The Curse of Invulnerability, by Pete ‘Unbreakable’ Baran

It is the end of the film. Action and adventure have been laid before us as our hero has battled insurmountable odds to finally face the arch villain. Sneaking up on him our hero pulls out his weapon of choice and shoots, impales, punches the bad guy into submission. Except nothing happens. Villain turns back to attack our hero with his equally devastating weapon, possibly slightly more powerful than the hero (after all villains spend much more money on weapons research). Nothing happens.

Recognise this scenario? Welcome to the world of 2003 action movies. Invulnerability is the order of the day. The protagonists have been impossible to kill in this year’s crop of action movies. Not strictly true, of course – in the end they die, but first we get the impossible-to-kill fight scene when ridiculously violent things happen with next to no consequence to those involved. Time for a list. 

Pirates Of The Carribean: Johnny Depp and Geoffery Rush, both cursed by the stolen gold have a pointlessly ho-hum sword fight, flip-flopping between human and skellington forms.
League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Mina Harker (vampiress) vs Dorian Grey (picture owning fop). Much face slashing and throwing through walls until eventually art criticism wins the day.
The Hulk: Big green strong thing vs his Dad who flips between the forms of a thunderstorm, mountain and lake in seemingly impossible to kill fashion. Only way of finishing him off appears to be metaphysics.
The Medallion: Jackie Chan and Julian Sands granted bog standard super strength and ITK status by some sort of rubbish necklace. Jackie Chan’s invulnerability tested by Lee Evans gurning and stabbing him a lot. Chan survives the stabbing but the audience suffers from gurn overload.
Underworld: Vampires again (old stand-bys in the invulnerability stakes) vs werewolves vs implausible blue offspring of both (he looks like neither of the parents). Possibly should be filed under hard to kill rather than impossible.
Bulletproof Monk: Titular monk versus amusing plot device of age old Nazi who is the head of Amnesty International analogue. More mystical pointless reasons for invulnerability.
Terminator 3: Two terminators going mano-et-womano, being shot, blown up, dragged through buildings, powered seemingly by futuristic Duracell.
The Matrix Reloaded/Revolutions: Smith vs Neo in the world series of dull.
X-Men 2: Not so much invulnerable as fast healing, claws versus nails as Wolverine yet again gets his arse kicked by a woman.


It is quite possibly the plot of Agent Cody Banks too but I did not get round to seeing that. In some of these films invulnerability is replaced by fast healing, but the upshot is much the same. Insane amounts of violence done to very little effect. Now Hollywood certainly is not new to the hive mind syndrome, you wait a hundred years for an animated film about insects and two come along at once. What is strange is firstly that so many disparate films hit upon the same apparently showboating ending, and secondly that what worked on the plotting page is very hard to transfer to the screen. When something is hard to kill, the hero has to redouble his efforts. When he is impossible to kill, and you are impossible to kill – then why bother having the fight at all?

One is tempted to see a business justification in the trend. Hollywood is not all that concerned about violence, as South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut illustrated, you are much more likely to get a severe rating for bad language than violence. Nevertheless there are boundaries: too much blood, too much realism and you are looking at excluding from your audience the bloodthirsty nine-year-olds the script was written for. The way around this is to remove the realism, to drift into what is ironically called cartoon violence. There is nothing realistic about two people beating the crap out of each other and not getting hurt. Done properly there is barely any blood. Who cares if two machines, or two immortals beat the snot out of each other, they have limitless snot in reserve. So whilst a clash of such titans is more likely to up the violence quotient, the lack of realism makes it more palatable. 

Oh, did I say up the violence quotient. Well you have reason number two right there. Reason number three: invulnerable protagonists mean extended action sequences. In an industry where superlatives boil down to how long fight sequences are (hello the happily not invulnerable protagonists of Kill Bill) anything that can cut the writer out for another five minutes of the running time is a desirable thing. The fourth reason was probably novelty, but the synergy really put paid to that. 

So what is the problem, except the tedium of seeing the same scenario played out in all these blockbusters? Perhaps we should step out of the movies and go to their favourite source material at the moment, comics. In particular the archetype of invulnerability: Superman. Superman has been knocking around for seventy five years now, being faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive and very, very hard to kill. Not just very, very hard to kill in the Batman sense, i.e it would be commercial suicide to knock him off, Superman is of course exactly hard to kill. But the whole bullets bouncing off chest thing, the effect of which is that it is really difficult to think of perilous situations to put him in. He had to be depowered in the late eighties just to stop him playing basketball with planets, but he still remained really hard to kill. When he was in fact killed, it lasted six months and merely emphasised how even harder he was to kill. (Next time he dies, put him in a solarium for a couple of hours and he’ll perk up). 

The upshot of this is that if you give Superman a villain as powerful as him, they will also be next to impossible to kill. This makes the whole slugfest that inevitably goes on absolutely pointless. There is a hollow feel to all of it. A feel that was captured precisely in that fight in Pirates Of The Caribbean. The solution, as in Superman comics, comes down to some sort of trick to rob the opposition of their powers. Tricks are a bit like cheating, and hence not very heroic (from a Hollywood point of view). Look at the end of Superman II where he robs the villains of their powers. Cobbled together on the back of a beermat, flatly contradicting what had happened earlier in the film. Because the invulnerability has to be removed to win.   

The only fight sequences in the above films that even vaguely work are the ones where the protagonists are not quite invulnerable. The wanton destruction in Terminator 3 is entertaining because from a back story we know that Terminators can be destroyed, and actually quite a lot of thought was put into deciding exactly what kind of toilet to smash Arnie’s head through. More importantly in the scheme of things the fight is merely a sideshow to the end of the world. The Wolverine/Deathstrike fight in X-Men 2, whilst bundled with about five other simultaneous fights, works because we know it hurts. And again we are not talking invulnerability here, we are talking fast healing, so kill the bad guy, dead, before they can get back up, rather than stop to admire what great wound-closing CGI they have. The rest of them all rely on reversing magical tricks or discovering a dark secret (Mina Harker finds a really ugly picture just at the final moment!) 

The worst cases are the ones where the metaphysics of the situation are brought to the fore. It is still rather unclear how Hulk smashes his Dad, but it looks like it is nothing to do with him. His Dad, with the ability to absorb the properties of anything he touches, appears to accidentally absorb the entire world, and is then absorbed himself. The Matrix is even worse: Agent Smith beats Neo and then realises a world with no-one to beat up is rubbish. Possibly better on paper then someone hastily reversing a spell, but not the culmination of seven hours of cinema. 

Time for a return to slightly more human sized battles I think. Why these all came about right now I do not know. I am tempted to make some sort of war on terror or 9/11 analogy -we all want to be invulnerable to the horrors of the world – but I think that might be a bit too trite. It is certainly an upshot of the final victory of CGI, effects can now show anything and we do not need to pull stuntmen through walls to do it. But I suggest they go back to their comics and read how bad most Superman stories are to see the kind of plot convolutions you need when your hero and your villain are impossible to kill. Instead take a leaf out the most perennial cinematic superhero: James Bond. We know he isn’t going to die, we know that to all intents and purposes he is invulnerable. The only magical power doing this for him though is that of the cinema itself, not some manky medallion. After all how heroic can a character be if he is not risking anything?