This may sound like a very odd thing to say given their extreme predominance at the box office, greater than ever before. (Compare any list of the highest-grossing films of the past decade with that of, say, the '90s or the '80s.) But it is worth remembering that that kind of ubiquity often comes only very late in the life of an art form.
Let's trot out that same three-generation genre life cycle theory John Barnes offered up way back in his Helix article I've cited so many times just one more time. (You can find the quickie version here.)
I think it can be said that the action movie as we know it started with the Bond films of the '60s. They established the essential pacing and structure for such films (give people a bit of action even before the story gets started, make sure they get another something every few minutes, etc.), the basic range of types of set pieces (frogmen fighting it out underwater, ski chases with the bullets flying, even ninjas) and the manner in which it has since been standard to photograph and edit them (the heavy use of short takes, close shots, jump cuts, exaggerated sound effects and the rest).
Successful as the Bond films were, early imitation of them tended to focus on their most superficial features (secret agents, gadgets, never mind how all this was put together). Filmmakers were rather slower to adopt the deeper techniques. However, the field had definitely arrived by the late '70s, and was a Hollywood mainstay by the '80s--which, naturally, led to a much more intensive exploitation of its possibilities.1 In the course of this some territory was exhausted (the silly finale of Rambo III spoke volumes about this), and the genre moved on to other, more fertile soil. Over the course of the '90s the "mundane" cops and commandos and paramilitary plots that epitomized the field during that decade (Rambo, Die Hard) gave way to science fiction and fantasy characters and themes (and practical effects to computer generated imagery) not simply because of changing tastes (important as these were), but because this was the only way to provide something new, and certainly the only way to provide something bigger than what had come before--super powers, alien creatures, fantastic vehicles.
A generation on it seems plausible that we have arrived at certain, intrinsic limits. The tendency to keep scaling action movies up has already mooted the whole idea of the disaster movie, because every action movie (the typical superhero movie, for instance--Avengers, Man of Steel, Thor: The Dark World) is for all practical purposes a disaster movie by the time the final, city-wrecking showdown is underway. Meanwhile, the continued intensification of action sequences through ever-quicker editing has produced increasing incoherence. (Remember when Michael Bay movies were actually novel enough to warrant reviewers noting this?)
Three years ago I wrote that
It strikes me that this sort of action film may be approaching a technical plateau as Hollywood bombast bumps up against the limits of human nervous systems, and of filmmakers' creativity . . . that one simply cannot go bigger, faster, flashier or more intense to any effect worth achieving, while the inventiveness of the application may be running into diminishing returns.Nothing I have seen since then has made me revise that opinion--while the level of inventiveness within this limits has waned. For all the giant budgets and all the frenetic technical activity it has been quite a few years since the last time a major action movie offered anything really new--a fact only partially concealed by the tendency to show the same old thing in 3-D and I-MAX formats so important to Hollywood profits this past decade.
I think, for example, of the major genre events of recent years. Watching Skyfall it struck me that while the film was full of competently staged, entertaining action, in contrast with not just the classics of the '60s but those predecessors announcing the series' return after a longer-than-usual absence, it failed to deliver a sure-to-be-classic set piece of the kind that befit the occasion. (Even Casino Royale had that parkour bit!)
I seem to have been virtually alone in that opinion--but this was not the case with Episode VII. This was, after all, a follow-up to two trilogies which had each revolutionized the special effects field, made with the expectation that this would launch a whole new mega-franchise for its new owners, and perhaps also be the highest-grossing film of all time. However, as John David Ebert noted in his review, the earlier "sense of visual innovation" as it stands. (Indeed, this even drove him to say nice things of the prequels--and Lucas' own, alternative ideas for Episode VII.)
Meanwhile, the prospect of innovation originating in the more narrative aspects of these stories seems dim due not just to the film industry's attachment to the same old IPs, but the rooting of action-adventure in genres which appear thoroughly played out after as much as a century of use (like the spy story or the comic book superhero genre), an issue that goes far, far beyond Hollywood. The sorts of trailblazing works that open up new territory to exploitation by artists--to put it bluntly, those works that found new genres (or even subgenres) for writers to work in--have been very scarce as of late all across the media spectrum.
1. Prior to that point what we got were apt to be crime dramas with an occasional set piece--like The French Connection (1971).
As We Approach Summer . . .
Preview Star Wars in Context
Just Out . . . (The Many Lives and Deaths of James Bond, 2nd edition)
Just Out. . . (James Bond's Evolution)
Just Out . . . (The Forgotten James Bond)
Just Out: After the New Wave: Science Fiction Today
Preview Cyberpunk, Steampunk and Wizardry
The Summer 2013 Movie Season: Other Takes
Skyfall: A Review (Part One)
The '80s Action Movie