The 80s was the golden era of the comically pumped-up action hero. But this summer they are back on the screen, alongside a new generation of beefcakes. Why?
Well, he always promised. Confirmation that Arnold Schwarzenegger would indeed be making a return to cinemas came a few weeks ago with the announcement of a sequel to Twins – Triplets, with Eddie Murphy. And by the time that film reaches us, the man famous for littering his works with smoking bodies and eviscerated vowels will already have starred in action thriller The Last Stand, and done the slo-mo explosion walk in Sylvester Stallone’s The Expendables 2. The Governator’s in the house.
The first Expendables, in 2010, hinted at it, but this summer will make things clear: the beefcake action star is back. There is a triple-beef sandwich in Marvel Avengers Assemble, starring Captain America, Thor and the Hulk. In July, meat concentration levels get dangerously high with the Spider-Man reboot and The Dark Knight Rises. The villain in the former is the Lizard who, judging by the hand he plunges through a car roof in the trailer, is far more hulking and steroidal than the lithe Green Goblin. Meanwhile, Tom Hardy is still on the protein shakes, reportedly gaining 30lbs of muscle to slap Batman around in his role as “human juggernaut” Bane. Mark Wahlberg and Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson play bodybuilder bank robbers in Pain and Gain, the next film by Michael Bay.
The heyday for this sort of hero, of course, was the 1980s, when a person’s pay packet appeared to be proportionally linked to their bench-press record, and we were on first-name terms with Arnie, Sly, Dolph and Jean-Claude. But this time around there’s something different about the beefcake. They’ve crossed the line, from pristinely oiled killing machines, to pockmarked veterans chancing it for one last job – and not just on the screen, as a jokey photo posted by Schwarzenegger, 64, of him and Stallone, 65, side-by-side in hospital apparently receiving treatment for shoulder injuries, showed. You don’t see many sexagenarians in this kind of shape, but beneath the tattoos, the skin is papery over those abs, the visage raddled. Something’s not right.
Prior to the 80s, if a film star had that ripped kind of body, he was almost certainly playing someone of impeccable moral standing (think Johnny Weissmuller as Tarzan or Steve Reeves as Hercules). Musculature of this kind was the province of demi-gods, superheroes and noble savages. In the bodybuilding boom that followed, Arnie and Lou Ferrigno – their rivalry documented in the classic 1977 docudrama Pumping Iron – became the sport’s ambassadors to mainstream culture. They were in the right place at the right time – just as B-movies were becoming A-movies, and the call was out for a new, outsized kind of hero to help defenestrate what was left of 70s realism.
The action star of the 80s was widely seen, in films such as Predator, Rambo: First Blood, Part II and Cobra, as Reaganite foreign policy made flesh (with an Uzi 9mm in hand). They were a glorification of the shoot-first-make-self-aggrandising-quip-later kind of unilateralism used to keep the American end up against Soviet communism. The pumped-up physiques signified impregnability in fractious times; as Adam Curtis pointed out in a recent blog post, bodybuilding originally caught on in Britain at the turn of the 19th century, just as the idea of empire was starting to be questioned. There’s no kind of self-doubt, it seems, that can’t be sorted out with a few thousand squat thrusts.
Back in America, by the late 80s, beefy action heroes were already looking immobile next to nimbler newcomers such as Bruce Willis and Mel Gibson. Schwarzenegger, the only beefcake with any real charisma, started to diversify into comedies. In 1994, Speed came out, and a buzz-cutted, discreetly buff Keanu Reeves gave us the new sensitive face of male action stardom (and Sandra Bullock looked just as capable of getting their bus out of trouble). We all know what the 80s he-man would have said about that, but the game was up for him. The droll sheen had gone from Schwarzenegger’s films, and with 1996’s Eraser he began the worst run of this career. Stallone was arguably the frontrunner of the pair for the first time. Things were bad: Steven Seagal started to look like a solution.
To make the humiliation worse, it was the geek who was put in charge of resurrecting the beefcake’s fortunes 10 years later. Who else had the adolescent fantasy of muscle-bound impunity really been aimed at? As a pencilneck bookworm delighted to be invited into very unparentally guided screenings of Bloodsport and Commando, I count myself among that number in the 80s. By the time we geeks were of age in the early noughties, with more than a few working in the studios or as film critics, we were ready to repay the debt, and invite the meathead back in. But not without kicking a little ironic sand in his face, making movies or writing books that were a bit too clever about the trashy action heroes of old, such as Mabrouk El Mechri’s JCVD, or Seagalogy: A Study of the Ass-Kicking Films of Steven Seagal, a 395-page (with three appendices) meditation on the master’s oeuvre by Ain’t It Cool writer Vern.
