The Death of the Last Action Hero

Posted on by Pastabagel and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Everyone now knows what everyone long suspected: Arnold Schwarzenegger isn’t the monogamous type. Who knew that this former bodybuilder who spent his formative years and professional career moving between the gym and the movie set would enjoy sleeping with a lot of women he wasn’t married to.

We love reading about the collapse of Arnold’s marriage and his public image because we love to see the mighty humbled and brought back down to our level.

But the fact is that even though Arnold’s affairs were an open secret since he proposed to Maria Shriver, they are only emerging now in a way that affects his image because what Arnold used to represent in the public mindset is now no longer relevant. Arnold is a spent force. For the first time in 30 years, he is no longer useful either as a bankable box office icon or as a rags-to-riches Republican poster child.

Schwarzenegger was the perfect 80’s icon. His exploded musculature encapsulated the strength-through-overwhelming-force mantra of Reagan era politics and defense spending.

When you spend all your time in the gym, it doesn't leave much time for the library.

In his films, utterly forgettable action films that bordered on the fascist, Arnold battled the twin forces of government corruption, permissiveness and softness on the one hand and the crime that flourished in its shadow in the other. Justice was meted out directly, brutally, and usually from the barrel of a gun.

He was perfect. That is what the mainstream wanted at that time. No subtlety, no complexity. Everything was simple. Bad guys are bad, and good guys can do whatever they want to punish the bad guys, because they system is too soft to do it. In the 1980’s, the worst thing you could call a presidential candidate was “wimp.” Arnold didn’t look like a wimp, he didn’t act like a wimp in his movies, so America embraced him. In his action films, the characters he played were interchangeable, shallow, and emotionless, save for corny one-liners he delivered before dealing the crushing blow to the enemy.

Arnold, winning the Cold War one frame at a time.

Arnold’s films made money because he allowed American men to vicariously live out every macho fantasy they felt was being stifled in the real life era of feminism, tolerance, and multiculturalism.

Of course it was all a sham. When Generation X grew up in the late 90’s and Schwarzenegger became an ironic figure to be lampooned and caricatured, he followed his now middle-aged audience from the 80’s into the domain of talk radio and late night politics. In those fora, he could continue to peddle the politics of democrats-as-socialists and “tough-on-everything” without any criticism. And at a time when California state politics seemed mired in bi-partisan bickering and financial mismanagement, Schwarzenegger seized an opportunity to be the Hollywood hero coming to save the day once again.

And throughout all this, whatever he did in his private life wasn’t a secret so much as it seemed inexplicably not to matter. Schwarzenegger was the first choice Reagan’s ambassador of physical fitness, even though everyone know (and he freely admitted) that his physique was the product of steroid use. During the production of Terminator 3, some gossip outlets picked up on rumors of Schwarzenegger groping and manhandling female members of the crew. But those rumors went nowhere, because with a hundred million dollars of box office on the line, no one is going to mess with the money.

So now Schwarzenegger finds himself as a public figure with no public. No one wants to see Raw Deal 2 or his 60+ yr old physique. That time has past. No one but the fringes still believe after 8 years of the Bush presidency that Republicans are the party of small government and fiscal discipline and Democrats are “tax and spend liberals”.

Schwarzenegger is a spent force, and everything he represented has been cast aside and replaced by new mythologies and new icons. What you are seeing play out now is Schwarzenegger being flushed from the American psyche once and for all. 

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49 Responses to The Death of the Last Action Hero

  1. Interesting, but I think it’s more subtle than that. Why did everyone turn on him? Because we’ve all learned that the world is nuanced and difficult to navigate? That we’re suddenly anti-hypocrisy?

    “No one wants to see Raw Deal 2.” Yes they do, but it’s even more comic-booky (Thor, etc.) “No one wants to see a 60 year old physique.” That’s dead right. Arnold’s great crime was that he grew old. “Holy crap, have you seen him now?!?” It’s easy to project all our anxiety about getting old onto a guy who pretended to be immortal.

