Why Movies Want You to Think You Can Fit in that Air Duct on your Wall
3 Dumb Movie Tropes that fill us all with rage and won’t go away.
If you meet someone who you really hate right off the bat, there’s a very good chance that he or she is your soul mate.
Do you ever wonder if Romantic-Comedies are thinking it all the way through when they give us advice like that? Or if Courtroom Dramas are really 100% certain that…
…if you simply yell at someone who is about to get away with murder while they are on the witness stand, they will very likely confess on the spot?
Ideas like those are called “tropes” (from the Greek “tropos” meaning “I’m not going to give this too much thought”).
In the case of movies, a trope is a visual or thematic shorthand used over and over again for decades until audiences become so familiar with an idea they just accept it as true.
Some tropes are useful and meaningful, conveying timeless truths about love, courage, and throwing epic parties when your parents aren’t home.
Sadly, some tropes are pretty dumb. And that’s where we come in.
The history of dumb ideas repeated over and over in movies is obviously a very deep field to explore. So for today, I’d like to narrow it down to one genre — The Action/Adventure.
Here are the 3 dumbest tropes of the otherwise perfectly realistic world of filmed fighting and/or running away from danger, where these ideas came from and when they might go away.
A Brief History of Dumb Violence
Historically, the entertainment industry has been fascinated with unlikely ways to fight. Early Hollywood, for instance, was deeply committed to the “one-punch-knockout.” Most of the time, the one-punch-knockout was a practical idea to help low budget productions quickly and efficiently move the story along. Other times the star of the movie was Humphrey Bogart, who breathed filterless cigarettes at least as much as he breathed air, and one punch per afternoon was pretty much what he had to give. But either way, in just about every single Detective story or Western filmed before 1960, somebody at some point was going to get knocked out with one punch.
Eventually, it happened so many times on screen that audiences everywhere came to accept as scientific fact that, if you get punched in the face, you will be knocked unconscious for as long as the story requires you to be unconscious. Or, if you are a woman, you can simply faint for any number of unlikely reasons. Either way, this is how so many people in old movies could wake up to find themselves tied to a chair, often many miles from where they were one-punched or startled into oblivion.
The exception to the one-punch-knockout rule was the Brawl, particularly in Westerns. All Brawls in Westerns begin in a saloon, with an attempted one-punch-knockout that somehow fails. Here, a different but equally dumb kind of physics holds sway. In a Brawl, you can take multiple punches to the face and whiskey bottles to the skull before finally losing consciousness and getting tied to a chair.
Pro-tip: if you ever find yourself in a Brawl in the old west, never stand next to a second-floor railing. If you do, it’s guaranteed that you will be shot and fall through that railing. However, if you hide behind the bar, you are very likely to have a stream of beer or whiskey come from a fresh bullet hole in the keg over your head for you to enjoy at no charge.
The 1960s introduced some innovative and very silly maneuvers into their fight scenes. Popularized by leading men like William Shatner in “Star Trek” and Robert Conrad in “The Wild, Wild West,” the Double-Fist attack came into vogue as a very exciting dumb thing to do in a fight. Perhaps originating in professional wrestling because it works best if you aren’t actually trying to hurt your opponent, the Double-Fist is when you lace your fingers together to make a double-sized fist. I guess the idea is that it’s twice as potent as a regular fist, which probably would help when fighting man-sized space lizards.
The Double-Fist had a decent run, but faded from use, probably when kids tried it at home and realized that it’s really only useful if you are trying to break your own fingers. Try it right now - in super-slow motion, please - and see for yourself. Lace your fingers into a Double-Fist and very gradually apply pinkie-first pressure to the nearest table or Gorn-like surface. See? Someone must have tried that in real life and realized what a bad idea it is.
But what about today? Surely we have evolved past the need for using visual shorthand to promote ridiculous notions of how punching works until everybody just takes them for granted, right?
Of course not.
Here are the Top 3 Dumbest, Laziest, “Please Stop Doing This” Action tropes still in use today.
#1. The Backhand Punch
First used by Michael Keaton in “Batman” (1989), the Backhand Punch is a variation on the One-Punch-Knockout invented out of necessity when they built a Batsuit so absurd that Batman could barely move and could not turn his head at all.
“Batman” was a pre-CGI movie where all the fight scenes were old-school, featuring stuntmen falling through railings and gymnasts executing long, cheerleader-style tumbling runs directly into Batman’s foot or fist.
The first instance of the Backhand Punch positioned the camera so we could see Keaton’s face in close-up while he instinctively put up a “black power salute” for one of the Joker’s henchmen to sprint into from behind. It was actually a pretty clever workaround and proved iconic enough to be featured in trailers and commercials for the film. Tragically, that early success would bring us a lot more of the Backhand Punch in the years to come.
The limitations of the batsuit also forced a long run of Batman movies that featured very, very close-up camera work in every fight scene so we couldn’t quite make out how easy it would be to beat Batman in real life if you could just avoid sprinting at his fist.
But even after outliving the absolute need for the maneuver as fight scenes became largely animated, the Backhand Punch lives on due to its usefulness in extracting value from the star’s face with a close-up. This is the same reason why heroes always walk in slow motion and never look back at the thing they just blew up. It’s stupid, but they are paying a lot for that face. So, slow it down, put an explosion in the background. Beautiful. That’s the money shot.
