Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Expendables and the Evolution of Masculinity in Action Films

No, this is not a review, merely a commentary on the current state of the action films, and their evolution throughout time.  The Expendables 2 stars some big names, most so famous you can recognize them by their last name: Schwarzenegger, Stallone, Stratham, Lundgren, Van Damme, Norris, Willis, and Li.  These guys have made names for themselves starring in films from the 70s until the present in films that not only star them, but star the explosions that center around them.  From The Terminator to The Transporter these films rarely rely on their dialogue.  Although their films did tell us "I'll be back" and have provided some great quotable moments.  Today's action films center on something different, sure the action/explosions are there, look at the Bourne series or the evolution of the James Bond franchise, and how can you forget the massively successful Transformers, but is the action hero different?  Are these men truly an expendable icon today?

What happened to that big macho beefy guy who "picked things up and put them down." Sure they still exist, and when I watch an action film I almost have to wipe the drool from my chin because of Ryan Reynolds or Hugh Jackman's glistening abs, but there is something different about these two guys.  At times there is something more complex about the role of an action hero today, which sometimes involves a back story or makes the guy stand out.  Today action films star Lebeouf, Damon, Depp, and Bloom.  What an interesting combination of names and while some are recognizable by last name Lebeouf, Damon, I doubt many would categorize them as "action" stars.  

One of my favorite lines about Damon comes from Paul Rudd's character in 40 Year Old Virgin  "You know, I always thought that Matt Damon was like a Streisand, but I think he’s rockin’ the shit in this one!" Most guys do not define Damon as an action star because he dares to take roles that men would not define as "masculine" films like We Bought a Zoo, or The Talented Mr. Ripley.  While most of Damon's roles are "masculine" they miss the hyper masculine mark of the 70s, 80s, and early to mid 90s.  Damon has emotional connections, there is no detachment. 

The same can be said for Lebeouf; he may be the male lead in the Transformers series, and he gets the "hottest" girls in the franchise, but he doesn't done a uniform like Tyrese or Josh Duhamel, but yet he is billed as the largest star, or the central character in the film.  I do not remember seeing much about Tyrese's characters family; he is the the one you see detached from the outside, but yet he would represent the more typical representation of masculinity.

The same can said for Johnny Depp and Orlando Bloom.  These two men starred in one of the most successful trilogies of the 2000s, and Depp went on to star in the fourth film, and there is not a hard edge to be found in either of these two characters.  Jack Sparrow could be considered weak, while he is out for himself; he is also the modern representation of the "action hero."  More films are being made with a character like this than with a guy like the Terminator these days.  Will Turner (Bloom) is another mold for action heroes today; he is the lover and the fighter.  What's different?  A lot of the guys above had lovers, the difference is that Bloom's style is more feminine he is a romantic/poetic fighter.  Sure Sly had Adrien in his rocky films, but that was "man's" love and he was just a simple guy, but also in control.

Together these four different actors represent versions of the current male action star, something new, something different.  What happened to the old guard?  Why do we we need a special engagement or one film to represent that old school action hero?  Times have changed, do these older guys, or style of film fit within today's world? Yes, no, and why do they to?  A lot of questions posed, and different answers from different film theorists.  Even men like Vin Diesel have done films like The Pacifier and their action status has faded.

In my opinion a film like The Expendables, and Expendables 2 has its place in the film spectrum because it represents a snapshot of film history.  While these films may not be Hamlet, or any other classic work of art they represent a time stamp, which proves that there is room for a variety of films.  I represent the more "modern man." I am sensitive, queer, and smile, have emotions.  I like films like Easy A, Mean Girls, and to go cliche old school Beaches and Steel Magnolias.  On the flip side I like to see things get blown up from Die Hard and T-2, to Bourne and the most recent Bond films.  Today's "modern man" seems to be able to reconcile variety, we like all different kinds of films, and sometimes the cheap action does not work for us, we want a story.   I speak for this non statistical group of men, with whom I am defining as "modern." 

The "modern" men are guys like Damon, Bloom, LeBeouf, not many are like Johnny Depp, but there are enough.  Men used to be defined in the same style as these action films tough or fag.  I say say fag because most men thought/think this.  Male celebrity has evolved throughout the ages.  From John Wayne to Depp there has been a more diverse representation.  Producers are willing to go out on a limb because a character is popular.  Film studios are not in the game of reinventing gender norms, they just follow the financial trends.  Something changed the action star, whether that be societal norms, or audiences wanting more with their action.  Studying gender in action films could be an entire book, or even a couple volumes one book studying each decade.  

The release of the Expendables and its sequel this Friday prove nostalgia is never a thing of the past, and there are audiences craving for that hyper masculine representation once in a while.  Variety is the spice of life, and while I think a mass production of films within this vein would be a big mistake, there needs to be something for everyone.  I am kind of looking forward to this film, it does not fit into my standard repertoire of film taste, but there is something about embracing my masculinity ever once in a while.  Ironically I am sure most men don't discuss their masculinity, but someone needs to.  I can see Bloom and Damon starring in a film about that next, entitled "The Sensitivity of Being Male."

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