Welcome to SYFY WIRE's Decade in Review, a series of articles that will look to catalog the best, worst, and weirdest cultural and entertainment moments of the 2010s as we look toward the future. Today, we celebrate the most harrowing, heart-pounding, jaw-dropping action scenes of the decade.
The past decade has been, for lack of a better way to say it, fast and furious when it comes to action scenes. They've been downright insane, and all of them have shown us things that we'd never thought possible, on screens both big and small. Action always seemed to kick up a notch, so choosing a list of the 12 most insane action scenes was no small feat.
Still, attempt this we did! There are so many (seriously) to choose from, and this list easily could have been fifty entries long. There's nothing from the Mission: Impossible franchise here (apologies), which continues to challenge just how far an action scene can go. Game of Thrones redefined what an action set piece on television could be capable of, and though we really love the Battle of the Bastards in particular, sacrifices had to be made.
Still, we must ask ourselves ... what are the action scenes that were not only insane, but also grounded in character and stakes? Which scenes really changed the flow and the story of the film or show, something that every great action scene should do?
Are we playing favorites with a lot of these entries? Absolutely. Call us insane. Leave us adrift in space, toss us out of a portal, throw us down a hallway full of angry thugs ... that said, here are our choices for the 12 most insane action scenes from the past decade.
Note: These scenes are unranked because our insanity has limits. We love them all, and they all deserve to be celebrated equally.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier - Elevator beatdown
Before we start this entry, does anyone want to get out? The tension leading up to this scene is intense, as Joe and Anthony Russo (who would later go on to take the reins of the Avengers completely) fill this elevator up with villains with every floor it stops on. Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) knows that something is rotten in the state of S.H.I.E.L.D., and he's ready. By the time he delivers his classic line to this little group of thugs, America's Ass is ready to hand this group of Hydra scum their asses.
Hand it to them he does, too. There are a few moments where these guys almost have the advantage, but never for long. Our star-spangled man with a plan takes them all out in extremely close quarters, and shows us what a super soldier is truly capable of.
By the time these idiots are all down on the ground and Cap kicks his shield back into his hands, we love him even more than we already did, and are ready to see him kick every ass that needs kicking. In the case of this movie, there's a lot of kicking left to do.
Gravity - The opening sequence
The accident in space that kicks off the story for this entire film is amazingly shot by Alfonso Cuaron, and it never fails to amaze us. Though it is best seen on the biggest screen possible (many of us were dazzled by it through IMAX the first time), the long take beauty of it works even when watched on a phone. We tried this to make sure.
This sequence is thrilling, inventive, but above all, it is terrifying. It makes space incredibly scary, a void of darkness and danger where one little pebble can lead to certain doom. This is definitely an insane action scene, but it's one of the most terrifying entries on this list.
The scene excites us, scares us, and then has us on edge for the rest of the entire film... most of us didn't draw breath until the movie was over, and it came at the same time we were kissing the ground.
John Wick - The club massacre
The action scenes of the John Wick movies get progressively more insane as the series went on (and they will likely continue to), but this scene from the first movie really set the tone for the majesty of mayhem and violence that was in store.
Wick (Keanu Reeves) mows his way through a masterful ballet of bullets and brawn, laying waste and death to anyone and everyone. Do we feel bad that he's doing this? Not at all — these guys work for people who killed the man's dog. Open season.
Without that qualifier, we might start to feel bad for some of these goons. Not here — here, we can just relax into the brutal display of vengeance, which is choreographed within an inch of it's life. Wick is no superhero, so he does get some bumps and bruises along the way... so much the better. he never stops stopping, and we don't want him to.
Wonder Woman - No Man's Land
When it comes to truly iconic moments in comic book movies, it's hard to beat this one from 2017's Wonder Woman. It's the first time we really see Diana revealed in all of her glory, and it's also the first time that the other characters in the movie get a hint of what she is capable of. Nobody can cross into the area she wastes no time in walking right into, because it's no man's land. That's literally the name.
Except... she is no man.
