Into the Badlands: Breathing New Life Into the Post-Apocalyptic and Martial Arts Genre

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Into the Badlands

Created by AMC, Into the Badlands first aired in November of 2015, with a post-apocalyptic background we would soon find out had more to offer than amazing visuals and costuming.

Produced and led by Daniel Wu, who some may know from the latest Tomb Raider, or the warlock orc, Gul’dan, from Warcraft: Origin; or maybe one of the other titles from Chinese cinema he has starred in, where he proved himself a star before he became one in his native United States. From comedy to drama, and action, Daniel Wu is a man who can do it all.

Beginning in the film almost by accident, an architect first (yes, Wu is indeed an architect) had Jackie Chan as his first manager. After a successful 40-plus movie career in China, Wu wanted to create Into the Badlands. The idea in mind was about recreating the Chinese Wuxia films: a feudal society, epic battles, themes of loyalty and honor, but mix it up with tropes that would feel familiar to the western audiences.

The tv series takes place in the United States and in a very distant future. After society as we know, it has fallen, and hundreds of years have passed, society has rebuilt itself: a Baron, lord of a piece of land, owner of cogs (slaves), with an army of assassins at his beck and call to prevent other Barons taking his land. These highly trained assassins are called Clippers, one of which is Wu’s character, Sunny. This is a part of the beginning of his journey.

The scenery is familiar and the societal order a familiar setting, where the public can quickly understand how things work. The costuming is also a great factor in the look and feel of the television series – mixing old Victorian-esque suits, leather, belts, swords, and Asian-inspired regalia, the mishmash of genres and inspirations colliding give the costuming and architecture of the show a distinct post-modern steampunk vibe.

I’ve been a fan of action movies since I was a kid, growing up in the 90’s I watched Jackie Chan and Jet Li’s American movies. But thanks to my mother, I was also lucky enough to watch Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. As an artist, my mother was astounded with the scenery and special effects, and is still a movie that causes today, a big smile on her face.

One of my favorite action movies was Jet Li’s Romeo Must Die, and it’s this movie that Daniel Wu draws inspiration from for the romantic side of the television series, rounding its main character not only as an action hero but also a romantic lead.

The series is loosely based in Wu Cheng’En’s 16th century story Journey to the West, and the mystical genre finds its place among the martial arts and post-apocalyptic themes already present on the show.  It finds an important place in seasons two and three, where faith comes into play.

Into the Badlands

Iron Fist was very expected to deliver for fans not only of comics but also of martial arts. When it failed to deliver (except some brilliant performances like Lewis Tan in episode 8 and Jessica Henwick as Colleen Wing), a lot of sites drew comparison between the two television shows, focusing on the use of martial arts and the action editing necessary for those scenes, one of which was Badlands.

Into the Badlands gives us big fight scenes, edited in a way that the spectator cannot tell the difference in the physical performance from the actor or stunt double. In the beautifully choreographed scenes – thanks to Stephen Fung, executive producer and fight director, and veteran choreographer Ku Huen-chiu – we see clear Wuxia influence: dramatic flow of fabric in slow motion, impossible jumps that would make us believe humans can fly, and the post-apocalyptic influence which leads to the use of swords, bows, metal arms, car parts, motorcycles, and pieces of rubble as weapons of circumstance.

Nowadays we are not unfamiliar with the post-apocalyptic genre. Movies like Mad Max: Fury Road and television shows like The Rain, The 100 and The Shannara Chronicles are all in this genre even when they have different themes like sci fi, fantasy, horror, and more. And it’s along these themes where the line between future and past get blurry. The costuming, the scenery and the fights all seem both old and new. Only clues in the story ground us directly to the place and time where the story is taking place.

This tv show gives us a glimpse into a post-apocalyptic future that is filled with our past, like an old Western. It also gives us compelling and well-rounded characters whose journeys we follow. It is also one of the most diverse ensemble casts on television today.

If you are a fan of martial arts, classic kung fu movies, dystopian futures, and new ways of representing the past, Into the Badlands might just be your next journey.

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