    Meanwhile, however, he did, in fact: be a world class bodybuilder; be a gigantic movie star; be a governor; raise 2-3 kids; etc.

    We’re not flushing Arnold-types out of the system, we’re simply flushing Arnold himself out, making room for the next exact same guy, but younger. Another hero who can save us from the same: communism, liberal politics, wimpiness, etc. He was a product of the 80s because the 70s just happened. He didn’t exist because of Reagan, he existed because of Carter.

    We’re back there, again, ready for a new generation of teens to look for a new “super” hero to save us, basically, from their parents and the world they created.

    They’re remaking Conan, metaphorically and in real life.

  2. CubaLibre says:

    I won’t have slander heaped on near-perfect films like Conan, Commando, Predator and Terminator. Arnold was in a lot of shitty movies that are exactly the Cold War propaganda you describe, and certainly Arnold himself had no input (or desire to have input) into whether the movie was great or trash, but he was used by some excellent directors to perfect effect in the 80’s.

  3. DJames says:

    Liked TLP’s repack of this post. Good clarifications.

    Can the next Arnold be, perhaps, Jason Statham? I know some will say The Rock, but c’mon.

  4. Pastabagel says:

    The difference is the actions films now are about the character (I.e. Thor). In the 80’s they were about the star. And this wasn’t limited to Arnold. Remember Chuck Norris, Sly Stallone, etc. All were politically to the right, all made the same kind of ruthless, revenge fantasy movies. That genre has all but disappeared.

    Furthermore, actions films now don’t have the same cultural impact as the films in the 80’s.

    We aren’t going ti have actions films about fighting the boogeymen of the right, because no one today believes the world is divided along those lines.

    • Supastaru says:

      But for Jason Statham. Statham does not fit your theory.

    • CubaLibre says:

      Villains of choice these days are nonstate actors: terrorists, pirates, rebel militias, international criminal syndicates, whatever. Blackhawk Down, The Expendables, Taken, The Transporter. These are still the boogeymen of the right, though perhaps they’re the boogeymen of everyone.

      I’d say, though, that it’s less about taking cinematic revenge against boogeymen and more about feeling ok about horrific violence because it’s committed against the dehumanized. In other words, action movies aren’t made with boogeyman villains in order to exorcise social demons; action movies are only interested in blowing the shit out of people, and boogeymen are who it is permitted to blow the shit out of. Proof? When the boogeymen change, so do the movie villains – but the movies themselves remain the same.

      • Pastabagel says:

        First, Statham was not an 80’s action hero. Second, his movies are not exactly mass market popular. Transporter 3’s gross in the US was $31 million. Statham’s actions films are bigger hits elsewhere. He is very clearly the action star of the moment, but as I said above, actions movies in the US don’t matter today the way they mattered in the 1980’s.

        Furthermore, in 80’s action movies, it was the hero who was dehumanized, not the villain. That was a critically important characteristic of them. In fact, one could argue that Arnold, Stallone, and others were action stars precisely because of their emotionless, robotic delivery. By contrast, the villains were much more developed, had more lines of dialogue, etc.

        By contrast, today the villains in actions films that are popular are not the non-state agents like criminals and terrorists, i.e. enemies of the right. The villains in action films today are corporations or the US government itself: Iron Man, Avatar, Spider-Man, Die Hard 4, The Bourne Trilogy, etc.

        • CubaLibre says:

          Or space aliens/monsters/extradimensional whatevers: Transformers, Battle: LA, Thor, etc.

          Avatar I’ll give you. Die Hard 4 was explicitly a terrorist organization, Willis was working for the FBI and saved Washington, for Christ’s sake. Iron Man runs the world’s most lucrative and inventive defense contractor. USA! USA!

