Cinema has featured martial arts as early as the 1920s. Movies like the Ong-Bak series and 2021's Mortal Kombat prove that modern martial arts movies are still massively popular.
But martial arts show up in many movie genres beyond traditional martial arts films. American films often hire martial artists to serve as trainers and fight choreographers. As a result, martial arts are used in all sorts of American movies, from superhero films like Black Panther and The Dark Knight Rises to action thrillers like The Matrix and John Wick to children’s movies like The Karate Kid and Kung Fu Panda.
Kung FuPhoto: Enter the Dragon / Warner Bros.
Where Does The Style Come From: Kung fu is one of the oldest martial arts styles, and its origins date back so far that how it was created isn't entirely known. But credit for inventing the first version of kung fu goes to Hwa Tuo, a third-century CE Chinese physician who developed five exercises based on his observations of animals: tigers, bears, monkeys, cranes, and deer. These five exercises eventually evolved into the "Five Animal" martial arts forms: Tiger, Leopard, Snake, Crane, and Dragon.
What Makes It Special: China is home to hundreds of martial arts styles of all different varieties, but to many around the world, "kung fu" is synonymous with martial arts themselves.
Where You've Seen It: Enter the Dragon, Kung Fu Hustle, Kung Fu Panda, The Matrix
Wing ChunPhoto: Wing Chun / Century Pacific
Where Does The Style Come From: Wing Chun was developed in southern China during the Qing dynasty, about 300 years ago. It's said to have been created by Buddhist nun Ng Mui, an expert in Shaolin kung fu. Needing to compensate for her smaller stature, Ng based Wing Chun on close-range strikes from kung fu, adding several of her own techniques. It's named after her first student.
What Makes It Special: Wing Chun is derived from southern Chinese kung fu, but it focuses on close-quarters fighting to give smaller fighters an advantage. It emphasizes using punches and low kicks, which can be chained into multiple devastating strikes. It's also thought to be the only martial art whose origin is credited to a woman.
Where You've Seen It: Wing Chun, Ip Man, Ip Man 2, Ip Man 3, Master Z: Ip Man Legacy, Ip Man 4: The Finale
CapoeiraPhoto: Black Panther / Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Where Does The Style Come From: Capoeira is thought to be about 500 years old, according to Smithsonian magazine. It was first developed by enslaved Africans in Brazil. One theory for capoeira's origins is that enslaved people combined dance with martial arts as a way to disguise capoeira's purpose, self-defense. People used capoeira to escape servitude and form independent communities called quilombos.
What Makes It Special: Capoeira isn't just a martial art; it also incorporates dance to create a rhythmic, hybrid fighting style that includes both dance moves and combat strikes.
Where You've Seen It: Black Panther, The Assailant, Only the Strong
MMAPhoto: Warrior / Lionsgate
Where Does The Style Come From: The basic concept of kickboxing is that it combines multiple fighting forms into one competition, and the idea itself is ancient. The earliest version of a combined martial arts style was the ancient Greek Olympic event called "pankration," which combined wrestling, boxing, and street-fighting. Modern mixed martial arts was created in 1993 when the Gracie family (of Brazilian jiu-jitsu fame) held a tournament in Denver.
What Makes It Special: MMA itself isn't a martial art, but a competition involving practically every one of them. It's the only combat sport where fans can regularly see fighters with completely different styles oppose each other.
Where You've Seen It: Warrior, Never Back Down, Here Comes the Boom