The action and adventure movie genre is one that often sits at the top of the box office. It’s a genre that can have a wide reach across many different audiences and captivate with its mix of engaging characters, thrilling set-pieces and general sense of escapism.
What Exactly Makes an Action and Adventure Movie?
In this article, we’ll focus on what exactly makes an action and adventure movie. Amidst many large scale elements, there are key storytelling beats that make up the genre. These required elements typically include, most prominently, an epic, stimulating challenge for the protagonist, a powerful antagonist and memorable supporting characters.
For action and adventure movie examples we will focus primarily on three classics of the genre: James Bond’s Goldfinger (1964), Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) and Back to the Future (1985). These are not only examples of classic staples of the genre but examples of how action and adventure movies can extend their key elements into franchise form.
The Hero’s Quest
In action and adventure movies, the protagonist will take on a quest that will challenge them mentally and physically. This quest will typically be the biggest challenge they have ever faced, therefore justifying its presence as a central drive for the story.
- The protagonist’s quest will also lead them to experience a journey of discovery.
- Mostly, the journey will be of personal development and the protagonist, by the end, will have changed from the start of their journey.
- The quest will likely reveal the protagonists’ flaws. Moreover, their journey will bring big changes to them, their personality and their way of life.
- In action and adventure movies, the protagonist often starts their journey alone. But during their quest, they will have taken on both allies as well as enemies.
Large scale action sequences are synonymous with this genre and this is all about testing the protagonist to their limits. The action scenes aren’t just about filling the movie with as many explosive and entertaining set-pieces as possible (although that’s certainly a bonus).
Instead, the action scenes represent the extent to which the protagonist has to fight against the odds to achieve their goals and reach the end of their quest. Simply put, it won’t be and shouldn’t be easy.
The Hero’s Challenges and Triumphs
So action and adventure movies consist of a protagonist taking on a huge mission or quest.
- During their journey, they will overcome obstacles that involve high energy combat scenes.
- The hero will face multiple setbacks in the form of obstacles. And the obstacles will be both physical and mental.
- Typically, the hero often begins their journey adapting to the new environment they find themselves in.
In action and adventure movies, the hero will have transformed over the course of their journey and will eventually triumph and end their journey on a high point. Whether they have overcome a deeply instilled fear or a huge in the moment crisis; the hero experiences success.
The hero will return to a semblance of normality with praise and will have developed a reputation among their world. Importantly, a hero solves situations before they evolve into problems. Heroes are rare among characters, and they have a particular skillset that allows them to solve a situation or problem that other characters can’t.
Throughout their journey, a hero is often an inspirational role model for the people in their world. Moreover, they obtain care and compassion towards helping others before looking out for themselves.
Meanwhile, antagonists plot against the hero and constantly try to outwit the hero’s actions. In an action and adventure movie, usually, the villain comes away empty-handed and the hero wins.
This may seem simple but the purpose of combining action and adventure is usually to provide a satisfying win for the audience. By no means does this need to be easy and, in fact, you should really be challenging the hero as much as possible. But in the end, audiences tend to expect a win for the protagonist of some sort, even if a lot is lost along the way.
Examples of Action and Adventure Movies and The Genre’s Characteristics
In the James Bond Franchise, Bond’s main aim is usually to prevent the villain from destroying the world.
- James Bond is a hero in his own right and puts his life on the line for his country.
- His secondary aim involves luxury affirmations, particularly, the weapons, vehicles, locations and love interests he gains along his journey.
- These elements add to the glamour and appeal of the films, as well as giving them a unique flavour each time.
- However, they also get in the way of his goals, raising the stakes for him personally and giving the antagonist something to hold over him (in the context of Bond’s love interest).
- But Bond has pride and uses his confident nature and quick-thinking to overpower the evil villain. He usually loses something in the process but ultimately gives in to the sacrifice he wishes to make for his country.
The Indiana Jones Franchise adds an interesting dimension to the hybrid genre of action and adventure movies.
In Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, for example, Indiana takes on his journey with a less-than-helpful ally in Willie Scott. Stuck in constant trouble, her character seems to set the protagonist, Indiana back.
However, in all the setbacks, Indiana’s heroic qualities are exposed, revealing his capable abilities as the quest adventurer. And their character differences, following the maxim of opposites attract, ultimately make them a perfect match.
Throughout the franchise, Indiana often has an ally that initially works against his effectiveness (demonstrated with his father in The Last Crusade too). This highlights the franchises’ comedic intention. It’s not just about holding Indiana back, it’s about allowing space for comedy (found in the problems that this less than effective accomplice provides) to accompany the action.
Back to the Future
In the Back to the Future franchise, Marty McFly time-travels back to the year 1955 to save his parent’s marriage and right the past wrongs to secure the place of the future.
Action and adventure in Back to the Future sees Marty not only time-travel but witness a whole new spin on the idea of a character entering a different realm. A new world has been created which Marty must change within his adventure before he returns to the ordinary world of the future.
The Hero’s Superficial But Defining Characteristics in Action and Adventure Movies
In action and adventure movies, the hero’s characteristics define their responses and decisions. And this is often personified in a superficial, visual motif.
James Bond is synonymous with his suave suit and continuous gadgets.
- From the cars to the guns to the gadgets to the exotic locations.
- Whatever the specific mission, every film more or less features the same elements.
- These elements give the audience what they come to expect from the franchise.
In the Indiana Jones franchise, Indiana’s hat and whip define his character and both are constantly with him on every journey.
- These two prop elements add dimension to his personality. Even if they do create a fairly archetypal hero character.
- They make Indie into a classic adventurer, paying homage to the serials that the films are inspired by.
Back to the Future’s Marty McFly is rarely seen without his red bodywarmer.
- His signature outfit also includes a checked shirt with a denim jacket, denim jeans and white trainers.
- Furthermore, he is often seen traveling on his skateboard.
- This all gives him an everyman quality, which, in turn, makes him a more appealing protagonist.
Superhero movies also use these superficial visual characteristics to signal the protagonist‘s heroism. For example, Superman’s signature style includes black slick-backed hair, donning his blue suit with his logo, red boots and red cape.
- But his alter-ego Clark Kent wears a suit, black glasses and a briefcase.
- When people see the Superman suit and cape, they know he will be heroic in his actions.
- However, Clark Kent dresses how he acts, a mild-mannered reporter with a goofy style. This too helps emphasise his everyman qualities – going from a nerdy reporter that no one would suspect to the world’s saviour.
The 10 Key Elements of Writing an Action and Adventure Movie
To create an action and adventure movie certain crucial elements are required. Let’s take a look at these crucial elements that go into writing an action and adventure script…
1. An Unrelenting Hero That Grabs the Challenge Set For Them With Both Hands
It should go without saying that your hero can’t be a shrinking violet. They have to take charge of the situation they’re confronted with. And they have to do so as if their life depends on it (which it often does).
This is part of what makes these kinds of protagonists so alluring. It’s a quality that it’s easy to admire and something enviable for many audiences. These heroes find themselves with a challenge and confront it head-on. And as the audience, we’re happy to go along with them in this regard.
2. The Quest or Challenge Given to Them Must be Their Most Testing and Stimulating Yet
The hero’s skills are evaluated, and their capabilities are assessed under the harshest of circumstances. This must be the moment in their life where they face their most difficult challenge.
We can’t get the sense that this is just another bump in the road and that there is a harsher, sterner test previously that we are not seeing. No, this has to be the protagonist‘s biggest challenge. This even applies in the context of a franchise.
Take the Indiana Jones franchise, for example. Each film ups the ante on the challenge facing Indiana – raising the stakes in terms of the antagonist and the emotional, personal stakes as well.
As the audience, we have to get the sense that we are witnessing the hero’s toughest test. It’s a privileged window in this respect – a special moment in the hero’s life that we get to see unfold.
