33 Movies and TV Shows That Are Basically ‘Competence Porn’

33 Movies and TV Shows That Are Basically ‘Competence Porn’
Screenshot: Star Trek: TNG/Paramount+

A wise man once said, “I love it when a plan comes together.” And we do too — especially when we’re watching a movie.

At a time when our daily lives are consumed by stressing out over the way the people in power are screwing up our lives and our planet, there’s a certain kind of pleasure in sinking into a narrative in which all of the characters are incredibly good at what they do — whether that’s exploring space, playing chess, carrying out skillful assassinations, or getting their asses to (or off) of Mars.

If you too seek to be inspired by watching a bunch of smart people manage not to absolutely fuck everything up, the Lifehacker staff — admirers of innovation and efficiency that we are — have come together to share our favourite films (and a few TV shows) that are basically explicit competence porn. That’s hot.

Ocean’s Eleven

Individually, you’d be hard-pressed to call the near-dozen members of Danny Ocean’s crew of thieves, forgers, and con artists highly competent; they are all one brand of fuckup or another, which is probably why they say yes when he comes at them with an impossible scheme to rob three Las Vegas casinos at the same time. The fact that they pull it off without a hitch (more or less) is evidence enough that sometimes, 11 heads are better than one. — Joel Cunningham, managing editor

Moneyball

Moneyball is based on a true story about Oakland A’s manager Billy Beane, who attempts to build a competitive baseball team on a bare-bones budget. He cobbles together a group of undervalued talent using some extra-brainy data analysis served up by a Yale economics graduate, and the results are dramatic, funny, and endearing. It’s a classic sports team underdog story with a nerdy twist. — Meghan Walbert, parenting editor

The Incredibles

The Incredible family tried to be a normal family, but couldn’t keep their natural abilities under wraps. In both The Incredibles and The Incredibles 2, parents Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) and Elastigirl (Holly Hunter), fell for a diabolical plan to use superheroes against themselves. They eventually got themselves and each other out of hot water with their wits and teamwork. In every scenario, their superpowers are a side note to their detective work and strategy, giving them an edge as a family of super-powered people. Even their baby, Jack-Jack, is on the cutting edge of superhero greatness. Unbelievable. — Aisha Jordan, staff writer

Contagion

Living through a pandemic will make you appreciate this movie even more. Sure, people die, and misinformation runs rampant. But the scientists and public health officials, though flawed, manage to do the right thing most of the time. The rumormonger gets silenced and the vaccine makes it to everybody in the end. — Beth Skwarecki, senior health editor

Whiplash

J.K. Simmons gets the best roles. And this film makes me question whether I’m a sadist, a wannabe drummer, a jazz enthusiast, or someone who just loves cinematic experiences that pit some talented, hapless person against the very worst situations — a real “good luck”-with-a-smile kind of film. Whiplash is the kind of movie that I need to keep out of my YouTube clips at all costs, because if I watch even two minutes of Simmons chucking chairs or destroying trombone players, I’ll probably end up watching thirty more. This film, brutal as it gets for poor Miles Teller at times, speaks to the experiences many of us had growing up with mentors (or parents) that tried to push us as far as we could go. Here’s hoping yours didn’t make your hands bleed in the process. — David Murphy, senior technology editor

All the President’s Men

I dislike most movies about journalism because they tend to romanticize the profession in a way that seems alien to me, but this one, about Watergate, is an exception. Filmed and acted with meticulous naturalism, this movie nails the hum-drum world of investigative reporting while making it feel consequential, as reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein stumble and bumble their way into bringing down President Nixon. In the end, it’s their resiliency and hard work that pays off. — Mike Winters, finance writer

Star Trek: The Next Generation

No one is more soothing than Captain Jean Luc Picard. The moment I see him on the screen, I relax. “Ah, things are going to be alright now,” I think. Then he speaks, and my cares melt away. Similar things happen when Data, Dr. Crusher, and Guinan show up. They are all so just good at their jobs! (This does not happen with Troy or Wesley.) — Claire Lower, senior food editor

The Bourne Identity

Can you imagine what it’s like to be Jason Bourne? You can literally kick anyone’s arse. You jump from window to window, drive any car through a maze of European streets fleeing bad guys, and barely break a sweat before kicking more arse. You don’t even need your memory to do it: The Bourne Identity is hilarious because Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) does all this stuff without technically knowing he even can. He’s a some kind of government super-soldier suffering from amnesia amid some crazy situation with the CIA, and yet, he still kicks everyone’s asses. Just incredible. — Sam Blum, staff writer

