I friggin love Michael Bay movies. They are big, dumb, and often rely on CGI overload and questionable acting. But The Rock, with Sean Connery, Nick Cage, and a sympathetic Ed Harris, isn’t all that bad. It tells an over the top story rooted in a real issue at the time: soldiers being discarded/unappreciated by their government. It involves neurotoxin bombs, shootouts at the Alcatraz…it works.
Literary classics like The Odyssey, Journey to the West, The Epic of Gilgamesh, all of these ancient and powerful historic fantasies involved fight/action scenes straight out of a Michael Bay film. It’s just they are written in a poetic/lyrical way we forget that Beowulf fights a near unstoppable monster, and he then proceeds to thrash Grendel like it’s a WWE cage match.
Historic tradition, especially in the realm of crypto-history, often involved titanic battles. “They fought for seven days, the earth shifted, the tides howled, each plate rising and forming the basis for all of Greece. Thus, we give thanks to those Titans, whose blood flows in the earth, whose bodies give us support….” In classic mythology, these epic battle sequences are rarely detailed. They’re a paragraph at most, but they evoke/ “paint with words cliche” an image in the reader’s head. No, they burn that image into the reader’s memory.
Hell, Lord of the Rings‘ The Battle of Helm’s Deep is still one of the best action sequences, both on paper and the big screen. It is a thoroughly epic, high stakes sequence. The entire sequence is so vivid, so epic, it’s straight out of the tradition of classic mythology. A desperate defense, an unstoppable orc assault, and when all hope seems lost…cue the Riders of Rohan and Gandalf storming from a hill above, flanking the orc army, and obliterating them. It is the essence of epic, written in painstakingly crafted prose, for that sole reaction.
Even if you’re writing an action sequence involving a semi-functional, ancient war machine fighting against 18th centuryesque mercenaries on horseback, using pew pew magic single shot rifles, if you treat the prose, the characters’ thoughts, the tension, with respect, with a consistent tone, with fear, with bravery, with all the good parts of an epic fantasy sequence, the rest will follow. All hope is lost, everyone is hunkered down, but then, rising from behind a cragged rock wall, the lone dumbass steps out. He’s got a plan, a desperate one, with the help of his band. He takes it on alone, scared out of his mind, knees shaking.
But he flies, running through the gaps in time, mana blowing holes in the earth, something completely insane to those witnessing it. He gets hit, a bullet to his leg, but adrenaline’s pumping. He jumps, lands on the hull, rips the pilot out, and proceeds to beat him in a slugfest. There’s silence, there’s hope….there’s joy.
And a myth is born, exaggerated, retold, rewoven, time and again.
If you treat the action sequence with a flippant tone, well, you get deflation. That’s an intentional choice. It works. It makes it funny, or it downplays heroism or badassery. If you treat it with reverence, with tension, with fear, it’s epic.
It’s fantasy. You can still have an over the top battle while still maintaining realistic characters and plots.
Sometimes, like a Burger King motto, you can have it both ways.
There’s a reason why we are still fascinated with the Chaoskampf. We are always slaying the dragon.