3. The Hero Adventures into a World Not Previously Known by Them
This is unfamiliar territory that challenges the hero’s normal world. This new environment places the hero in grave danger. Here their skillset is utilized to fulfil their mission.
Again, the audience has to get the sense that they’re gaining access to a special moment in the protagonist‘s life. If they’re entering an environment that they know very well, then this won’t be the case. Therefore, the environment has to be one that is new and strange to the protagonist.
Furthermore, this will allow the audience to experience and explore this new territory alongside the protagonist. This creates further intimacy with the story and journey.
4. A Powerful Antagonist That Has a Similar Skillset to the Hero
The skills of the antagonist will be just as advanced as the hero. This provides a double threat – where the environment and the antagonist challenge the hero further. The hero is challenged within the environment, which the antagonist is familiar with. So, the antagonist is at an advantage over the hero in this respect.
This helps in making the antagonist a credible and convincing threat. If the favour feels weighted towards the protagonist, then the sense of danger for the protagonist is less believable and therefore, less engaging. Yes, we perhaps sense that the hero will inevitably triumph. But the sense that it is easy for the protagonist will leave audiences switching off.
Again, the antagonist has to feel like the greatest threat the hero has ever faced. A threat that could genuinely prove too difficult to overcome. Even if we deep down know the hero will defeat the antagonist, the odds have to feel stacked against them.
5. Raised Stakes
In action and adventure movies, obstacle after obstacle knocks the hero down. But the hero comes back and triumphs each time. This is until the final duel with the antagonist which puts their paces to the test.
However, the obstacle can also be the characters themselves. For example, in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Indie is no longer the lone adventurer and has to look out for Willie and Short Round along his journey.
This expands the level of threat to more than just the hero themselves. It raises the stakes for the journey, implicating more characters in whatever the eventual outcome will be. This raises the tension and allows the protagonist to express sympathetic, emotional qualities (such as caring for those they’re implicated with).
6. A Big Change
In Back to the Future, Marty McFly transforms from underachiever schoolboy to time-travelling hero. Altogether, this event of a ‘Big Change’ occurs multiple times in Back to the Future when Marty and Doc discover a completely new world and a reverse of the normal world.
Time-travelling back to 1955 displays new revelations and time-turning issues. This includes, for example, Marty meeting a younger version of his dad and Biff and having to right the wrongs of the past as he sees them.
This kind of monumental change is essential for an action and adventure movie. The revelations garner a big change within the protagonist. They create the sense of their being no going back for the protagonist. Something has changed in them that will never be the same. This is all part of again making sure this particular story window is coming at a point of great importance to the protagonist.
And it helps in making sure the protagonist isn’t passive either, forcing them into growth by lumping a change upon them.
7. Allow Your Hero to have Weaknesses
This is important in making your protagonist more human (even if they’re not), well-rounded and fallible. We must get the sense that the hero can be got at and that they have a pretext for failure. This way, we will be more likely to believe the hero can be defeated and their triumph isn’t inevitable.
Furthermore, it creates potential situations for the hero to have to overcome. Here, we will see how this particular challenge (the one driving the story) is forcing them to face up to and overcome their deepest weaknesses.
- Indiana Jones is terrified of snakes. This weakness is played upon throughout the franchise.
- Marty McFly has trouble backing down from danger and often gets mad when people call him ‘chicken’, for example, in Back to the Future Part II. He has a big problem with insults, and this often turns confrontational, exacerbating situations.
- Superman is powerless to green kryptonite. And this is a weapon that his enemies often use against him.
Every hero has their strengths and weaknesses. What makes them an even greater hero is overcoming their greatest weaknesses. And often these weaknesses will come back to haunt them more than once along their journey.
8. Every Hero has a Supporting Accomplice
Supporting characters are always there for the hero no matter what. Whether this means helping them out of danger or being there for moral support. Supporting characters should be memorable and have characteristics that set them apart from the hero but make them stand powerful in their own right.
- In the James Bond Franchise, the cast of supporting characters includes Q, Miss Moneypenny, M and Felix Leiter. They all feature recurring roles throughout the franchise and aid Bond in his missions.
