MAN DOWN!! The Fall of the Action Hero
I’ve been meaning to write this for a long time. But with Stallone’s testosterone-fueled mangasm The Expendables rocket launching its way into theatres this Friday, this seemed like the week to do it.
So…when exactly did the masculinity disappear from the face of the movies?
When you look at our movie heroes, there’s always been a strong masculine presence up on the screen, throwing punches for justice and delivering swift, deliberate kicks to the gonads of evil. Steve McQueen, John Wayne, Paul Newman. But look at movies now…who are today’s leading men? Seth Rogan? Michael Cera? REALLY?
Whatever happened to heroes who had chins? And if you’re gonna have a chin, just have the one.
And I’m not talking about comedies here, I’m talking about full-blown action movies – movies which, let’s face it, are in pretty short supply themselves these days. We shouldn’t be too surprised. After all, this state of affairs was foretold in the year nineteen hundred and ninety-seven by the prophet Paula Cole.
But let’s start at the beginning – and by beginning, I mean the greatest decade of all time – the 1980’s.
The Reign of the Supermen
I know there were plenty of manly men onscreen before the 80’s, but the 80’s really represents the peak of cinematic masculine supremacy. You had guys like Schwarzenegger and Stallone picking up phone booths, shooting down helicopters, carrying tree trunks and eradicating entire armies with little more than the sheer power of their steely biceps and iron chins (again, just the one). These were no-nonsense action heroes with a keen, uncompromising sense of right and wrong and were honor bound to stand up for the weak at all costs. To make these guys seem like underdogs, filmmakers had to pit them against bigger than life bad guys – almost cartoonishly so. But this was just fine with audiences then because it made for epic movies and nail-biting action scenes.
The Rise of the EVERYMAN
Then came Bruce Willis. Now I’ve got nothing against Bruno, but his coming signaled the end of an era and the beginning of a long, sad slide downhill in terms of masculine movie heroes. How can I say that when Bruce is easily one of the screen’s toughest customers? Well, remember, everything’s relative. Think back to when Die Hard first came out. Do you remember all the hype surrounding the character of John McClane? People called him an ‘everyman’.
This is why that movie worked and why Bruce Willis was perfect to play the part. He wasn’t ripped like Arnie or Stallone. He wasn’t a martial artist like Van Damme or Segal. He was just a normal guy. He was a little soft around the edges, he had a receding hairline and a babyface.
You see, it’s very effective for your protagonist to be an underdog. It gives you someone to root for and it adds tension when it looks like the hero is up against insurmountable forces. Makes sense, right? And it makes for great cinema.
What Die Hard did was take the idea of the underdog in an entirely new direction. Instead of starting with an invulnerable hero and building even more invulnerable bad guys for him to contend with, they took the hero down a few notches – they even took away his shoes – to make sure he seemed vulnerable. Now the bad guys don’t have to be as over-the-top to feel like a genuine thereat. It allowed the movie to feel more grounded and as a result it was a great experience.
But it also opened the door to a new kind of hero. A lesser kind. See, at the time, Bruce Willis was the polar opposite of everything that had come before him. Finally, we had a hero we could relate to instead of look up to. Someone who reminded us of who we already are rather than something to aspire to. And it didn’t hurt that Die Hard is arguably the greatest action movie ever. But things change. John McTiernan later directed Rollerball. And while we thought Bruce was as ‘everyman’ as you could get, everyone was in for a big, soft, doughy surprise.
We aren’t living in the 80’s anymore. Today’s everyman is a lot softer than the everyman we grew up with. We’ve gone from Bruce Willis to Seth Rogan in a very short amount of time. That’s why a movie like The Expendables feels kinda fresh – even though it’s as old as dirt. But whereas The Expendables would’ve been a mainstream movie in the 80’s, today a male-driven, testosterone fest is actually a NICHE film. Look at this year’s crop o action films like The Losers and The A-Team – neither of which connected with audiences like they were expected to. It seems the masculist movement is still just that.
And who’s to blame for this massive backslide? Easy. Women.
