Thoughts On: Ip Man (2008) & Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
Today, we will be talking about action scenes and heroes.
Ip Man is a thoroughly awesome film; sometimes a little melodramatic or partly lacking lacking depth of character and narrative, as well as rife with romanticism and… let’s say… liberty-taking, but nonetheless awesome. Captivating concepts of honour, patriotism, righteousness, sacrifice, compassion, understanding and humbleness brilliantly, Ip Man then drives deep into your being without much need for explanation and analysis as it paints an ultimate picture of a grand “superman”. In recognising that Ip Man as essentially a super hero story, if we contrast it to contemporary action super hero films such as Captain America: The Winter Soldier, we have an interesting topic on our hands.
The Winter Soldier is a pretty good movie, but, by and large, very forgettable. Heavily plot-driven, rife with tropes and cliches, cookie-cutter characters and awful bits of dialogue I find this movie to be somewhat overrated. However, its action scenes and central figure stand out above all else, and so, considering the huge impact of this film on modern cinema (alongside the plethora of other MCU and DCEU movies – which I could have easily talked about in place of this here) there is little else to talk about with this film. But, before getting into details, let’s look at two similar scenes; The Elevator scene…
… and The Ten Black Belts scene…
These scenes can be compared and contrasted in a plethora of ways, many of which we will get into, but, which is better? Furthermore, how do you answer that? And, why does that need answering? These are the questions we’ll face as we attempt to seek out the function of “supermen”.
Starting where each scene starts, we come to the motivation for action; Captain America is betrayed whilst Ip Man sees an old master, a rival of sorts, killed by the occupying Japanese. Ip Man’s motivations are far more complex and serious, and are treated as such. This gives his scene an incredible amount of weight as he’s not merely getting revenge by fighting the ten black belts, but is restoring honour to his country and righting the wrongs of a man he has already treated with compassion and understanding. There is then motivation and a lack of motivation for Ip Man to risk his life here, but the fact that Ip Man rises above all dissonance to do what is seemingly right and to perform one of the highest acts he could, himself, achieve, has him step into this fight a towering hero. In contrast to this, there is a piece of smart-assery that provides the start of the Elevator scene some tension before action explodes – and without Captain America being emotionally tested. Granted we get action scenes that mean more in terms of emotion for Captain America, such as the final fight with Bucky, but this certainly pales in comparison to the most complex moments of Ip Man.
So, somewhat ironically, and without asking who would win in a fight, Ip Man seems to be the greater hero. This is because a hero is not the strongest or most powerful guy in the universe. Rather, the greatest hero is he who, to reference Spiderman, takes on the greatest amount of power with the greatest degree of responsibility attached. Captain America has a lot of responsibility on his shoulders: as implied, the entirety of America. However, we’re never really made to feel this. But, in Ip Man, we are successfully made to feel that Ip Man not only stands up for his friends and his art, but his town and even the entirety of China. All of that responsibility rests in the hands of a man who cannot deflect bullets – and that says a lot.
Moving on, the greater context of these films that catalyse these two action scenes is genre. Ip Man is a pretty straight martial arts film with touches of drama and history. Captain America is a sci-fi-fantasy-action-mystery-thriller wrapped up into a spy movie. Though these genre combinations are bound by the idea of spectacle, they imply that we’ll get vastly different kinds of action scenes. And whilst there are many subtle differences that could be drawn upon, I think the most obvious way in which they differ concerns construction and structure.
Captain America feels like its action scenes were written whilst Ip Man’s action scenes feel choreographed. In such, the Elevator Scene has clear beats and writing tropes; a character tries to do this… but, this happens–he tries to solve it… but, this happens… he tries to solve that… but, this happens… and this will go on until the action has elevated and progressed through many stages of conflict which are centred on various extraneous elements (such as weapons, new characters and the location) until a finale. For the strict and clear structuring of these scenes, Captain America then feels written.
With the martial arts movie, the choreographers are, in many respects, the unsung heroes of the genre. Sammo Hung, who worked on Ip Man, is a choreographer, along with the likes of Jackie Chan and, to a lesser degree, Tony Jaa, that has transcended this notion thanks to his appearance on screen. However, his art form combined with the stunt work of Donnie Yen produces a kind of dance and entertainment that is unique to the martial arts movie, leaving the action scenes feeling far more natural and free from the kind of planning and thought that a writer utilises. And so, generally speaking, in the martial arts movie there is a very different approach to the fight scene in, say for instance, the common action genre mash-up or spy film. The martial arts movie to the spy movie, Ip Man to Captain America, is like Singin’ In The Rain to The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.
Singin’ In The Rain is a classical Hollywood musical – that I’m sure most have seen – which has ‘musical numbers’. Though these are integrated into the story quite well, it is quite clear that the numbers are built up to by story (they do not really serve it) and are the focus of the narrative. Contrast this to the French musical that has singing all the way through (even the dialogue is sung), The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg, and you see no real ‘numbers’ to the consequence of a stronger narrative-musical cohesion. In such, whilst there are certainly stand-out moments and catchy-er tunes in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, there aren’t really sequences in which time is suspended for the songs like there is in films such as Singin’ In The Rain.
If we transition back to Captain America and Ip Man, we see a very similar paradigm: there are ‘action numbers’ in Ip Man that the film is structured around whilst the set-pieces in Captain America are quite continual, but not as pronounced. Looking at the structure of the action scene, we then see Captain America’s as having plot-points and beats whilst Ip Man’s plays out like a symphony of movement that couldn’t be scripted – not effectively anyway. These two approaches have their virtues and their downfalls and are highly dependent on either the script or choreographer, but do not begin to imply which kind of film is better. Beyond preference, this point of contrast is simply dependent on execution.