- Short Round is the young supporting character in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and is never far behind Indie’s path.
- Dr. Emmett Brown (Doc) is the main supporting character for Marty McFly in Back to the Future.
These supporting characters need to bring another dimension to the story. They provide a contrast to the protagonist and often further highlight their strengths and weaknesses. Moreover, they support the entertainment element of the genre, often serving as quirky or funny accompaniments to the protagonist and story overall.
9. Each Obstacle is Worse than Before
In an action and adventure movie, whichever obstacle the hero has just faced and overcome; the next will be an even greater problem. This showcases the hero’s strength and willingness to focus on their mission.
There has to be a rising level of stakes as the story goes on. Think of it like levels in a game. Each one has to get harder in order to keep the challenge’s stakes high. If we, as the audience, sense that the hero has got through the worse of their obstacles midway through the film, what will keep us engaged?
This is crucial to the pacing of your script overall. There should be the feeling of crescendo, the pressure putting the protagonist through the wringer until there seems only a small sliver through which they will escape.
By the end, your hero can’t be strolling through an open door, they must be seeking to escape their obstacle through the tiniest of cracks. This will not only be as a result of the challenge of the final obstacle but the accumulation of difficult obstacles throughout the journey too.
10. Elements of Surprise and Anticipation
Just around the corner is a dark and dangerous path for the hero and their supporting character(s). A few tricks and traps land them in trouble along the way, but the hero’s strength is more powerful than the obstacles themselves.
An action and adventure story also follows the structure mapped out by American professor, Joseph Campbell. His structure called ‘The Hero’s Journey’ details the stages of adventure the hero experiences. This structure is seen in all the example movies, particularly in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
- Indiana sets out on a mission into an unknown world where he must rescue the Sankara Stones from a powerful antagonist.
- He overcomes obstacles and nearly loses his love interest, Willie. But Indiana powers on with a fighting force.
- He not only retrieves the stones, defeats the antagonist, and escapes the dangerous land but he rescues thousands of children in the process, allowing them the chance of freedom.
- These qualities make Indiana heroic and likeable. He completes his mission and proves his humanitarian side, a feature that would not have been known if he didn’t save the children.
The arc of Indie’s journey surprises even himself at all turns, as well as the audience. We anticipate his journey will lead him to trouble but at the same time are surprised by the direction it goes in. This balance is key, giving the audience what they want on the one hand, and keeping their interest fresh with the other.
In Conclusion: So What Makes an Action and Adventure Movie?
Whilst the protagonist is obviously the driving force of all stories, in an action and adventure movie, the protagonist‘s journey is paramount to the content, structure and experience of the story overall.
The story itself is structured around the hero’s journey in an action and adventure movie and can often follow a relatively predictable pattern in this regard. However, the keys to a gripping action and adventure script lie in the nature of the threats posed more than the investment in the outcome.
We probably know the hero will prevail. But how challenged will they be both physically and emotionally? What will they see along the way? And how will this both fulfil and subvert our expectations of the genre?
An action and adventure movie is all about the hero’s journey and its scale. This is what makes them a brilliant form of escapism and a popular and successful genre. These movies whisk the audience along with the protagonist on a journey neither have seen before.
It’s new and exciting territory for both the protagonist and the audience. This is the adventure, with the action coming from the nature of the challenges the protagonist will face. So in writing an action and adventure script, make sure you take your hero to places they’ve never been before, with challenges they’ve never faced. Therein lies the adventure and therein lies the action.
– What did you think of this article? Share It, Like It, give it a rating, and let us know your thoughts in the comments box further down…
– Struggling with a script or book? Story analysis is what we do, all day, every day… check out our range of script coverage services for writers & filmmakers.
This article was written by Hannah Taylor and edited by IS staff.
Get *ALL* our FREE Resources
Tackle the trickiest areas of screenwriting with our exclusive eBooks. Get all our FREE resources when you join 60,000 filmmakers on our mailing list!