          Clearly there are examples of all types but it seems to me that 80’s-style “slick USA kills nasty Other” is still in full force, more than any other theme. What I will admit is that the aesthetics of action movies have changed while their themes haven’t, which shows that modern action directors have no idea what they’re doing – form is content, and vice versa, and changing the form so radically while adopting similar content from the 80’s makes for weirdly incoherent action movies. I still don’t think that says anything about society’s collective need for catharsis.

          • Pastabagel says:

            In Die Hard 4, the bad guy, Thomas Gabriel was a top computer expert at NSA who was fired and humiliated over his calls to prepare for cyberwarfare. While at NSA, he built the Woodlawn, MD backup facility where all the nation’s financial records are to be stored in the event of a catastrophe like the one he instigates. So Gabriel is very much an ex-spook using terrorism as a cover for a more conventional crime. And McClane doesn’t work for the FBI, he works for the NYPD and is simply asked to bring Justin Long to the FBI for questionning, but very soon after beings to distrust them, and sets off with Justin Long to stop Gabriel on their own.

            In Iron Man, the bad guy was Obadiah Stane, the head of Stark Industries. Tony Stark doesn’t run the company, Stane does.

            Most contemporary action films that are popular are about how the government/corporation is the bad guy or created the bad guy. I haven’t seen the Transformers movies so I can’t comment on them, but my guess would be that at some point the government through its lust of defense technology and secrecy contributes to or precipitates the attack by the evil robots.

            The last USA-kicks-ass movie that I can think of that was a popular success was Independence Day in 1996 (15 years ago). But I don’t think any action films with that rah-rah theme were big hits after The Matrix in 1998.

            Let’s face it, we just celebrated the killing of one bad guy after nearly 10 years of war. No one seriously believes the USA-kicks-ass rhetoric anymore, or at least not as much as they believe the “US government is a corrupt tool of corporations.”

            You mention Battle: LA, but that film supports my point. It was precisely a USA kicks ass movie, but it was not a big hit in the US, grossing only $83 million domestically. By contrast, Fast Five an action movie where the criminals are the good guys grossed $171 million in the US so far, and almost $500 million worldwide.

        • BluegrassJack says:

          You can add Red to that list.

  5. AdamSaleh1987 says:

    Arnold is given all this flak presently because he truly is a great person. His cover blown because he no longer is young, everyone thinks he is a sham although everyone knew from the get-go that he used steroids and loved messing around. You think Tiger Woods’ wife thought he wasn’t cheating? Please, what a joke. I love how the same people criticizing Arnold for doing steroids go and watch Thor, hilarious. Do you think the actor that played Thor shot to 260 lbs in 6 months because he ate his vegetables? Is there a single body builder post 1960’s that didn’t use steroids? Do you think every athlete in the Olympics is clean?

    Rhetorical. Let me tell you something about steroids, you don’t take them and then tomorrow look like Arnold or Ronnie Coleman. It takes a whole lot more than that.

    What normal person is a championship bodybuilder that redefined exercise physiology, the biggest actor of his era and California’s governor despite not being American born? Arnold is the greatest and his drive indisputable. He has changed pop culture forever, no one can make headlines like he does. Arnold makes people feel inadequate because they have poor discipline and a helpless outlook. The steroids and cheating just give them reasons to do so.

    • JohnJ says:

      That’s exactly what Scott Adams would say.

      • FrederickMercury says:

        i’ll assume you’re just being glib for amusement, because that post is exactly right. the only way someone would disagree is if they don’t know anything about steroids… which is most people.

        the next question is, how is the story going to mutate once people start learning about the other woman, and the other kid?

    • xylokopos says:

      ” Arnold makes people feel inadequate because they have poor discipline and a helpless outlook. The steroids and cheating just give them reasons to do so.”

      Amen to that.

      Arnold is the perfect target for ‘ressentiment’, the envy and frustration of the overeducated underachievers; every man without an inferiority complex and secure in his masculinity admires him.

