Physical Unfitness: The Decline Of Homo-Musculus

What happened to all the movie muscle men?

“It’s NOT a tumor!” It was just a sign of things to come...


They were once the heroes of our times: our modern-day Greek gods, the movie stars we went to see in a darkened theater and looked up to with the childlike naivety that knew they had the abilities and strength we’d previously only attributed to our own parents. These men (and women) were our ACTION HEROES, our titans of celluloid. But well past the age of parental disillusionment that comes to all children, these men and women retained all of their luster and strength. These days, though, our former heroes are gone—whether it be to politics, reality TV or cash-grab, direct-to-video sequels to their previous blockbusters. We now live a world devoid of the human gargantuas that once made action movies so fucking great.

Don’t believe me? Think about who your heroes are today. Is it a fully-CG Iron Man or Hulk? Or the fast-thinking Jason Bourne? Do you love the body-sculpted suit of Captain America? What action star has the prodigious presence compelling us to go to the movie theater every week? Schwarzenegger himself was asked whom he’d call his modern-day successor, and he concluded: “I don’t know if anyone has...I think there are several good people: The Rock (Dwayne Johnson), Jason Statham, all these guys; there’s a handful of guys like that out there. But I don’t know if anyone has really shot through and made the big punch through.”

Sylvester Stallone actually thinks the action hero of yesteryear died in 1989. "It was the first Batman movie. The action movies changed radically when it became possible to Velcro your muscles on. It was the beginning of a new era. The visual took over. The special effects became more important than the single person. That was the beginning of the end."

Were stars like Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger circumstantial victims of the modern-day action spectacle? Batman came out in 1989, but if you take a gander at their filmographies you will see that, in 1990, Schwarzenegger made Kindergarten Cop after Total Recall and Stallone made ‘91’s Oscar and ‘92’s Stop Or My Mom Will Shoot. Sure, they made great action movies before and after these films, but—at the time—in a post-Batman world, it seemed as though their Rambo and Comando days were far behind them. They had seen the competition, and they lost their confidence in who they were and what they did so well.

Remember the first time you realized your dad’s not as strong as you thought he was and how forever changed you were? No matter what he did after that, being subjected to his vulnerability forever changed your perception of the guy. The seemingly invulnerable Stallone and Schwarzenegger showed their softer sides, creating chinks in their armor that they themselves emphasized in 1993 with the films Last Action Hero and Demolition Man. These movies portrayed them as obsolete versions of what the world needs. Stallone played a loose cannon cop, frozen in time, while Schwarzenegger portrayed a big screen action hero who finds he is merely mortal in the world of men. It’s like they knew that their time was waning, so they decided to reveal what’s behind the curtain. How were we supposed to ever believe in their magic again?

The world around them changed as audiences started lapping up the spectacle of 1993’s Jurassic Park. Their psyches would not recover, as the very next year Schwarzenegger was pregnant in Junior and smooth-chested pretty boys named Keanu were tearing up the box office using their brains to solve problems and stop speeding buses. Had ‘80s Schwarzenegger been there, Speed would have been 15 minutes of him ripping the bomb off the bus and stopping it Flintstones-style with his feet before ramming the explosive down Dennis Hopper’s throat.

So where are our heroes now? Is there no man who will stand shirtless and alone at the edge of a battlefield, grinning as an army of South American mercenaries descend upon him? Who will save us using only a field knife and a badass one-liner? Are our former heroes too old? Did they go soft? NO! Our heroes aren’t dead; they are just waiting, dormant, for us to need them again—and today we need them more than ever.

There was once a time when a hero was all the spectacle audiences needed. He didn’t have to have repressed emotional issues, and he didn’t have to fly a CGI ship into outer space. All he had to do was stand tall against the odds and go toe-to-toe with any danger that faced him. But, as our eyes grow tired of computer tricks in 3D and the hollowness of artifice, there will be a time for our warriors to rise again. Whether The Rock finishes what he started in The Rundown or an old, grizzled Schwarzenegger rises from the ashes like a phoenix (as a metaphor...not a visual effect) to reclaim his barbarian mantle, we will see muscle-bound heroes making us believe in the raw power of humans once again.

Schwarzenegger always said he would be sit down because school is about to be back in session.

This article originally appeared in "Back to School," the September issue of Birth.Movies.Death. You can pick up a physical copy of the magazine at your local Alamo Drafthouse, or you can read it on the web here.