The Fast Saga

You might wonder how this endless parade of meatheads, dudebros, and thirst traps could be filed anywhere near competence, but I urge you to expand your mind: Within the Fast universe, these petty thieves-turned-international-action-heroes are the best at what they do. They remind you every movie — 10 and counting, including Hobbs and Shaw — that they can do anything, which qualifies as extreme competence even if what they’re doing includes anything from petty heists (Fast and Furious) to bounty hunting (2 Fast 2 Furious) to international destruction under the guise of crime fighting (basically Fasts 5 through 8). The best part, though, is that you don’t have to be competent at all to enjoy their ridiculous antics and to feel like, just maybe, you too could powerslide your Mitsubishi around the corner, if you really wanted to. — Jordan Calhoun, editor-in-chief

The Prestige

Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige pulls off some kind of magic trick in making you sympathise equally with both of the men on opposite sides of the ultimate magicians’ duel. Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman play two masters of deception aiming to continually trump one another with increasingly ingenious (and dangerous) feats of misdirection, until we discover, in the end, that one of them is willing to go so far to prove his genius that he has even figured out how to cheat death. Now that’s competence. — Joel

Hidden Figures

Behind the first men in space were the “human computers” who calculated how to get them there. And among these people — these hidden figures — were three women of colour who were brilliant mathematicians and engineers employed at NASA during the “Space Race.” The movie is based on the true story of the women who were the brains behind the launch of astronaut John Glenn into orbit. — Meghan

Catch Me If You Can

Catch Me If You Can is about a simpler time, when messing with the system only required printing plates, a magnifying glass, and some glue. Leonardo DiCaprio plays real-life con man Frank Abagnale, Jr., who used his skills in forgery to make fake checks, pose as a pilot and fly around the world. Abagnale manages to evade the authorities for years and only gets caught because he starts to get comfortable with always winning. Watching Tom Hanks as investigator pursuing DiCaprio’s Abagnale makes for an entertaining game of cat and mouse: They’re both so good, it seems plausible either could prevail. — Aisha

Kill Bill, Vol. 1

Beatrix Kiddo’s sheer determination powers this movie. The first time I saw it, I didn’t really know what to expect — besides swordfighting and good music — until the scene where she sits in the truck in the hotel parking lot and wills her paralysed toe to wiggle. Kiddo isn’t just a fighter, she’s a planner, and it’s satisfying to see her plans always come together despite seemingly impossible odds. — Beth

John Wick

I generally find “guy running around with a small arsenal” movies to be a little dull, unless they’re Die Hard. That all changed when I watched John Wick. Though I can’t quite put my finger on why — maybe it’s the “strong, silent type” motif combined with quick, precise action; the gunplay that feels slightly more realistically portrayed than a one-under-each-arm Rambo treatment; or maybe I just think the subject matter (and those blood-promise token things) to be incredibly engrossing. Regardless, John Wick is as smart as he is tough, and watching him outsmart (and annihilate) that which tries to outsmart him is an experience I don’t generally get sick of rewatching. That, and dogs are great. — David

Ghostbusters

If you strip away the special effects and comedy, Ghostbusters is really a movie about four friends starting a business together and succeeding in the most extreme way possible. My hot take is that the first third of Ghostbusters II is equally strong, as it sticks to the same formula and shows the main characters down on their luck, again — reduced to performing birthday parties after their business gets sued into oblivion following the events of the first movie. This is a favourite — one of the few movies I’ve seen over 100 times. — Mike

The Americans

Not only are Phillip and Elizabeth Jennings good at their jobs (the spy jobs, not the travel agent jobs), but they’re also dedicated in a way that most people are not (Elizabeth more so than Phillip). Watching them out-manoeuvre the FBI is thrilling, and watching Elizabeth beat the shit out of people is electrifying. I’m also impressed by how easily they lie. It’s a skill! — Claire

The Italian Job (2003)

I’m not here to claim I’ve seen the original Italian Job, but I have seen the one with Seth Green in it. Talk about a crack team with all sorts of high-level skills between them! The classic heist turned revenge story cannot be orchestrated without several geniuses in the mix, and this is exactly what this movi provides: Edward Norton goes rogue, killing his old partner, played Donald Sutherland, and the rest of the crew (led by Mark Whalberg) set out to exact justice. There are mini-coopers and gun battles and cutting-edge technology circa 2003, which makes for high drama and great viewing. — Sam

Haikyuu!!