Technically speaking, the example Ip Man and Captain America fight scenes aren’t very different. However, though both employ stunt work, CGI, wire work, various kinds of camera movement and all the necessary details to make an action scene, Captain America’s budget dwarfs Ip Man’s. (170 million; 11.7 million). This means that there’s a lot more spectacle, vehicles, guns and explosions in Captain America. But, if we focus on our two scenes at hand, it is clear that the budget doesn’t play too significant of a role in quality of an action scene. After all, and considering The Elevator Scene is considered one of the best in this film, do the exterior CG shots add much at all to the action? I’d say no, and so would have to look to the way in which the camera itself is utilised in each scene.
In The Elevator scene, the camera is very much so focused on items – such as the magnet thing. The actual fighting between the numerous bad guys lasts about 8 seconds (for 15 seconds before this, there is just a struggle against them all). Within Ip Man, it takes more than a minute of fighting to get down to less than two foes. This says much itself, but one of the primary notes that can be made here about the direction is the management of an incredibly hectic mise en scène. Whilst the trope of 20 guys moving in the background but ultimately doing nothing offensive is something that is utilised in Ip Man (and is also something we’ve had to get used to since the days of Bruce Lee), Ip Man is taking on numerous foes at once, and the camera work imbues this sensation into the sequence very well. Most of this work is admittedly done by the cinematographer who utilises shadows brilliantly, but much is gone into the camera work and choreography to contain many bodies, but still retain a specific focus, in the frame. There is no such effort like this in Captain America: the editor does most of the work whilst the director isolates bits of action. So, technically speaking, Ip Man has far superior action scenes; the use of the script in Captain America is a little more sophisticated, however.
Next, we come to realism and verisimilitude. This is a difficult topic of contrast as the fighting within Captain America is quite realistic – given the conventions of the sci-fi-fantasy genre elements. As a historical, war drama, Ip Man lacks much realism and is highly romantic. However, in terms of verisimilitude, Ip Man feels far more real; it doesn’t utilise realism in a way that is as contextually (in context of the genre) striking, but the action scenes have more weight. Much of this comes down to the highly unrealistic sound design, however. And thus we begin spinning around in circles. Ultimately, whilst Ip Man has more weight and impact, the utilisation of realism and verisimilitude is more striking. But, Captain America, despite us living in the age of the superhero blockbuster, is a relatively unique film. Like Ip Man, it draws from the original martial arts movies – which were commercially popularised around the 70s, but arguably go further back to the start of Japanese cinema in the 1900s-1910s. But, whilst Captain America combines spy and action films with martial arts movies, it does this within a unique realm of fantasy. For this, the textures of the world building are far more complex than the martial arts movie (which have almost always been perceived as very basic entertainment – especially since their world-wide popularisation in the 70s). So, the field is very open in regards to how both of these films manage the bread and butter of action: verisimilitude.
There are further things we could compare, such as the use of music, the actors themselves, their foes, the historical and cultural contexts, etc, but we could ultimately end up writing a book on such subjects. However, if we consider the innumerable elements that go into both of these films’ action scenes, considering them as a whole, we have to ask, which scene is the greatest synthesis?
My answer to this question is quite implicit, but I bring this up to further ask: what makes a superhero? And by extension of this: how do you present a superhero? The answer lies in the very synthesis that we have discussed. So, it is seeing the strengths and downfalls of both of these movies, the ways in which they imply room for evolution and the manner in which they showcase the foundational elements of the action genre, that begins to suggest what makes a hero. You need character motivation, spectacle and verisimilitude – which I believe are the three pillars of the action scene – working in a way that gives a scene meaning, meaninglessness and then believability.
Though these three concepts seem at odds, this seems to be what heroes, and in turn, their stories, are made up of. Meaning is the reasoning for Captain America or Ip Man stepping up to a fight; it is country, family, honour, etc. Meaninglessness is the spectacle and game present in the act of conflict; it is friction and existential haphazardness treated with a smile and met with triumph. Believability is what holds these two ideas together; to contain meaning and its antithesis, to make a game out of conflict, there needs to be a solid plane upon which these events can play out. However, why must a game be made out of conflict?
This is the hero in my view; he is the figurehead of a crusade against anti-conflict: peace via complete destruction, entropy or stagnation. Look to Ip Man for example, whilst he embodies both peace and violence, he is more or less the same person, a grand, humble martial artist, in times of peace and times of chaos. Likewise, even though we may not fight for our lives everyday, we spend a good portion of our days immersed in drama of some form; drama that embodies some kind of conflict. The hero and the superman, the synthetic, crusading avatar, need meaning, meaninglessness and believability as these are the things we simultaneously crave in life. After all, life at its best is a game with meaning, however constructed, and rules that incentivise positive emotions that paint our perception and in turn our world. Life with just meaning, structure and rules is a job to suffer through. Life without believability is one that can have no meaning and cannot be truly perceived, only seen through. Life with a hero can be an important, meaningful game, gazed at through a looking glass.
These complex ideas, however out of place they seem when mapped onto our movies for today, are embedded into the fabric of great action scenes – which is why they can be so affecting. The greatest action scenes encapsulate this through a successful synthesis of motivation, spectacle and verisimilitude, and, in turn, they create supermen worth centring cultures and lives around.
With all of that said, I’ll turn to you. What are your thoughts on Captain America, Ip Man and all we’ve covered today? How do these films manage their genre elements? How do they bring these together to create heroes? Are these heroes worth time and attention?
Gertrud – To Love And Leave
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