.
One clip features fan-favorite Daredevil fighting the titular character Echo. The fight scene is clearly meant to feel realistic and grounded, but as one user wrote, “What in the fan-made Power Rangers choreography is this!?”
It begs the question of whether or not a studio like Marvel—known for executive meddling and drastic last-minute changes—is even capable of pivoting towards more deliberate choreography-focused fight scenes. You can’t really fix them in post.
Matthew Kelly, who covers fandom news on his YouTube channel Nando v Movies, thinks Marvel is slowly becoming aware that this is a problem for their massive interconnected universe. “They at least understood, certainly with Shang-Chi, that they had to get [Simu Liu] to do as much practical stuff as possible,” he says.
Shang-Chi was praised for, specifically, a fight scene early in the film that takes place on a San Francisco bus. It features plenty of CGI, quick editing, and a guy with a laser sword, but it’s also the most practical a fight has felt in the MCU in almost a decade. But there’s been little else like it from the studio since.
This leads Kelly to wonder exactly how Marvel could scale back their CGI-filled properties to make grounded fight choreography in a way that makes sense. “My question—or the thing I would be curious about—is what is the next big project coming up besides Daredevil: Born Again that would really even require some, you know, close hand-to-hand fights?” he says, rattling off the cosmic-level upcoming films on Marvel’s slate like Deadpool 3, Fantastic Four, and the currently untitled fifth Avengers film.
It may be that superheroes have simply become too large and otherworldly to course-correct for audiences that are clearly hungry for classic punch-’em-ups, much as I was when I binged Warrior on that rainy day last year. It’s possible Marvel can’t shrink back down in time to catch the next trend. Though the recent introduction of their new “Spotlight” brand clearly seems to be an attempt. Other studios, however, are having a much easier time getting with the times.
The second season of Amazon Prime’s Reacher premiered in the last weeks of 2023 and quickly became the streamer’s biggest show of the year. And you know what that show has plenty of? Big guys punching each other in parking lots.