“I’ll be back.” The number of times Arnold Schwarzenegger has delivered this line gives us pause to consider: why it is that we need to be reminded so often of his impending return? Certainly, the catchphrase has taken on a life of its own and speaks to the cyclical nature of Hollywood franchises and reboots. But to go deeper towards understanding our desire to see our favorite 80s action stars return again and again, is to explain something fundamental about aging, masculinity, and wish fulfillment.
Although Terminator Genisys is an action reboot, the return of 67-year-old Schwarzenegger as its headliner also qualifies it as geriaction—a genre typified by an aging action star of the 80s (often botoxed into oblivion) proclaiming that he’s still got it by saving the day and gunning down hundreds of extras in the process. Much of the discourse surrounding the rise of geriaction, which was arguably spawned in 2009 by the success of then-56-year-old Liam Neeson’s Taken, has consisted of a cursory discussion about age—a celebration of the fact that we are not truly ageist because audiences are happy to watch the strongmen of yesteryear continue to kick ass. (Nevermind that we ship the old ladies off to the Exotic Marigold Hotel, if we allow them to be on screen at all.) Perhaps some of the appeal of the geriaction film does lie in the fact that we enjoy watching the old codgers heave themselves around with some remaining athleticism. But what may be most revealing about the cult of geriaction is its exploration of legacy.
Terminator Genisys treats us to an inversion of the catchphrase, delivered by Schwarzenegger to a younger (nuder) iteration of himself: “I’ve been waiting for you,” conjuring up the image of a father, sitting up in a dark house, waiting for his child to come home past curfew. The T-800 always functioned as John Conner’s unavailable father, and his perennial return as atonement for being a deadbeat. But now he is present, ready to parent. Like the buff, varicose veined Rocky Balboa of 2006, even the Terminator cannot escape the passage of time and how it transforms our desires. In the 80s and 90s we saw only virile bodies, but now we see the men we once admired riddled with age, still muscular but disturbingly so, those same bodies now symbols of an impending demise. Yes, these old men have viagra, pec implants, and digital jowl removal. And younger leading ladies. But it is a veil we see through all too easily. Our desire, and the action hero’s, is no longer sexual or even physical. We require him to defy death in some other way –– to secure his legacy through fatherhood.
Trauma reduced the young John Rambo of 1982 to his instincts of self preservation. The first film ends with a breakdown as he weeps uncontrollably in the embrace of a surrogate father, his former commanding officer in Vietnam—justified, yet decidedly childlike. Audiences will accept the insularity of a young man, or at least forgive him for it. The source of his immortality is contained in his youth and his body, not in his attachments. But we can see that an old man, even a hero, will die. We find his total annihilation unacceptable and so he must be a father above all else. In the 2008 reboot, geriatric Rambo spends the duration of the film stoically disemboweling the Burmese kidnappers of the Christian missionaries he has reluctantly adopted. Our once inward-looking hero has been forced outside of himself.
Though popular culture has only recently begun to have a meaningful discussion about women who choose to remain alone, geriaction posits a future in which men may search for family long after qualifying for AARP. In The Expendables, we have General Garza, a corrupt father who realizes too late the ways in which he has failed both his daughter and his country. When Garza is finally killed off, Sly has no choice but to step in. Given the choice between parenthood and romance—the fulfillment of which has been dangled before us throughout the film with Sandra, Garza’s daughter—Sly chooses to be the honorable father. At the end of the film, in lieu of romantic consummation, we get a handshake and a limp promise, “If you need me, I’ll be around.” A significantly more passive echo of “I’ll be back,” and possibly the least climactic on-screen romance ever filmed. For a man who began his career sexing up a woman between slabs of hanging meat, this is pretty thin fare.
With great power, comes great responsibility. Being a hero in these Marvel times requires sacrifice, and Sly has chosen to tend to his flock—meat slabs be damned! He has no time to make love to a woman. He must fly back to America and care for the sausage franchise he has birthed, in which all his former enemies have now been brought together as a gang of symbolic children. The incongruity here is that geriaction films dislike the family, but love the father figure. This is both a subversion and an extension of the classic Hollywood narrative of romance. As Robin Wood pointed out, an explicit definition of sexuality as binary, along with the sidelining of meaningful relationships with women, allows us to read buddy movies as “male love stories.” If this was true in the 80s, it is only more true now. Where previously women were sexed-up and sidelined, now their sexuality is often unacknowledged, giving rise to a deeper kind of regression. The hero of geriaction has the bromantic love of his buddies and no longer requires a women to create a family.
Action films came into their own in the 1970s, a time when American cinema was beginning to explore the collapse of the family and the home. In the 80s, these characters (Rambo, Rocky, even T-800) wander alone from town to town and many of these films operate as on the road narratives. But in the geriaction of the 2000s, we see a desire to return home. In the final installment of the franchise, Rocky Balboa has settled down in his old home town after losing his riches and his wife. He spends his days hunching over his wife’s grave and chasing down his disgruntled son. In Taken, Liam Neeson goes to the ends of the earth to recover his daughter, with the manic energy of a man who not only wants to save his loved one but also restore the sense of belonging he lost in his divorce. Home, for these men is sometimes a physical place, but mostly, it is an ideological construction.
The Expendables Trilogy lies at the heart of geriaction—by the third installment, there seems to be no geezer left in existence who has not been trotted out. Watching these films is undeniably fun—the unmotivated berets, the reemergence of Jean Claude Van Damme’s patented roundhouse-kick-dance-fighting, the subtext riddled one-liners. Yet much of the joy in watching them also lies in the fact that their age allows for a shift in our expectations. Watching these men jump onto moving planes and perform absurd wrestlemania maneuvers takes on a new clarity –– the hypermasculinity we have always accepted at face value takes on the comical lightness it deserves when the hero in question moves with the agility of a run-down robocop. We don’t need to see these men macking down on a woman, in fact we would really rather not. There is something tender and honest in Mickey Rourke and Sly commiserating about their loneliness over a late night beer. Even if only slightly, age has allowed the rigid definition of masculinity in traditional action films to morph into one that allows for a more complex view of male gender and relationships.
We have yet to see any meaningful engagement on the topic of legacy and life beyond retirement for able bodied old women, although the cadre of shotgun toting grannies in Mad Max: Fury Road suggests a turning point may be near. But, on the masculine side of the scales, the success of geriaction points a desire to question our historically uncompromising concept of what a man should be. Perhaps what we do need now is another hero. An old, fallible hero who who greets the uncertain future not with superpowers or aggressive sexuality, but with wit, wisdom, and a hell of a lot of botox.