She struts up a ladder like the goddess she is, deflects a couple of shots, and then charges forth with sword and shield. Within moments, she has the defenses of the opposing side down, so Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) and the rest can also make the climb up the ladder. Another few moments later, the entire opposing force is done with.
This is more than an action scene — this is a goddess on full display, taking no s**t and giving no f**ks. In a war (and world) ruled over by men, Diana triumphs over all. We knew that she would, and we knew that this moment was inevitable... when director Patty Jenkins finally unleashes it, and Gal Gadot makes that climb? It's unforgettable.
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug - Barrels out of bond
The Hobbit trilogy is full of incredible action setpieces, and though several scenes from the final entry (The Battle of the Five Armies) almost took this spot instead, we had to give it to Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), Barrel Rider supreme.
In J.R.R. Tolkien's book, Thorin and co. simply float down the river in these barrels and no real incident takes place. Did anyone really think that director Peter Jackson would settle for that? Of course not. He unleashes an aquatic barrel chase of epic proportions, which includes dwarfs tossing axes back and forth, Legolas (Orlando Bloom) showing off even more of his moves, and orcs in pursuit the whole way down.
The best moment of all, though? Bombur, the last of the dwarfs we'd expect to have an epic action moment, has a sequence where his barrel bounces out of the river, around some hills, and then becomes a swirling machine of death in the midst of an orc gaggle. Soon enough he's jumping back into another barrel, but the real magic of this scene is that for almost all of it, Bilbo is in the very forefront of the picture riding his barrel. He's watching the entire thing play out just like we are (which was really apparent when seen in 3D), and it is precious.
Avengers: Endgame - Portals (and onward)
Was there a chance in Vormir that this scene wasn't going to be here? Come on. If we're being honest, everything from Cap, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Tony (Robert Downey Jr.) going to face down Thanos (Josh Brolin) onwards is included within this entry.
Think of what we get here: Thor charging Tony's suit, which now has a direct mechanism for it built in. Cap finally lifting Mjolnir and using it in tandem with his shield to attack Thanos. Thor wielding both Mjolnir and Stormbreaker. Cap facing down Thanos' entire army with just half of his shield, completely outnumbered, but ready to do it anyway because, you know, he can do this all day.
And then? On your left.
Portals open, every hero who got snapped returns, Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) goes giant, Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) charges in on a flying horse, and even Pepper Potts (Gwenyth Paltrow) gets her own suit. What follows next is the most epic comic book battle ever committed to film, with every hero in the mix pinging off of each other in almost perfect sync.
Everything is as perfect as it can get, and then Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) flies in and destroys Thanos' giant ship. She offers Peter Parker (Tom Holland) a hand, and what little of our minds remained went to dust.
Forget it. You saw this, you obviously saw this. You know. Should've sent a poet.
Inception - Hallway float fight
Another movie full of inventive action setpieces kicks everything up to 11 when Joseph Gordon-Levitt starts float-fighting around a hallway in one of this movie's dream states. Everything surrounding his tunnel fight is fantastic, but the practical effects of Levitt's floating, twisting fight make it stand out.
The sequence happens somewhere in the middle of the Russian nesting doll that is Cillian Murphy's head, and the inventive way that the other dream levels affect this one are masterful — he's not just dealing with usual dream defenses. He's being tossed about like he is, because his actual body is falling off a bridge within a truck, and that's also a dream.
Everybody got that? Even trying to describe this movie makes our heads hurt. Christopher Nolan sculpts setpieces like Michelangelo scultped the David. Such artistry should not be possible, and yet, welcome to this decade.
Furious Seven - A little fall of cars
When it comes to the pure insanity of an action scene, can anything else compete with the Fast and Furious franchise? Not really. Simple (yet exciting) car chases eventually gave way to scenes like the one shown above — cars dropping out of an airplane. Like, what?
This franchise goes even weirder and crazier with every installment, and the "cars on ice" sequence in the movie after this one might also belong on this list. Still, there's something about cars raining from the sky that just sums the insanity of these movies up so well. These stunts aren't possible in real life, things like this don't happen, we're a few wizards short of edging in on full-time fantasy here. Do we care in the slightest? Nope.