      • claudius says:

        every man without an inferiority complex and secure in his masculinity admires him.

        Excellent point. This sums up nearly all of Arnold’s male critics.

        Everyone has flaws. It’s what one does in spite of those flaws that makes him (or her) great.

  6. Fifi says:

    Eh, the reason why this is getting some play now is that Arnie is no longer the governator and his strategic political wife has separated from him. Arnie’s simply being given flak because he’s still a celebrity, as is his wife who is now actually making an issue of his infidelities and feels she can leave. To me, the fact that Maria is leaving and making this an issue is really a better indicator of how “over” Arnie actually is – if he still had some sort of political capital, I suspect she’d have stuck with him and helped with the coverup/media management.

  7. claudius says:

    One thing that makes a hero — beyond brawn or brains — is the ability to have a dream and bring it to life.

    Cynicism is built into our modern culture. It doubts that anyone is capable of bringing ideas to life. We live in an age where we root for public figures to fail.

    We hate to see others succeed because it makes us feel as though we’ve failed. We want to see them fail because then we won’t feel like failures.

    The part of Arnold, which will never will be flushed out or die is the ability to take a dream and bring it into reality. Sure, he may not have “spent time in the library,” but he did spend plenty of time in the school of hard knocks. And during this time he figured out of how to do something that anyone can do, but few people actually accomplish.

    You will never learn what Arnold knows in a library.

    Arnold has been dreaming and doing his entire life. It’s a shame some people have such a narrow view as to only focus on his negatives, but that is reflective of our society more than anything.

  8. AnonymousAtLarge says:

    1980s Action stars could not occur in today’s world, because they were the last symbolic hurrah of powerful, effectual white men. After the 1990s, that pretty much ended. White men are no longer allowed to kick ass and be powerful and in control, at least not in movies. Like a burst of energy before death, the 1980s action movies were a last gasp of symbolic white society that controlled everything, for granted, had total control and power to do whatever it wanted whenever it wanted.

    Our culture has changed. Our ethnicity has changed, our tolerance of women has changed, our tolerance of gender expression and sexuality has changed, and someone like Chuck Norris or Arnold Schwarzenegger or Sylvester Stalone et al angry armed ass kicking white guys (with a cult following) could not and will not ever be seen on the TEE VEE ever again.

    If such an action movie were to be made, it would involve a multicultural cast, with women, with guys who were not quite AS one dimensional, unemotional and ass kicking. E.g. the fast and the furious.

    • AdamSaleh1987 says:

      I can see what you are saying, but I am 24, not white, and I admire Arnold more than anyone on here. Yeah maybe, “the white man” is symbolically dead in the movies unless they’re superheroes, you know what I think? The pendulum can swing back at any moment.

    • jeffwong says:

      Uhmmmm…. No more movies where white guys can be action heroes and have ultimate control? Batman, Jason Bourne, John McClane, Rambo 4, Tears of the Sun, all the guys in Band of Brothers, the Pacific, Generation Kill, that EOD bomb movie in Iraq, Vin Diesel, Jason Statham, Matrix, Blackhawk Down, Equilibrium.

      It’s not about white men. It’s just that shallow characters are no longer allowed. Rambo 4 was a much better movie than 2 or 3. Chuck Norris, JCVD, Seagal (white?), Dolph Lundgren, etc… are out of fashion because the characters they played did not resemble real people.

      Is this a lament? That style of action movie is not coming back because it’s already been done. Don’t get me wrong. I loved those action movies growing up, but the violence was so cheesy and free of consequences. Movies in the past decade give a more fair treatment of violence as protagonists can get killed and do.

      Honestly, I hate multiculturalism, especially when minorities willingly participate by reducing themselves to caricatures of their race (they usually don’t know their “culture”).

      What is lamentable about movies recently is not the lack of white men, but the lack of originality. A large portion of new movies are either sequels, derived from comic books, remakes or even the dreaded “reboot” of a franchise.

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