Once upon a time, dads were the kings of high adrenaline, ass-kicking action movies. President James Marshall singlehandedly took down terrorists to protect his family in Air Force One. Colonel John Matrix stopped at nothing to save his kidnapped daughter in Commando. Mad Max may as well be called “perfectly sane Max” until his wife and son are killed. But those days are long gone. Now, who are the badass action flick fathers? Sure, John McClain pops up now and again and Bryan Mills trachea-chops his way through Paris to get his daughter back in Taken (and twice more in Taken 2 & 3) but such fighting fathers are woefully few and far between. The action movie dad isn’t what he used to be, but why? The genre changed, and dads just don’t fit into the picture.
The best American action movie of the last five years was, hands down, the gun-fu epics John Wick and John Wick 2. These movies are pretty much perfect, capturing everything that’s great about action movies: the simple plot, the subtle, but extremely intricate world-building, and the fucking-up of bad dudes in increasingly creative ways. But the inciting incident is where the film goes astray. There was no question that, 25 years ago John Wick would have been a dad motivated to avenge the death of his kids or a wife. But now? He’s avenging his dog—that his dead wife gave him. This has to be at least a little bit intentional. Why not just let him be a mourning father instead of a mourning pet owner?
It has to do with the general shift in film. Movie genres used to be simple to define. A film would be corralled into its respective bucket and play by the accepted rules. But modern filmmakers are less interested in drawing between the lines, instead opting to mix several different styles in the same movie. What even is an action movie in 2017? Fate of the Furious? Sure. But even a lot of the most action-packed films of the last few years aren’t exactly action movies. The Bourne and Bond franchises are espionage thrillers, Inception was a head-trip thriller movie set inside a dream, World War Z is a global zombie movie and kinda sucked.
Of course, the classic action movie genre still exists, but it’s been adapted and made to fit with a new genre: superhero movies. Captain America, Iron Man, Batman, and the rest are essentially action stars, who’ve simply traded in the guns and gore of the ’80s for masks, capes, and a few superhuman abilities. On the surface, this may not seem like a bad thing. After all, even trash like Suicide Squad makes gross amounts of money. But they neuter the action dad. Why? Because superheroes fucking hate dads.
Think about it. Instead of being dads, Thor, Iron Man, and Superman have daddy issues. Spiderman is too busy with puberty to raise kids. Captain America is the 80-year-old virgin. Sure, there’s technically Antman and Hawkeye (aka the two least consequential people in the Marvel Cinematic Universe), but one of the biggest jokes in Avengers: Age of Ultron was the fact that none of the Avengers knew that Hawkeye was a dad. It’s a minor footnote for the character and gives him zero stakes. Instead, it’s a weird, mediocre detour in an otherwise weird, mediocre movie.
But why can’t the superhero genre find a place for the badass action dad? Wouldn’t the Marvel movies be a lot more interesting if the Hulk had a son waiting for him at home? Or if Tony Stark’s next great struggle occurred because someone threatened his family instead of his sports cars? Maybe becoming a dad is what the Green Lantern needs to ensure his next movie isn’t a complete shitshow. Superheroes are so nonchalantly powerful their movies tend to lack any real stakes. Giving these demigods a couple of little super babies might help ground them, in the same way that being a dad grounded so many great action heroes of the past.
One of the best superhero movies of the last year was LEGO Batman. Why? Because it was so damn refreshing to see the Dark Knight as an asshole suddenly forced to confront the realities of fatherhood and care for someone other than himself.
So will the action dad-shaped void ever be filled in? It damn well better be. Because, at the very least, we need to give Arnold something better to do than awkwardly cry about his zombie daughter. Dad may not be an essential part of the action movie DNA like he used to be, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t belong in the family tree. Because dads just do it better.