I think there’s a pattern here, but you decide

With thanks to Alf Rehn for copy editing the original.  

21 thoughts on “I think there’s a pattern here, but you decide

  1. Rick Liebling

    I think your sample size might be too small/too selective. You could literally add dozens (hundreds?) more titles that fall along this line (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Reservoir Dogs/Pulp Fiction, 300…)

    I also feel like, in order to see the pattern, we need some sort of independent data point to help us triangulate.

    But, hey, I’ll take a shot:

    The pattern I’m seeing, spear-headed by the Millennials, is a rejection of the previous generations ideas of a leading man / action hero. Gone are the Arnies, Slys & Clints, replaced by Depp/Downey/Cera et al. It’s a more nuanced, complex leading man with both masculine and feminine traits, most clearly exemplified by the mascara wearing, vaguely fey Jack Sparrow character played by Depp.

    More Newman and Redford, more James Garner, than Bronson or Lee Marvin. But I don’t think this should be confused with the Seth Rogan, lovable idiot leading man. That was a smaller blip. Depp/Downey/Pattison may have softer sides, but they’re not abovebrandishing weapons, or fangs, to get the job done when necessary.

    Interestingly, what’s the heroine landscape look over the same time period? Starting with Weaver in Alien, moving to Thelma & Louise, Lara Croft, Sarah Conner, Angelina Jolie, Michelle Yeoh, Jennifer Garner, etc. The chicks seem to have gotten harder as the men softened.

    Now, if I worked in Hollywood, I’m might be looking at this data and trying to figure out how to do a remake of Remington Steele that takes a look at these trends. Where the original had the man (played by a future James Bond) as the ‘face’ and the woman as the brains, I’d redo it with a bad-ass chick (paging Michelle Rodriguez) fronting the agency, with a softer male lead (Matthew Perry?) using the detective skills.

      1. Mark

        On the leading lady side I think you have to go back further.

        Not necessarily to say, Mae West but at least to Katherine Hepburn.

        Think of Hepburn in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?

        Then move forward to Jane Fonda in The China Syndrome, Meryl Streep in Silkwood and so on.

        I agree about the complexity of the the leading man and it plays well to the point that Grant makes in CCO about the opposite of us being dumbed down as a socitey happening.

        I highly doubt Hollywood is taking such an analytical look at this.

  2. Alf Rehn

    Mistaking Robert Downey Jr. for Edward Norton would indicate a pattern of getting into Christmas drinking a tad early…

  3. Alf Rehn

    Oh, and misspelling Dolph Lundgren, Steven Seagal, Toby Maguire and missing the hyphen in Spider-Man. Do I win a prize?

  4. Gautam

    Really interesting…I’ll take a shot – actually, a couple of shots and hope at least one is partially right:

    1. Fascination with uniforms/armed forces declines as millennials grow up. It’s not just exceptional people in the police or the army or the airforce saving the world – it’s the rouges, the fixers, the cons, the underdogs, the playboys. No leading men from the armed forces in action films.

    2. Rise of fantasy – As millennials grew up, so did two other fields – video gaming and movie special effects. The latter had to do better than the former to keep the audience occupied. Because movie-makers COULD make stuff blow up – they DID. More movies that – a) exaggerated reality in a ridiculous way (Fast and The Furious) or b) lived in their own made-up Universes.

    3. Nostalgia – From Spiderman to Lara Croft to Transformers – these movies were regurgitations of things millennials had consumed as kids/teens – comics, TV series and video games. Books were no longer the only source for Hollywood to steal from. They just stole from their prime audience’s childhood and served it back to them – with awesome special effects, of course.

  5. Jeremy

    I was going to go on a couple hunches, but Sascha asked a more pressing question…what about Batman?

    I’d be interested to see how the different actors who portray the Dark Knight track along this continuum of maleness.
    Might throw off the data, but also might be an interesting correlation in there.

    I think Rick’s assessment is spot on, where the leading men become more rich and complex as a reinforcement of a broader cultural acceptance of varying aspects and degrees of masculinity, especially growing out of the late 1990s. There’s also a sort of shift from the on-the-ground working class hero (and yes, Han Solo is a working class scoundrel) to the more mythic. It’s hard to know what to attribute this to, but I think many of the previous posts do a great job of assessing the breadth of material that inform the shift.

  6. Javier

    My shot:

    I couldn’t skip the name of the image (death of…), so I´ll take the shot and say that: as the millenials grow the attributes that define the alpha male are no longer the muscular and the “macho” ones, instead nowdays those attributes are more linked some kind of outlier…almost regular guy.

    Just a guess.

    (Haven’t work lately on my writing proficiency so excuse my English).

    1. Javier

      Going a little further that could mark a shift in the core of the society as the role of the male figure is less about “brute” protection and more of a “take care of me”…could that means that the next paradigm will be the matriarchal society…I can’t tell.

      But clearly open a window to think that the closer future could be more about personal sacrifices and less of imposed authority.

