The New Action Hero




In light of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s disappointing box office performance since his return to the big screen last year, I started to think about what defines a movie action hero in the year 2014. Arnold, of course, is no longer in his prime. He is 66 years old now and, despite his return to roles in which he plays an action hero, he doesn’t possess the hulking, muscular physique that catapulted him to superstardom in the 1980’s.


The leading man role in the movies has obviously changed a lot over the last century. In the 1940’s, John Wayne was the leading he-man of the movies. His lumbering character (usually a cowboy or sheriff) wouldn’t take any crap from anyone and he didn’t hesitate to punch out any offending adversary.


In the 1970’s, Charles Bronson and Clint Eastwood became the new face of the movie action star. Wielding a big gun, Bronson and Eastwood would blow away any punk that got in their way. Bronson was the deadly vigilante who posed as a victim in the dangerous New York City subways in order to avenge his family in “Death Wish” (1974) and Clint reached superstardom when he played a similar avenging San Francisco cop who isn’t afraid to shoot first and ask questions later in “Dirty Harry” (1971).


In 1973, Bruce Lee revealed a new type of action hero when he introduced kung fu to the American audiences in “Enter the Dragon” (1973). As an extremely skilled martial artist, Lee didn’t need a gun to take on an army of enemies; he was able to defeat them with just his hands and feet. In addition to his extraordinary fighting skills, Lee also displayed a muscular and ripped physique that was almost as impressive as his kung fu prowess. I remember seeing “Return of the Dragon” in a movie theater in the 1970’s and the audience literally gasped when Lee took his shirt off and flexed his lats.


When Arnold Schwarzenegger tried to break into the movies in the late 1970’s, he was told by prospective talent agents that his body was too big and muscular to be accepted by mainstream audiences. The major movie stars of that time (Dustin Hoffman, Burt Reynolds and even Woody Allen), were all thin and unassuming. Arnold was forced to drop 30 pounds for his Hollywood debut in “Stay Hungry” (1976) because the director felt that a 240 pound Arnold would dwarf his costar, tiny Sally Field.


However, by the 1980’s, American movie audiences had changed their tune. Fitness was in, gyms were opening up all over the country and regular men and women started “pumping iron” to build up their muscles. Ronald Reagan was elected president and the increased focus on military build-up and patriotism seemed to naturally co-exist with big muscles and strength.


The new action hero was now defined by muscles! Arnold and Sylvester Stallone lead the way with one action blockbuster after another. These movies were characterized by big, muscular leading men saving the day by either punching out or shooting their enemies. The action was cartoonish and sometimes ridiculous and the acting and the screenplay were clearly secondary to the violent and predictable plot, but audiences seemed to be eating it up.

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Stallone, who rose to stardom with “Rocky” (1976), began intensive weight training sessions with Franco Columbu, two-time Mr. Olympia winner and Arnold’s best friend. Under Franco’s tutelage, Sly changed his physique dramatically in order to give a whole new dimension to his Rocky character. Instead of the bulky, aging club fighter seen in the first film, the new Rocky portrayed in the sequels looked more like a super hero. Ripped, muscular and ready to take on fierce adversaries like Clubber Lang (Mr. T), Thunderlips (Hulk Hogan) and Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), Stallone’s new physique epitomized the modern day action star.

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Stallone created another action hero when he wrote the screenplay for “First Blood” (1982). Originally crafted as a conflicted military veteran from the Vietnam War, John Rambo was a warrior without a war to fight. When he gets into an altercation with a local police department, he goes on a rampage and fights back using his vast combat skills.


In the Rambo sequels, Stallone employed the same strategy that he used with his Rocky character. Transforming from wayward loser to muscular superhero, the new Rambo was sent to war against the Russians in “Rambo: First Blood Part II” (1985) and it was his ripped physique that was his greatest weapon.


Arnold was at the forefront of the new muscular movie star along with Stallone. After his debut as “Conan the Barbarian” (1982), Arnold was told by the director of the sequel to get even more muscular for “Conan the Destroyer” (1984). Hollywood was now embracing the pumped up look of their cinematic leading men, recognizing that more muscles equate to greater box office numbers.


In all of his movies filmed during the 1980’s, Arnold had at least one scene where the shirt would come off to reveal his former Mr. Olympia physique. “The Terminator” (1984), “Commando” (1985), “Predator” (1987) and “Red Heat” (1988) all hinted that Arnold was a superior action hero because he had the biggest muscles on screen.


