Monday Morning Critic – Male Physical Decline and The Movies: How The Modern Male Actor Reflects The Modern American Male

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One of the more interesting stories of the past week was that of the decline in grip strength of the American man. The Washington Post had an interesting story about it, which you can read here, and a lot of people seemed to have an opinion on it.

A lot of it came down to people poking fun at the modern Millennial man, of course, and a lot of different outlets had differing opinions on what this meant. Me, I looked at the methodology behind as interesting but a little flawed. It seems like one of those great clickbait medical stories that takes a small sample size and makes a much grander argument than it really ought to. It’s like asking four people who they’re voting for and then thinking that some political candidate or the other is going to win a national election based on their pick.

It leads to a number of interesting things you can speculate on about the modern American male between the ages of 18-34, of course, and most of them weren’t very good. It was amusing because it reflects a lot of what I’ve seen at the gym over the past couple years. Anecdotal evidence is never the best, or conclusive in any aspect, but seeing the next generation of devotees of the iron game makes me think that this study probably reflects a trend in the newest generation.

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Most of the young guys I see work out at the same times I do tend to be more interested in aesthetics and the like, looking to compete in the physique competitions at bodybuilding shows. It’s never about lifting heavy for a lot of these kids; it’s about how they look once they take their shirt off. I never thought I’d see so many guys taking shirtless pics in the locker room of a commercial gym but apparently that’s kind of a thing these days. It’s weird being old enough that I can look at these kids and feel out of touch with the next wave of gym culture.

I say “kid” because I own t-shirts that are older than many of them. There comes a point in your life when someone between 20-24 looks like a twelve year old. I never believed it when I was that age but, as I move closer to 40 than 30 at this juncture, it’s kind of uncanny.

It took my a while to understand why these guys are so focused on how they look as opposed to moving iron because it’s a generational thing. When I started really getting into working out it was about being the strongest guy in the gym. It’s how we compared ourselves to one another; whoever could bench/squat/deadlift/curl/whatever the most was who was winning the iron game.

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It directly reflected in cinema, too. Schwarzenegger, Stallone, et al, were guys who were large, powerful men and also larger than life action heroes. There’s a reason why we always joke that to be an action movie star from 1980 until the early 90s was contingent on a good workout regime, a steady supply of one liners and a healthy dose of anabolic steroids. Being the star of an action film didn’t just require you to be in shape; you had to be a physical specimen of a man.

It’s what drove a whole generation into the gym to play the iron game, myself included. Our heroes were these larger than life icons and we wanted to lift heavy weights, just like them. That generation of action film came, and went, and now it’s delightfully tacky to have an old school action film. Sylvester Stallone took another stab at relevance with the Expendables franchise, which delightfully pandered to that, and now the one man army type of film is relegated to the history shelf of cinema. One almost absurdly muscled everyman taking on armies of bad guys by himself is something that doesn’t sell anymore.

It’s been replaced by the superhero film as the action film of the moment, of course, but something curious has happened along the way. The American male actor needs to be a superhero now because the toughness of American men in acting has gone by the wayside.

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It would be easy, and incorrect, to say that American male actors of note under the age of 35 are not quite “real men” like their counterparts of the 1980s were. The thing with modern American male actors en masse isn’t that there’s a variety. There is. It’s just that when it comes to things like the burly, masculine presence that someone like Steve McQueen had in his heyday don’t exist among actors en masse anymore.

There’s a reason why American actors headlining summer action films are all jumping aboard superhero films in the same reason why teenagers are more worried about having eight pack abs. They may look the part, and be in great shape, but the nature of American masculinity among high level actors has changed radically. I call it the “Could I whip them in a fight?” test.

It doesn’t matter how good an actor looks with their shirt off (which is becoming a requisite for any actor to succeed these days) nor how much of a tough guy they can play. There’s something about a guy like Jason Statham, for example, that makes you think that you probably wouldn’t want to get into a fight with him. He has that inherent toughness any guy immediately recognizes and that was what made the “one many army” action movie work for so many years. It’s why all his action films, which aren’t very good on the whole, still sell. Tough recognizes tough and we can buy him in the part. He and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson are the last in a dying breed of Hollywood actor: the legit tough guy.

They were guys you recognized as tough even when you eliminated all the Hollywood tom-foolery behind them. Carl Weathers may have starred in the most hilarious action film of all time, Action Jackson, but one look at the guy and at a minimum you know he could handle himself in a bar fight if required to. Probably still could, too, even as he’s a firm member of the AARP generation. It’s why action films that manage to make money in the modern era that don’t star superheroes are all from older actors like Russell Crowe, Keanu Reeves and Tom Cruise; the new wave just doesn’t have that factor that the previous one did.

It was a lot like when Justice Potter Stewart discussed obscenity in Jacobellis v. Ohio. You know it when you see it … and with almost the entirety of the next wave of American actors we can’t see it. We can’t buy an actor like Ryan Gosling having nothing but a gun and his wits against impossible odds anymore.

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You can make a mutant and sure, we can buy it, because that suspension of disbelief begins for so many actors begins when they put on the tights (and not before). Guys like Gosling, Channing Tatum, Michael B Jordan, Shia Labeouf, Chris Evans, Miles Teller and the like are all terrific talents but they aren’t guys we recognize as being able to pass that test. They’re drama school pretty boys who made it big because they worked hard, etc, but they don’t have that sort of inherent toughness a generation of actors had some time ago.

Everyone you think that could legitimately star in a remake of a film like Raw Deal it’d be hard to find someone under 35, and American, that wouldn’t look as woefully out of place as the werewolf from Twilight did in Abduction.

Lautner’s foray into action films following Twilight wound up being a near career killer; he looks the part but seeing him with a gun is just comical. It’s not his fault, really, because it was the right move at the time. He had the physical presence woefully lacking in a lot of modern leading men so making an action film, where he could look cool in a gunfight, made sense as he tried to move from teen heartthrob to having his name on top of an action movie like the action stars of old. Replace him with anyone in his crop of young actors and the film is still equally ridiculous, of course, because it’s not a Lautner thing.

It’s a generational thing … and right now the current crop of young men aren’t less than the prior generation, et al, they’re just the same as their on screen counterparts.

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Scott Sawitz brings his trademarked irreverence and offensive hilarity to Twitter in 140 characters or less. Follow him @ScottSawitz .

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