Action adventure movies have in a way come along few and far between. It is a challenge to categorise them as a genre within their own right as such movies tend to be absorbed by other genres. It’s hard to contest that the main source where audiences typically get their action adventure kicks these days is the superhero movie genre.
As much sci-fi as they are action adventure – in fact they’re typically more action-oriented than they are adventure – superhero movies have proven hugely successful with audiences and a hugely marketable source of entertainment. But one doesn’t want to surrender the action adventure sub-genre to Marvel and DC. Part of the issue with superhero movies is their ever increasing samey quality whereas the action adventure is distinguished by a feeling of freshness.
That is, before it becomes largely franchised.
‘Indiana Jones’ is probably the first major example of this beloved sub-genre in the living memory of contemporary readers. ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ kicked matters off in 1981 as Steven Spielberg delighted audiences with a globe-trotting, adventure-seeking, Nazi-eliminating hero.
Three years later, ‘Temple of Doom’ proved less successful, taking itself far too seriously. Then they got back on track with (what this writer thinks is the best installment of the franchise, and has found that many agree) ‘Last Crusade’, which was full of fun and a childish glee, which are important traits and feelings arising from the genre. Soon, we’ll be getting a fifth ‘Indiana Jones’ movie. So there’s clearly still a hunger for these movies.
The ‘90s was book-ended by two significant action adventure movies in 1991’s ‘Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves’ (which recently turned 30) and 1999’s ‘The Mummy’. The latter would go on of course to inspire a whole franchise and less successful Tom Cruise-led reboot. A franchise would also result from fellow ‘90s action adventure ‘Jumanji’ from 1995, with its sequel-reboot starring Dwayne Johnson proving a box office smash in 2017.
Then who can forget how the 2000s to 2010s brought ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’, its success also a call to the fact that the action adventure sub-genre owes much to the swashbuckler sub-genre. The franchise would gross $4.524 billion worldwide across five movies.
Typically the action adventure movie has a distinct iconography – consider Indy’s hat and whip, the Book of the Dead in ‘The Mummy’, and Jack Sparrow’s alcoholic tendencies – as well as a non-urban (perhaps jungly, forested, oceanic, or archaeological) period setting. They also often involve globe-trotting, but then it gets tricky whereby do you include the ‘Fast & Furious’ and ‘007’ movies within the sub-genre, even though they’re much more heavily action-oriented, or films like ‘The Goonies’, ‘The Princess Bride’, and ‘Hook’, which could just as easily be categorised as fantasies, with the former two also often referred to as comedies?
That’s the thing about action adventure movies. They do incorporate comedy, as well as just a little horror too (consider the skeletal villains of ‘Pirates’ or that final melty sequence in ‘Raiders’). But it’s just enough that kids can handle (or at least act like they do) as this body of movies is very family-oriented. They’re bold and playful, sweeping you off in their momentum, thrilling in their set pieces and unravelling plot. While the latest attempt at the sub-genre, ‘Jungle Cruise’, looks something like it’s borrowing from ‘Indiana’, ‘Pirates’, and ‘The Mummy’, while bringing perhaps little new to the table, I think we could all use another action adventure.