Soon, other actors got in on the movie muscle bandwagon and even the less buffed movie stars were in the gym pumping iron so they could at least wear a tank top in their film roles when the action got heavy. Chuck Norris, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Dolph Lundgren, Steven Seagal and Bruce Willis all starred in numerous movies in the ’80s devoted to high powered action, muscular leading men and excessive testosterone.


By the end of the 1980s, things began to change for the movie action hero. In 1989, director Tim Burton released “Batman” starring comic actor Michael Keaton in the title role. How could a wimpy actor be expected to play one of the most popular and darkest superheroes of our time?


“It was that first Batman movie”, Stallone told the Los Angeles Times a few years ago, “the action movies changed radically when it became possible to Velcro your muscles on.” Instead of having to spend years training to develop your physique and then punish yourself for months following a strict diet, now actors could use special effects and padded suits to display a muscular build. “It was the beginning of the end,” Stallone lamented.


In the 21st century, superheroes are now the new action stars. At the beginning of the millennium, “Spider-Man” (2002) featured a wimpy Tobey Maguire as the leading man. Of course, Peter Parker is supposed to be a nerdy, insecure teenager who morphs into a superhero as part of the original Spider-Man story, but even wearing his Spidey outfit, Maguire was a far cry from the hyper muscular Conan and Rambo.


The comic book universe has now expanded to feature several blockbuster movies each year. The actors that are hired to play the comic book superheroes are not necessarily muscular and buff. They are hired more for their acting experience and their popularity with the fans than for their muscular physiques. If an actor like Chris Evans (Captain America) or Chris Hemsworth (Thor) is a little underweight and skinny, they can quickly bulk up by hiring a trainer and using the right supplements. Besides, it is now the padded suit and the amazing visual effects that will be used in the movies to make the actors look especially super, not the hours at the gym.


In the blockbuster movie “The Avengers” (2012), the Marvel Comic superheroes all wore padded outfits and were helped enormously by the visual effects crew to create their powerful and dominating characters. Even the Incredible Hulk, famously portrayed by two-time Mr. Universe Lou Ferrigno in the television program in the 1970s, was now completely a result of animation and CGI.


Maybe the change in the movie action hero reflects how society feels about muscles in general. Today, being “ripped” or “jacked” is cool. When “Conan the Barbarian” was first released in 1982, no one except bodybuilders knew what the phrase “ripped” meant. Health clubs and fitness centers are now as common as super markets and gas stations. To work out today is no longer a novel idea but a normally accepted part of society.


Perhaps the question should be, “how much muscle is too much?” Over the last few years, we have seen bodybuilding competitions lose some popularity because most men don’t want to develop their physiques to the extreme dimensions required to compete in top level competitions (thus the birth of the Men’s Physique category). However, having ripped abs and looking moderately “jacked” is now very popular. Women love guys who have good physiques with ripped abs and guys, of course, will do anything they can to increase their chances of attracting the opposite sex. Even if it means going to the gym on a regular basis and watching what they eat so they can display their ripped abs. 


It seems like the lesson of the modern day action movie star is “some muscles look good but don’t get too big.” In our digitally enhanced world, we don’t really need to get that big to look impressive. Just build some inches around the pecs, delts and biceps and make sure those abs are ripped and hard and, BOOM, you look like a superhero. And if the abs aren’t quite there yet, just find the right photo tint on Instagram to give you that ripped look on your Selfie before you post it on Facebook or Twitter.


But all hope is not lost in the search for a muscular leading man. Hugh Jackman has gotten significantly “jacked” for his last few appearances as the Wolverine. Former WWE superstar Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson has also dramatically increased his muscle mass in the last few years to take over as the new Schwarzenegger in the movies. Johnson’s roles in “Pain & Gain” (2013), “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” (2013) and “Fast & Furious 6” (2013) all featured a massive and pumped up actor that seemed to go over very well with movie going audiences.


This year, both Jackman and Johnson will be returning to the big screen to help bring back the muscular leading man. Jackman will be playing a buffed and ripped Wolverine again in “X Men: Days of Future Past” and Johnson will be featured in the title role in “Hercules”. On his Twitter page recently, Johnson described the intense training program and diet regimen he was using to prepare his physique for the exciting leading role in “Hercules”. It was a pleasure to read about an actor detailing how hard he worked to bulk up for a movie role instead of just slapping on a padded superhero outfit and leaving it up to the visual effects crew to do their magic. It looks like the muscular action hero is not dead yet! Now, if we could only get Andrew Garfield (the new “Amazing Spider-Man”) to hit the gym.

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