I’ll go ahead and say that Haikyuu!!, the shonen anime volleyball drama, is the most exciting competence porn on this list without needing to see the rest of it. If you’re sceptical, I understand: I, too, didn’t care about volleyball and couldn’t imagine how an anime could possible change that. But that’s the wonder of the show (and many other shonen anime, to be honest): the ability to take an otherwise negligible thing and use its characters’ passion to turn it into the most important thing in the world. And in the case of Haikyuu!! they do it by compensating for their individual weaknesses by being remarkably skilled together. Each player is the best at one single thing, and if you go on a limb to give this anime an honest chance, I promise — look at me, I mean this — I promise you won’t regret it. — Jordan

The Martian

It goes without saying that Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is incredibly competent at his job(s) — astronaut/botanist — considering he’s able to survive on freaking Mars for more than a year after being stranded there due to a freak spaceship accident. To do so he must figure out everything from how to retrofit his meager shelter to how to grow potatoes in his own shit. But The Martian truly belongs on this list because basically every other character in it, from Watney’s former crew mates to the NASA engineers back on Earth, is similarly chock full of the right stuff. — Joel

Ace of Cakes

It’s been a full 15 years since Duff Goldman and his team of baker-artist-engineers taught us that a cake doesn’t exist just to be eaten. No, a cake can be a piece of art, and it can be a feat of engineering. It would be impressive enough if Duff’s team at Charm City Cakes was making volcano cakes on the regular, but what makes these cakes particularly awe-inspiring is that each one is uniquely designed and created per the customer’s request — and they get bigger (and maybe more ridiculous) with each of the show’s 10 seasons. Come for the cakes, stay for the quirky personalities of those who create them. — Meghan

Arrival

The genius of Arrival is in its complex timeline, but the genius in Arrival is Amy Adams character, a linguist pegged by the government to figure out how to communicate with an alien life form that has landed on Earth. Adams’ character deciphers the alien language, gains the knowledge of their entire race, and alters her perceptions of the world in the meantime. I, in this situation, would need to lie down for a long time before even attempting to process the mere existence of aliens, but Banks used her newfound knowledge (and that of her similarly skilled co-workers) to save humankind. — Aisha

House

Take grouchy yet captivating genius Sherlock Holmes, plop him into the centre of a medical drama, and you’ve got Dr. House. The guy who’s unpleasant to work with, yet always right, is an overworn trope for a reason: When done well, it’s really fun to watch. — Beth

Carmen Sandiego

Do it, Rockapel… oh. Wrong series. We’re talking about the other Carmen Sandiego. This Netflix’s animated series follows everyone’s favourite red-hatted “baddie” as she commits clever capers all around the world. I much prefer this version, featuring a Carmen Sandiego of depth and brilliance, and I’m not just saying that because of all the times I missed catching her in those old MS-DOS games. Thank god Netflix didn’t just make another four seasons’ worth of geography lessons. Like any amazing spy movie, it’s just a real delight to watch her stay one step ahead of and two steps smarter than everyone else. — David

Murder Most Foul

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tTKHmaufRNU

I’m fond of Margaret Rutherford’s performances in a batch of Miss Marple movies from the 1960s; she played the Agatha Christie character with uncharacteristic boldness. As an amateur sleuth, she succeeds in solving her crimes because she’s super smart, but also because everyone around her takes her for granted as some pesky old biddy. In this movie she infiltrates a theatre troupe to solve a murder, and wraps it up neatly, but not after a few attempts on her life as well. Lots of snappy dialogue in this one, along with some entertainingly despicable characters. — Mike

Seven Samurai

Akira Kurasowa’s 1954 Japanese blockbuster concerns the plight of a small village under siege by bandits, and the crew of unassailable swordsman the villagers manage to recruit to save their skins. Watching the seven title characters being incredibly good at what they do — sometimes despite themselves — proved so winning a formula that it not only inspired disparate remakes (as a western — The Magnificent Seven; as a kids’ flick — A Bug’s Life), but forms the spine of Helen DeWitt’s celebrated 2000 novel The Last Samurai, in which a single mother, in lieu of a father figure for her young son, chooses to impart lessons of manhood by making him watch the movie over, and over, and over again. — Joel