Now, I say that to be provocative, but the truth isn’t really that far off. See, women weren’t thought of as a strong demographic back in the 80’s. And in an era where the very height of sexiness for a woman meant pretty much dressing like a man, women hadn’t exactly found their stride yet in terms of feminine empowerment.
Then came the 90’s
Suddenly, feminine sensibility found a foothold in pop culture. Women’s magazines became more cutting edge, women’s programming became more popular, pop psychology told us that a modern man is a sensitive man. This was the birthplace of political correctness, a “kinder, gentler” America, and yes, OPRAH. Toys with guns disappeared off the shelves, Michelangelo (the ninja turtle, not the obscure one) had his nunchuks replaced by a grappling hook and Arnold Schwarzenegger made Kindergarten Cop.
Slowly but surely, pop culture adopted a decidedly feminist point of view. It made perfect sense because we always crave new things, and women, who had long been a minority in terms of societal zeitgeist were finally getting the voice they deserved. But a change in society’s sensibility meant a change in society’s entertainment. Girl power was in. And that meant action heroes, at least as we knew them, were out.
A Kinder, Gentler Hero
Nowhere was this shift more apparent than in Speed. Here, just 10 years after Commando, a film where Arnold Schwarzenegger literally threw a steel pipe through a man, the new action hero had emerged in Keanu Reeves. Yes. Keanu Reeves. A new age man-boy best known for playing an idiot. As Jack (every action hero in the 90’s was named Jack) Traven, Keanu squared off against -not an army led by an oppressive despot, not a band of European terrorist led by a charismatic evil genius, not a squad of battle-hardened rouge mercenaries – but 60 year old Dennis Hopper.
I’m not saying the movie isn’t good. In fact, it’s one of my all time faves. I’m just saying that in ten short years the bar determining the qualifications of an action hero had, let’s say, shifted in a downward trajectory. Five years later, Keanu went on to star in the pan-sexual Matrix trilogy where he fought bad guys wearing something that looks very much like a skirt.
This paradigm shift was so powerful that it even derailed the careers of our next generation of action stars. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson retreated from the weakened action movie front and fled, quite literally, to Disneyland to make kid movies. I’ve often said he made his Kindergarten Cop before he made his Predator. Meanwhile, another promising hopeful, Vin Diesel was handing in movies like this:
A New Kind of Hero – The Old Kind
So where am I going with this? Who the hell knows! I’m as lost and confused as everyone else. All I do know is that people are a lot more comfortable now with emasculated men. Even in Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Angelina was always a step ahead of Brad. This is where we are as a culture. Women need to be in control and the guy is there for the ride – he’s there to be cute, funny and in over his head. The alpha males of the 80’s fell to the grungy everymen of the 90’s, which gave way to the metrosexuals of the 00’s. Metrosexuals then paved the way for the bromance, where we saw the first seeds of male bonding and resurgence.
Now with The Expendables on the horizon and every possible action movie cliché explored, dissected and satirized by the likes of Hot Fuzz, Pineapple Express, Paul Blart and The Other Guys, maybe…just maybe…we might see the rise of something else.
Something they’re calling the Retrosexual.
Manly men doing manly things in a manly way. After years of playing joke versions of himself and various appearances on talk shows touting the merits of teeth-whitening and mani-peti’s, Dwayne Johnson seems back on the action track with his upcoming revenge flick Faster.
Two Men Enter…One Man Leaves
This Friday, three films will open – each of them represents a specific take on gender roles as represented in modern cinema:
Eat, Pray, Love is about a woman who divorces herself from a world where she is defined by the men in her life.
Scott Pilgrim vs. The World depicts the 2010 version of a leading man – A scrawny, nerdy introvert who wrestles with his own masculinity in order to impress a girl.
And finally, The Expendables. Action heroes of a bygone era who stand up to do the right thing in a world where they are no longer welcome.
Eat, Pray, Love will of course, mop the floor with the other two – this isn’t 1984 anymore. But it’ll be interesting to see what version of a hero will come in second. This weekend separates the men from the boys.
Sound off, Moguls! What will you be seeing this weekend? Ladies, are you still down with sensitive men? Do you miss the cowboys or have they gone the way of disco?