There was always a sense of the absurd in the best of the 80s beefcake oeuvre, in its cartoonishness and penchant for flippant violence. But at the same time, the genre took itself with a narcissistic seriousness that would be impossible now: the audience is simply too knowing, about the drugs involved, about the political associations, about the limits of this kind of hero. I think that’s the reason why recherché iron-pumpers such as Vin Diesel and Dwayne Johnson have stuttered in recent years: like your personal trainer says, it’s all about a strong core, and they don’t have a natural constituency any more. Johnson – good-looking, dynamic and charismatic – has been mightily effective in impact parts in The Scorpion King, The Other Guys and Fast Five. But left to hold the fort, he’s attempted the Schwarzenegger manoeuvre of combining po-faced actioners (Walking Tall) with knuckle-dragging comedies (Tooth Fairy), with disappointing results.
The meatheads have to face it – no one’s dazzled by a Himalayan bicep peak any more. The Expendables shows the dangers of trying to pull the old routine without an ironic safeguard. With the fatigued banter between its leathery linebackers, it comes across, as Peter Bradshaw put it, “like it’s set in the world’s most macho prostrate clinic”. The sequel, piling on even more beef in the shape of Van Damme and Chuck Norris, seems unlikely to be an arthouse departure. Maybe it’s The Expendables franchise that best articulates the sense of desperation in the air, of a rearguard action for beleaguered masculinity.
Steroids have long been associated with bodybuilding (Stallone himself was charged with importing human growth hormone, HGH, into Australia in 2007), but this need for a little extra help is built into contemporary action heroes. HGH used to be synthesised from cadavers. It’s not so far from Batman’s Bane, and Venom, the super-serum that gives him his demonic strength. Dubious elixirs fuelling dubious desires: no wonder the “new beefcake” has a touch of the dark side. The Belgian film Rundskop (Bullhead), one of this year’s foreign-language Oscar nominees, plays the idea for its full tragic dimension with an emasculated beefcake as protagonist: Matthias Schoenaerts gives a powerhouse performance as a Flemish farmer as juiced up as his swollen-haunched cattle. But he’s got good reason for his rage: his testicles were crushed in a childhood accident.
The insecurity and the pain were probably there all along for the meatheads. After all, Stallone first came to fame as the battered Rocky Balboa, perpetually climbing back on to his feet; or John Rambo, in the first film the symbol of America’s wounded, post-Vietnam pride. Arnie blazed his way through with more of a twinkle in his eye, but was never far from revelling in the violence, from acknowledging there was something inhuman coursing through that grotesque vascular network. It was the Terminator, the remorseless android, not Conan the freed slave, that made him a star, after all.
At the height of their rivalry in 1986, Schwarzenegger accused Stallone of a heartless, machine-like devotion to his work in a GQ interview: “If you’re doing 120lb curls, he will say, I can do 130. He’s obsessed, and that carries through in the way he dresses, how hard he tries to belong to a charity organisation. It’s all Rocky, it doesn’t come from, you know [Arnold points to his heart] … There’s no love there. And people see that. You can fake your way through for a year, but for ten years, that’s hard. I think that’s the difference between him and me.”
It’ll be interesting to see if Arnie’s heart, pig valve and all, is still in it as he makes his comeback. After all, it is Stallone who has soldiered on, not for 10 years, but for more than 20. As the hulks stagger back for one more round, Hollywood must surely see itself reflected in these gorged physiques, pumped up past their prime, fear in their bloodshot eyes; there’s an obvious parallel with its stable of multi- million-dollar blockbusters, their budgets inflated past the danger point, too big to fail. (No wonder World Wrestling Entertainment, which understands the pantomime appeal, is continuing to expand its film arm.)
“Too big to fail.” They said it about the banks, of course. Perhaps the giant scale of the whole thing is only just coming into view and the new beefcake isn’t just Hollywood but the swollen, over-fed west, pumped up not on creatine but on credit, nervously self-medicating against its own decline. I think of Shame, Steve McQueen’s film, as the spiritual film of the hubris-hulk: the way the director frames Michael Fassbender’s features in towering closeups as monumental as skyscrapers, or a Mr Universe pose, pushing his handsomeness over into something imposing and over-evolved, ready to collapse under its own mass.
People always hark back in dark times. The fanboys would like to turn back the clock to the geek antiquity of the 80s; Schwarzenegger, Stallone and their meathead peers probably want it even more, to when they were well-oiled titans. But things can’t be the same. We know too much about the price paid, and the big secret beating in ageing beefcake hearts: that your body never lies. Like Arnie said in Terminator 2, his battered android finally accepting its expiry date: “I know now why you cry.”