  7. Andrew

    Ok, there may be a pattern (as the above commentators speculate on), but the original graph hints at a relationship by visually stacking the names without specifying the relationship or scale on the y axis.

    It’s difficult to ascertain patterns based on one-dimensional data. How do these leading actors relate to some other metric such as box-office returns for example?

  8. scott

    I think there’s merit in both of the answers here, Grant. In fact, I’m afraid they taint what little more I might add.

    That said, I wonder if one of the other things happening has less to do with the main heroes and more with their adversaries. By the end of the 60s and into the 70s and subsequently the 80s, the bad guys were pretty clear: It was pretty much always the Russians. Sure, Darth Vader wasn’t openly a Russian, but the demarkation between good guys and bad guys was clear. The bad guys fought for king and country. They seemed to believe in their places in the system. Then the Cold War ended. Come 1996, the villains are more nebulous. They’re not Russians anymore, at least not high ranking ones working for the government. They’re mid level guys and they’re mostly out for themselves. And their badness isn’t as definite. There’s a bit in each of our psyches that completely “gets” where they’re coming from. While our country was busy raising children who’d all get trophies at the end of whatever thing they tried, our movie makers were changing the paradigm of our nemeses. It’s almost as if the new breed of bad guys are saying, “Hey, I want this for me. To hell with the larger organization.” It made their evilness less about sadistic tendencies – what else do you call a guy who can choke you over the phone when your job performance is low? – and more about being out for themselves.

    It might be interesting to look at the same stuff as pre- and post- 9/11.

    But what do I know? I’m just an art director.

  9. Myles

    There is no pattern.

    You are showing stochasticity.

    Our culture needs to look beyond such trivialities.

  10. Ethan

    [reprinted & expanded from G+]
    First off, I think you’re in danger of cherrypicking data. We’re missing tons of movies and actors (Chuck Norris, JC Van Damme, Wesley Snipes, Sean Connery, The Rock, Jet Li, Jackie Chan, James Garner, Al Pacino, etc.).

    Second, I think you’ve got several kinds of movies here (superhero, cop, spy, army, western, alien, etc), and you haven’t been even in representing them through the years. NO cop movies since S.W.A.T.? NO lighter-fare pirate movies before 2006? How about putting Johnny Depp’s performance into the context of this list of Hollywood swashbucklers: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swashbuckler_film#Notable_actors_and_actresses) You really ought to chat with Quentin Tarantino or Martin Scorsese and get their encyclopedic takes on archetypes through the years (who IS the cinematic precursor to Jason Bourne? Is Boondock Saints a 1999 update of Death Wish?).

    Third, what’s with the false Y axis? How about lasting fame? Career length? Box office gross? Copycatting?

    Fourth, there’ve been complex characters and anti-heroes for a while (Mad Max was 1979. Al Pacino in The Godfather was 1972). And there will probably always be unidimensional alpha male movies too (the Rambo franchise itself spans from 1982-2008).

    Now, all that said, I DO think there’s probably a general trend of diversification: more types, more genres, more role models. But then, there were 4Bn people in 1974 and 7Bn now. So more guys = more niches to fill. I call it the Manbrian Explosion–a rapid ‘speciation’ event in guyhood and male role models. (Old archetype: Bruce Lee. New archetypes: Jet Li + Jackie Chan.)

    And as others have said, culture, economics, geopolitics and gender roles have changed in the past 40 years, so our images of leading men and alpha males surely will change too.

    Fun exercise. Deserves more data.

  11. Henri Weijo

    I think the importance of Brad Pitt in Fight Club (1999) and Russell Crowe in Gladiator (2000) can’t be overstated.

    Brad Pitt in Fight Club really introduced the idea of a metrosexual being macho to the public consciousness, and I think Crowe delivered the final death blow in pushing the “classic” action star (Arnie, Sly, Dolph) from the mainstream to “straight to DVD” territory.

    Both performances were quite powerful takes on the “crisis of the contemporary man”, which shifted the discussion from “ideal man as uber-mensch (Arnie, James Bond)” to walking a tightrope of dualities: be interested in fashion, but don’t be a dandy; you need to have a softer side, but you need to kick ass when need be; be cultivated, but down to earth etc.

    (Fight Club did hit you on the head with this message a bit too much, though).

  12. Dylan

    I wouldn’t say that the “millenial” male lead is any more “regular”.
    In fact, in some ways, all of these characters are still just as exceptional as ever. Norton in The Hulk, Downey as Iron Man, Bale as Batman, Labeouf in
    Transformers; all are exceptionally smart, wealthy, charismatic, or have some trait that allows them to excel, to be irregular. But, from Eastwood to Harry Potter, all of these characters are crafted to
    in some way appeal to the “regular” guy in the audience.

    The differences lie in the expression of masculinity, as others
    have noted. That’s not to say that the Eastwood/Bronson model is solely
    of the past.

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