Now You See Me

To be clear, I think Now You See Me is one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen. In its desperation to be clever it shifts from overcomplicated, to overly contrived, and then to insulting, as you realise the biggest con this band of con artist magicians ever pulled was tricking you into watching their movie. But where the 2013 film succeeds — aside from baiting you with its all-star cast, including Woody Harrelson, Mark Ruffalo, Jesse Eisenberg, and Morgan Freeman — is making you feel that you too can be the smartest person in the room. — Jordan

Ratatouille

Nothing screams competence like a runaway rat who cooks better than 99.9 per cent of humans. Ratatouille is the delightful tale of the eponymous rat (Patton Oswalt) who earns himself culinary acclaim. Only through his friendship with a feckless human boy (who Ratatouille controls in the kitchen by pulling on his ginger hair like a series of robot levers) do the rat’s talents to come to light. I’d recommend watching this if you like food, animals, heartwarming tales of perseverance and friendship, and also competence, of which there is plenty on display throughout. — Sam

Away

One of Netflix’s countless flash-in-the-pan series, Away was a runaway hit… for about 48 hours. It starred Hilary Swank as the leader of a mission to Mars, and while it wasn’t as memorable as you might expect from its cast or production values — there’s a reason most of us forgot about it and it wasn’t renewed for a second season — it was the type of competence porn that makes you hopeful that humanity can conquer anything. It’s a typical space-survival drama, with the added twist of being the United Nations of the subgenre, featuring disabled characters and a diverse set of personalities, including astronauts from China, Russia, India, and a Black, Jewish British-Ghanian. If you want to believe in the power of science and teamwork to conquer our greatest challenges, Away will make you believe, even if your binge peters out partway through. — Jordan

The Queen’s Gambit

If you haven’t watched The Queen’s Gambit yet, I’m really not sure what you’re waiting for. Whether you play chess or not is fairly irrelevant. Although, if you have even the most basic understanding of the game (the viewer category to which I belong), it does make the talents of this young chess prodigy — and the mentors and competitors around her — all the more exciting and impressive. But either way, the story is riveting. — Meghan

Sunshine

I already talked about another movie featuring a crew of hyper-competent astronauts on a desperate life-or-death mission, so I won’t repeat myself too much. But Danny Boyle’s Sunshine deserves a callout too, because the stakes in this movie are a hell of a lot higher than the fate of one man. Like, “reignite the dying sun” higher. And these folks manage to pull it off (uh, spoiler) despite heading out entirely aware that there is a good chance they won’t be coming back — and that’s even before the murderer shows up. (The other reason it should be on this list is that it is criminally underrated, gorgeously filmed, and the ending made me cry.) — Joel

Raiders of the Lost Ark

Hands down the Indiana Jones is the classic saga I will watch over and over again until my TV breaks. Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) is an archeologist, professor, and adventurer (is that a real profession?) passionate about the preservation of ancient artifacts. He’s a rugged guy who is sloppy and fights with pure wit and luck, allowing him to fall up into success (so, your average white guy). The entire mythos around the historical artifacts he hunts for is exciting, and no one can explain them to use in a more thrilling way than Indy. — Aisha

Avengers: Infinity War

Competence porn is at its best when the competent people in question are pitted against an equally competent adversary, which is exactly what happens in Avengers: Infinity War. Not only is Thanos strong enough to beat the Hulk into a sweater and some glasses, but his soft-spoken confidence is a worthy rival to even the smartest denizens of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. He’s a testament to the fact that competence can work for the bad guys just as much as the good ones, and when he’s at his best, it’s almost hard not to cheer for him. As he sits to watch the sun rise on a grateful universe, you have to admit, he earned it. — Jordan

The Sting

The Sting was not the first heist movie, but it is definitely one of the most entertaining. This 1973 Best Picture Oscar winner follows two con men (played by Paul Newman and Robert Redford, impossibly young) as they attempt to rip off a ruthless mob boss (Jaws’ Robert Shaw). The title refers to the moment in a caper where the thieves make off with the mark’s money; if they sting him just right, they’ll be long gone before he even realises he’s been had. Newman and Redford’s con is so elaborate — it’s more like a series of nested operations — that it takes a whole crew of super-competent conmen to pull it off, and Shaw never feels a thing. — Joel

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