Which brings us to another trope the world is ready to move on from… and I really can’t take much more of this one…
#2. The Incredibly Fragile Robot/Alien Armies that explode on contact and are particularly susceptible to the Backhand Punch
The origin of the IFRAA is shrouded in the mists of time. But you can see the pedigree in those old Western fights that feature one whiskey-bottle-wielding cowboy fending off a dozen men running at him one by one. This trope is known in professional wrestling as the “Black Ninja Attack” where many bad guy wrestlers storm the ring (one-at-a-time, naturally) to be easily dispatched by the good guy. The “Black Ninja Attack” refers to martial arts films of the 1970s which often featured a dozen or so Black Ninjas attacking someone… One. At. A. Time.
With the advent of CGI, the Black Ninjas morphed into large scale attacks of whatever qualified as the Henchmen, Ninjas, or Enraged Cowboys for that particular story. So if it was “The Mummy” (1999 ), starring Brendan Frasier, the Black Ninjas became hundreds of CGI mummies. Or, if it was “The Mummy” (2017), starring Tom Cruise, it was exactly the same thing.
And here we begin to see the problem.
Even though CGI is better and cheaper to use today than it was in 1999, the Black Ninja Attack is still stupid for multiple reasons. First of all, it makes your undead/robot/space monster bad guys look weak and not very scary. Second, it makes your Mummy movie look exactly like your alien movie and your robot movie.
But third, and most importantly… what happens when you put this kind of thing into actual “good” movies?
I don’t really care if you want to phone in your action sequences for Jurassic Park sequels, or if you are a film by Zack Snyder. But when you inject this sludge in my precious, precious MCU films, I start to become concerned.
For proof that it’s past time to move on and that we can simply do better than the IFRAA attack sequence, let’s look back to 2015 and “Avengers: Age of Ultron.”
First of all, this is not at all a “bad” movie (and neither was the 1999 “Mummy” btw). By regular blockbuster movie standards, “Age of Ultron” is terrific. I like it a lot and have seen it several times. I’m choosing it because, by MCU standards, it’s just “pretty good.” And the entire reason for knocking it down a notch at all is the IFRAA fight at the end (well, and the completely gratuitous and insulting Backhand Punch thrown by Hawkeye in the opening sequence).
Bottom line, it’s an “Action” movie, but the only parts of it that are boring are the Action parts. This is the IFRAA effect in full force.
For most of the movie, “Age of Ultron” is a perfect example of what makes the MCU so entertaining and so consistently a cut above outwardly similar fare. It has the luxury of iconic, archetypal characters to use as a starting point, but where most movies would take that as a cue to make everything stupid, these movies focus on developing the characters and building their relationships, luxuriating in long, robot-free scenes filled with economical and entertaining dialogue.
It’s an idea so crazy it just might work. And it does.
Until the robots show up. Suddenly, an Avengers cocktail party with Black Widow flirting with Bruce Banner, Thor getting Stan Lee drunk on Asgardian liquor, and Steve Rogers totally being worthy to pick up Mjolnir if he felt like it… becomes a picnic totally ruined by a swarm of murder-hornets in the form of incredibly fragile CGI robots.
They shatter on contact? Black Widow can just shoot them with a regular gun? Hawkeye can punch them? Hawkeye?!? What!?!
These things are Tony Stark’s Iron Legion, right? Well… did he make his Iron Legion out of glass?
And then… excuse me, but I’m very upset about this… and then, while standing on a broken bridge, having very easily dispatched several of these shockingly delicate villains, Captain America, my beloved Steve Rogers who you may remember from such great and robot-free films as “Captain America: The Winter Soldier…” he… he Backhand Punched a robot and knocked it out.
It was a No-Look-Backhand-One-Punch-Knockout during an Incredibly-Fragile-Robot/Alien-Army-Black-Ninja-Attack.
And I admit, it hurt me deep inside. It was a betrayal. It’s an ongoing betrayal that began in “Thor: The Dark World” and it needs to stop.
Which brings us, finally, to the dumbest Action trope of all. You know what it is because if you’ve ever seen a movie or own a TV you’ve seen it a million times and it’s NEVER made any sense at all… it’ll be cathartic if we say it out loud together right now… ready…?
#3 — The Air Conditioning Ducts
Oh my God, is this thing ever going to go away?
And does every screenwriter who’s ever written himself into a corner actually think this is a clever solution every single time they do it? Because it’s almost literally in every movie. And it wasn’t clever the first time.
The idea that there is some kind of network of tunnels adjacent to actual walkways which plucky underdogs can use to evade villains probably dates back to Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel, “Les Miserables.” And there it made sense as Jean Valjean used the perfectly reasonable headroom of the Paris sewer system to escape his tormentor, Javert.
But then the 20th century brought us air-conditioning, and… “Hey! I’ve got it! They can just crawl through the vents!”
Well, no they can’t.
Look! Right now, if you are inside, just look at that vent on the wall. Can you climb into that? Can you crawl through whatever is behind it? If you are a squirrel or a toy in a Pixar movie then the answer is yes. Maybe, if you are on board an alien space ship where their standards of ductwork might be far beyond our understanding… then yes.
But if you are a human, living on this planet, in a building built to code… then no.
No, there will never be a time when you can plausibly shout, “Somebody’s coming! Quick, everybody into the air conditioner!”
I could go on, about how in the 1960s on “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea,” they regularly used the air ducts to elude villains every time their submarine was hi-jacked. The keyword in that sentence being “SUBMARINE!” Submarines are famous for having barely enough regular room to walk around. But the experimental vessel “Seaview,” apparently in anticipation of the number of times it would be taken over by Eastern Europeans or aliens or civilizations from beneath the sea, was outfitted with a spacious second hallway located inside the walls.
What the future holds.
Maybe someday we can retire some of these tropes. Imagine fights with people looking at what they are punching. Or hordes of robots made of tougher stuff. Or maybe someday in real life we will finally start building bigger air ducts so that our movies make more sense. Because I don’t think they are letting go of that one anytime soon.