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'Guardians of the Galaxy', 'Kingsman,' and the return of fun action movies

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For a genre that’s featured aliens, spies, crazy assassins, and every superhero to ever grace the pages of a comic book, action movies sure have been taking themselves seriously lately.

Maybe the trend didn’t start with Batman Begins—but Christopher Nolan’s anguished Dark Knight caused every executive in Hollywood to make “gritty” and “dark” vocabulary staples. After Christian Bale first donned the cowl, Daniel Craig took 007 for a serious turn in Casino Royale, casting off the more carefree (and, occasionally, flat-out ridiculous) James Bonds before him. And while Jason Bourne may be able to parkour his way out of any situation, you’d be hard-pressed to find a viewer yearning to inhabit the spy’s life after seeing the torture he undergoes in the Bourne films.

There have, of course, been exceptions to this rule—the Fast & Furious franchise has consistently delivered ludicrous fun, and Brad Bird’s Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol reignited that franchise with a palpable energy. But in general, action films over the last decade or two have largely abandoned the audacious wonder, charm, and lightheartedness that transformed Indiana Jones and Star Wars into enduring classics. Instead, contemporary action heroes seem to be forbidden from smiling. They’re forced to loss loved ones left and right (or, if you’re Liam Neeson, to rescue all of those family members), and generally doomed to lead unhappy lives. 

Now, though, fun is coming back, with guns—and witty one-liners—blazing. And audiences have a talking raccoon and a walking tree to thank.

Before Guardians of the Galaxy debuted last summer, the film industry was wary that Marvel might be lobbing its first bomb. Instead, James Gunn’s story about “a bunch of a-holes” became one of the year’s most critically and commercially successful films—and Guardians owes much of that success to its fun factor. Gunn doesn’t shy away from the oddities of the Guardians. He embraces the material’s nonsensical nature, marrying it with a hilarious script and rocking soundtrack.

The result is a movie that, from its opening minutes, promises a fun throwback to the action films of decades past. Guardians opens on Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) as he investigates a drab martian planet, rain falling on the dirt-brown landscape. Soon, though, the dull, derelict cavern he investigates becomes his own personal dancefloor. He starts grooving to “Come and Get Your Love;” he’s using a space lizard as a microphone. Guardians proves that an action movie can feature both an emotional arc about its protagonist’s mother dying and said protagonist defeating the main villain via dance battle.

As Kingsman: The Secret Service director Matthew Vaughn told EW, Guardians of the Galaxy was “the rubicon” for fun action movies coming back in style. It marked their return in a critically and commercially viable way—and it certainly doesn’t look to be the last film of its kind.

A few months after Guardians rocked the summer box office, the Keanu Reeves vehicle John Wick hit theaters. Wick came into theaters with a surprising punch—or in Wick’s case, a bullet. It may not have gone for the laughs that Guardians did, but Wick‘s fervent energy and fight scenes, all choreographed with incredible skill, are an absolute thrill to watch. Wick plays out like a video game at times. That’s meant as a compliment, because video games started out with one key goal in mind—to be fun.

Even though 2014 ended with another serious action effort—the final 26 hours of The Hobbit film franchise—Guardians and Wick‘s success demonstrated that audiences have been craving more movies where characters have as much fun as the audience should be having. And while 2015 will feature its fair share of brooding action stars—does anyone in The Avengers: Age of Ultron look like they’re enjoying themselves?—the trend that Guardians and Wick started is thankfully continuining in Kingsman: The Secret Service.

Kingsman, which tells the story of a young man brought into a secret spy organization, feels like Matthew Vaughn’s thesis statement on making a truly fun action film. His direction, the film’s insane fight scenes, and its tone, which shifts between lighthearted moments and serious ones, coalesce into a project where Vaughn’s enthusiasm can be felt in every frame. Action sequences play out like musical movements—bloody ballets and shocking symphonies of inventive violence. Vaughn takes the construction of this spy organization seriously, treating his characters with respect and care, without letting that impact how simply cool this world is—and how much the audience might want to inhabit it.

If audiences show up for Kingsman, just as they did for Star-Lord and John Wick, hopefully more studios will realize the success they can achieve with action films that deliver vibrant worlds full of gleeful mayhem—rather than only brooding heroes in worlds where happiness doesn’t exist.

Does that make those more serious-minded, straightlaced action films bad? Of course it doesn’t. Marvel has proven it can deliver both sorts of movies; last year’s slate included the much darker Captain America: The Winter Soldier as well as Guardians. Too often, though, contemporary action leans toward the former’s tone while almost completely ignoring the latter’s. The Bourne films, the Dark Knight trilogies, and the Casino Royales of the world all have their strengths—but now and then, it’s also nice to see heroes who actually enjoy saving the world. 

Serious films don’t have to go anywhere, but there’s still plenty more room for blockbusters that transform action sequences into pseudo-musical numbers and allow their characters to actually have a sense of humor. There’s nothing quite like watching Diesel fly through the air, Rocket Racoon piloting a space ship, or Colin Firth beating up a pub full of bullies with his umbrella in Kingsman—especially while surrounded by a theater full of viewers absorbed in the experience. Kids shouldn’t just leave a theater being impressed by what a hero or heroine does on screen—they should want to be that hero. 

That type of energy is difficult to capture in any other setting, and few films can manage it when they don’t look like they’re having as much fun as they want the audience to have. Guardians made it OK for films to be fun again, and Kingsman carries on its spirit. Hopefully, it’s not the last film this year to do so.

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