Weak guys can’t be heroes: Or can they?
- Published: 03 October 2011
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3 October 2011
Growing up, we have all been exposed to mainstream action films. We watched Arnie and Stallone flexing their muscles while blowing up cars, and we gazed at the likes of Seagal and Norris dispatching hordes of foes with exotic and deadly martial arts.
It’s a one man vs. bad guys formula peppered with violence, with the viewers safe in their seats, which has served us well. Regardless of whether you watch these movies or not, humanity has enjoyed vicarious viewings of violence since the Roman Colosseum first opened.
Whether or not we should condone watching violence is certainly a big debate, but not one I intend to start here.
What I ask, instead, is whether we really need the typical action hero to be the pinnacle of masculinity, or what was considered masculine at the time of release?
In the ’70s and ’80s it was mullets, moustaches and shirts tucked into jeans. It was cops and speedboats. In the ’90s and 2000s the fashion style changed while the formula did slightly, as we got more into special effects and epicness. Action heroes were what women wanted and what men aspired to be, secretly or openly.
But now, with the modern world becoming more accepting of cultural and social differences, should the stereotype change? Or is the action hero contractually obligated to look the part because image is everything?
In the recent superhero flick, Captain America, viewers are presented with Steve Rogers. He is an instantly likeable character – a short, frail man (played by a digitally diminished Chris Evans), wishing nothing more than to serve his country in the war effort. His diminutive size has him turned down by both recruitment officers and beautiful women.
Forgetting the comic book superhero stereotype that would inevitably manifest, one could not help but feel sympathy and respect for the little guy, his intellect and ingenuity (coupled with commendable 1940s US patriotism) helping him to overcome his problems. Rogers’ not-so-physical qualities eventually attract the attention of a defected German scientist who turns the zero into a hero using super-strength serum.
You would think it would be fine for the little guy to finally get back at bullies and help his homeland. Alas, having superpowers alone is not enough to become Captain America – in the process he gains the extra height needed to stare down at ladies and a bulging action hero body to show for. After a bit of parading in stage shows, he is ready to single-handedly liberate prisoners from Nazi camps.
In the still somewhat recent Avatar, the protagonist Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is a wheelchair-bound soldier who is given another chance thanks to a secret project – entering the body of a 3m-tall blue alien on a distant planet colony.
He befriends a bunch of natives and defends their settlement from the evil human colonist, falls in love and becomes their long-awaited saviour. But when the mission is complete, the blue action hero doesn’t think twice about returning to his paraplegic body – given the chance, he chooses to settle down in the blue forest, leaving his crippled, imperfect shell forever.
Should we strive to condemn these plots as discriminatory to people with disabilities or otherwise imperfect bodies? Or, should we just accept that action heroes have to personify the strong, attractive and able?
Sure, we do have films with anti-heroes, we have films about people’s struggles with weakness, but there is no room for these archetypes in action films, right?
It seems this problem can be avoided when the main character is not the focus of the viewers’ gaze.
Filmmaker James Cameron (putting the machine and flesh Terminator archetype aside), did actually make action flicks where the protagonist is not a bulging behemoth – I don’t recall Titanic’s Leonardo DiCaprio nor sci-fi action queen Sigourney Weaver as pinnacles of body physique at the time. The real objects to look at were a doomed cruise liner and the deadly, chest-popping aliens.
Then there are films that allow their main characters to have plenty of weaknesses, provided their shortcomings are equally augmented by some form of power.
In superhero movies we have Daredevil, a blind man with bat-like sonar ability, which allows him to exact sweet justice on those that underestimate him. Not far from this are some of the more damaging movie stereotypes of mentally challenged people, such as Rain Man or Good Will Hunting, clearly showing mental illness rewards one with amazing mathematical talents useful for cracking secret codes or robbing casinos.
So, is the physical display of strength an absolute prerequisite for the action film hero? Are physical weaknesses meant to be shunned and corrected on the silver screen?
Perhaps for the same reason that we enjoy watching characters that are stronger, wittier or more attractive than us, so we relate to weaknesses replaced with powerful abilities to offset our, and our genetic pool’s’ shortcomings. It may not be right in everyday life to accept anything less than perfection.
But is it acceptable to imagine it?
By day, Tom Geba is an analyst in the Australian not-for-profit sector. By night, he is an avid journalist, musician and fiction writer. He is a recent University of New South Wales Masters graduate in communication and journalism.