Marvel's Avengers movies are the modern martial arts genre.
Has no one made this connection before?
If you're like me, in your thirties, overweight, a little too into Power Rangers as a kid, then maybe you liked watching Jackie Chan movies growing up. Maybe you even caught the Jackie Chan Adventures cartoon when you were at that age where it was just starting to become a faux pas to watch kid's cartoons. Maybe you fought with your friends about how Jackie Chan totally didn't voice himself in the cartoon. HE'S A BUSY MAN JASON. JUST DROP IT!
Sorry about that.
Where were we? Right. Martial arts movies.
If you are anything like me, then you may have also noticed how martial arts movies have suddenly gone out of favour these days. As much as I love John Wick, a martial arts movie it is not. Man of Tai Chi is the only pure martial arts movie in recent years (read 10 years) with any more than a blip on the media's radar. The only other contenders would be Ip Man and Kung Fu Panda, but they started in the late 2000s and were part of a series.
At first, this kind of saddened me, but then I looked at what's 'replaced' those martial arts movies, and you know what? I'm not so sad anymore.
I know you read the title and know where I'm going with this, but let's rewind and talk about my favourite movie of all time: Legend of the Drunken Master starring Jackie Chan.
Legend of the Drunken Master may not be a perfect movie, but it's my perfect movie. It has everything you could want: great action, humour (I mean, with a title like that, how could it not?), and a little bit of drama.
It's a sequel to a 1978 film, Drunken Master, but shares little in common with the original movie besides the main character.
In the Legend of the Drunken Master, Wong Fei-hung, played by Jackie Chan, gets mixed up in a plot by the British consulate to steal Chinese artifacts. Throughout the various encounters with the villains, Wong shows off different martial arts, including the one their family is famous for: Drunken Boxing.
You remember how in Popeye, the titular character eats spinach and gains super strength? Well, Drunken Boxing is kind of like that, but with alcohol. It's supposed to dull pain and make you unpredictable. Except, I'm sure Popeye never blacked out and woke up in an unfamiliar bed with a half-eaten salad on the floor nearby.
In one of the first scenes of Drunken Boxing, Wong's mother keeps throwing bottles of alcohol to him to drink. After Wong's father shows up, his mother cries and fakes being pregnant to avoid punishment. The scene is first played for laughs, but soon he just directs his anger towards his son. In a genuinely uncomfortable scene, he kicks his son out of home for embarrassing the family by getting drunk and fighting people in the middle of the street.
Things get more complicated with the British consulate, however, and Wong's father bails him out when Wong gets in too deep trying to help stop the smuggling. Afterwards, Wong's father realizes he was wrong and allows Wong back home.
Wong and his friends find out how the artifacts are being smuggled, and the climactic battle takes place in a steel mill. The steel mill battles are some of the greatest on-screen fights of all time (GOATs for all the young-uns), with twists and turns and slapstick mixed with martial arts. If you watch the credits, there are also some harrowing moments of bravery by the actor Jackie Chan. Jackie, as many know, did his own stunts, and I'm not sure if it was a real steel mill or not, but there were undoubtedly real burning coals that Jackie had to scramble across. You can watch the clip below.
It's hard in text to get across how funny or how interesting some of the scenes are, so do yourself a favour and watch it if you haven't. It's a fun film, and thankfully it does get a lot of praise heaped its way for how amazing it is.
That movie was released in 1994. Over 26 years ago. 26 years and there hasn't been another martial arts movie to top it or even come close. Well, except maybe Kung Fu Hustle. That movie is a treasure and probably the closest we'll ever come to seeing Dragonball-esque martial arts in live-action.
Or at least, that's what I would be saying if not for the recent Marvel movies that have come out.
Despite being blockbuster hits with massive audiences and critical acclaim, superhero movies have been getting a bit of a bad rap lately. Everyone seems to complain that they're all a bit samey, if that is a word.
And you know what? I don't care.
They're funny, have great action and choreography, and even a bit of drama that gets the eyes watering. Wait, there was something else with all those attributes that I was just talking about. What was it again? (Look, I know this has been done a thousand times. Just go with it for my sake, alright) Oh, that's right: Martial arts movies, specifically Kung Fu Comedy, that Jackie Chan pioneered.
I'll do you one better though folks, I think the Marvel movies are better than the Kung Fu Comedy that preceded it for a straightforward reason: plot.
If there was one complaint I could lay at the martial arts genre as a whole, it's that story was never interesting because it obviously was never the focus. It was a means to a fist-filled end. Even though I love Legend of the Drunken Master, before looking up a synopsis to refresh my memory, all I remembered about the plot was that the bad guys were smugglers. But, I remember every fight scene and some of the funny slapstick in detail.
With the Marvel movies, you're rewarded for knowing the characters' intricate backstory, plots, and relationships. Every time you watch something new, it makes you want to look back at what came before it.
Take the new WandaVision show, for instance. I knew who Darcy was, and I pretty quickly figured out who Monica Rambeau was, but if you hadn't seen the first Thor movie or Captain Marvel, you probably thought they were just random side characters with no bearing on the overall story that would clearly lead after WandaVision finished.
Knowing who these characters are and where they came from means you understand they hold greater significance to the plot. And because all the marvel movies are connected, they're sure to have a presence going forward on other films or shows. (And don't even get me started on some of the other characters who show up. I'm not going to spoil it, but you know who I'm talking about if you've watched it.)
I'm far more invested in the characters in the marvel universe than any martial arts movie. Even if some of the beats are similar, there are enough differences between them that it doesn't matter. Break down any movie enough, and you'll get the same act structure repeated over and over again. Anyone who knows the name Michael Hauge knows what I'm talking about.
Don't get me wrong, The Legend of the Drunken Master will still remain my favourite movie. I often say I don't think I'd freak out if I ever saw a celebrity, but I might freak out a bit if I saw Jackie Chan.
The DNA of martial arts movies is written deep within Marvel movies' code, and I, for one, am loving what's come out of that. If you like martial arts movies, especially the Kung Fu Comedy of Jackie Chan, or the strange powers in Kung Fu Hustle, and you've been sitting on Marvel movies, you owe it to yourself to give them a try.
Now time to go watch Jackie Chan punch people in the face for an hour and a half.
If you enjoyed this then be sure to check out my other writing on vocal, or my novels at www.mcleansnovels.com. I mainly write fiction, but this topic was just too good to pass up.
Image of Jackie Chan found at https://commons.wikimedia.or/wiki/file:Jackie_Chan_Berlinale_2010_(cropped).jpg and used under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.