Do the action scenes in these films (such as the one above) affect the plots of these movies? It's hard to say, because the action scenes pretty much are the plots, aside from plenty of soapy drama. Again, it's not realistic, and that's likely not the aim. We no longer want realism from this franchise. We want to see how far they can go, how much more insane things can get. How do you top cars falling from the sky?
One word: space. Take this family to space. New decade, here they come.
Marvel's Daredevil (Season 1) - Another hallway and another brawl
Our only entry on the television side of things, but a most memorable one. If the first episode of Marvel's first Netflix foray got your interest, then this is the episode that got your attention. Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox) taking out everyone and anyone in this rundown hallway was a scene that nobody ever forgot.
The series went bigger and grander after this, but the gritty realism of yet another close quarters fight made it special. Having it all take place in one take only adds to the magic of it, and the only real problem here is that the series, perhaps, never really topped this. Every time this show had an action moment (or any TV series had an action moment), people tended to ask, "yeah, but was it as good as the hallway?"
This show has sadly passed on, but this scene made us love Cox playing the devil of Hell's Kitchen. If the character ever returns from wherever Netflix tosses the bodies, we hope Cox stays in the role. We also hope that the people responsible for this specific scene are involved as well, because just look at it.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi - The Throne Room
Power from light, power from darkness. For one moment in the middle of Rian Johnson's masterpiece, you have something resembling balance. Not necessarily balance in the force, but two halves of some kind of whole fighting in common cause.
We couldn't believe it when Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) sent the Skywalker legacy lightsaber going through Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis). We couldn't believe it when Rey (Daisy Ridley) caught it. Then, we really couldn't believe it when everything slowed down for the briefest of moments, until hell broke out as Rey and Kylo took on all of Snoke's praetorian guards.
This is lightsaber battling at its finest, and you can tell how hard both RIdley and Driver trained, because all of it is incredibly visceral. When Driver stumbles in anger, we feel it. When Rey drops her saber into her other hand (reversing the grip) and slashes her attacker? We feel that too.
We're riding on such a high from this fight, that it's a real kick to the pants when Kylo reverts back to making awful choices at the end of it. He breaks our hearts, likely breaks Rey's, and then soon enough they're both reaching for the legacy lightsaber. Oh, something else that is going down in the midst of this? Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) setting a starship to lightspeed right at a First Order fleet.
The force is with this entire sequence. This is where heroes — and villains — are made.
Snowpiercer - Axe battle
This is another movie packed to the gills with amazing action setpieces (the school scene with Alison Pill always comes to mind), but nothing tops the axe fight.
Another close-quarters fight, but this time we're on a train! Chris Evans, Jamie Bell, and everyone else riding the rails of doom (in the back section) make a valiant effort to get to the next part of the train. They use the "moving forward via axe" method, and though we don't condone this in real life, it's great for a movie.
Bong Joon Ho is only getting better at directing sequences like this, so we are almost afraid of what he could show us in the coming decade.
Also? This is Chris Evans' third time appearing on this list! Well done, Cap! He really can do this all day... unless he feels like gettin' blazed back in his Winnie.
Mad Max: Fury Road - The entire movie
Did we not say that we were letting ourselves one opportunity to use the "the entire movie" card? Whoops! We have that power, and we're using it. We're using it right now.
There's no way to pick just one action scene from this inspired bit of George Miller insanity. The movie is usually reveling in action, and when it isn't, it's reveling in beauty... like when Charlize Theron's Furiosa screams into the sky.
Still, it's mostly a non-stop, no-holds-barred, action-packed thrill ride to the max, jack, and you don't want to miss any of it. The combination of real stunts with CGI enhancement is incredible, the story is powerful so you care every second, and never, ever, do you not know where you are, or what you're looking at.
In terms of insane action this past decade? Accept no substitutes. Everything else tends to look "MEDIOCRE" by comparison.