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The subgenres of adventure films include swashbuckler films, survival films, Western films, pirate films, disaster films, and historical dramas—which is similar to the epic film genre. Main plot elements often include quests for lost continents; a jungle, mountain, island, ocean, city, or desert setting; characters embarking on treasure hunts, battles against antagonists, or heroic journeys for the unknown. Adventure films are commonly set in a period background and may include adapted stories of historical or fictional adventure heroes within the historical context. Kings, monarchies, battles, rebellion or piracy are commonly seen in adventure films. Adventure films may also be combined with other movie genres such as science fiction, fantasy, horror, or war.
The adventure film reached its peak of popularity in 1930s and 1940s Hollywood, when films such as Captain Blood, The Adventures of Robin Hood and The Mark of Zorro were regularly made with major stars, notaboy Errol Flynn and Tyrone Power, who were closely associated with the genre. At the same time, Saturday morning serials were often using many of the same thematic elements as high-budget adventure films. In the early days of adventure films, the protagonists were mainly male. These heroes were courageous, often fighting suppression and facing tyrants. Recently these male heroic protagonists have occasionally been replaced by heroines, Lara Croft being an example.
- Alternate dimensions or virtual reality films (e.g., The Matrix)
- Superheroes (e.g., Spider-Man, Superman, The Avengers or Justice League)
- Survival films (e.g., The Hunger Games, Gravity or The Revenant)
- Animal films (e.g., Jurassic Park, Jaws or Godzilla)
- Road films (e.g., Dirty Girl, Little Miss Sunshine, On the Road or Mad Max (series))
- Medieval or fantasy settings, mythical lands, creatures and magic (e.g., The Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, Chronicles of Narnia, or Harry Potter)
- Espionage (e.g., James Bond, Jason Bourne, or Mission Impossible)
- Crossing across a city or a mountain (e.g., North By Northwest, Wild)
- Skill-required stunts (e.g., E.T. The Extraterrestrial, Mission Impossible)
- Skill-requiring or radical sports such as bungee-jumping, ice-climbing, rafting, snowboarding, surfing (e.g., Everest)
- Expeditions (e.g., Aliens, Everest, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, Sinbad or The Descent)
- Exploration of space and ocean (e.g., Gravity, The Abyss, The Martian or Interstellar)
- Travels to distant planets (e.g., Star Wars, The Martian or Star Trek)
- Travels to foreign countries and cities (or destinations) (e.g., James Bond, Mission Impossible or Indiana Jones)
- Travels through time (e.g., Back to the Future or Interstellar)
- Epic battles (e.g., Star Wars, Independence Day, Robin Hood, The Lord of the Rings, Spartacus or King Arthur)
- Exotic places such as forests, mountains, islands, caves, beaches, the sea, polar regions, deserts and jungles (e.g., The Hunger Games, Star Wars, Everest, Lawrence of Arabia, Indiana Jones or Avatar)
- A warrior fighting for justice or battling a tyrant (e.g., Robin Hood, The Hunger Games (series) or Star Wars)
- Suspense and dangerous situations the characters must escape from.
- Rescuing a damsel in distress (e.g., Star Wars, Spaceballs, Shrek, James Bond, Sahara, The Vikings, Romancing the Stone)
- Pirates (e.g., Captain Blood or Pirates of the Caribbean)
- A journey or quest of some kind, such as searching for a lost city or for hidden treasure (e.g., King Solomon's Mines or Indiana Jones)
- The Campbellian hero-myth cycle, coming of age, discovery of one's destiny (e.g., Star Wars, Dune, Lord of the Rings).
- Allegorical themes as social commentary (e.g., Planet of the Apes or Star Trek).
Adventure films can contain stock characters and stereotypes. In some cases this has been accused of going as far as implicit racism; claimed examples of this are Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, First Blood and James Bond "kicking third-world people around" in Dr. No.
- "as a genre, the adventure film, also sometimes referred to as the "action-adventure" film, is one of the most uniformly popular and stable of categories". Retrieved 2011-04-13.
- "the viewer of adventure films can live vicariously through the travels, conquests, explorations, creation of empires, struggles and situations that confront the main characters, actual historical figures or protagonists.". Retrieved 2011-04-13.
- Ken Dancyger (2007) and Jeff Rush Alternative scriptwriting, Fourth edition. quote:
Stereotypes abound in the adventure genre. Examples range from the mad scientist in Dr. No to the mindless thugs in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. The racism implicit in the latter film and films such as First Blood are by-products of the stereotyping rampant in the adventure genre
- Thomas Pynchon (1997) Slow Learner. quote: "Modern readers will be, at least, put off by an unacceptable level of racist, sexist and proto-Fascist talk throughout this story [written in the 1950s]. I wish I could say that this is only Pig Bodine's voice, but, sad to say, it was also my own at the time. The best I can say for it now is that, for its time, it is probably authentic enough. John Kennedy's role model James Bond was about to make his name by kicking third-world people around, another extension of the boy's adventure tales a lot of us grew up reading. There had prevailed for a while a set of assumptions and distinctions, unvoiced and unquestioned, best captured years later in the '70's television character Archie Bunker."