A few years ago, no one had even heard of Judd Apatow, Meg Ryan chick flicks dominated the mainstream audiences, and Bruce Willis was the definition of the American hero. Today, things are different. Apatow's films are wildly popular: "I Love You, Man," a rated R comedy, opens to critical acclaim and the image of 300 dudes killing people is a pop culture icon. Hollywood's vision of the modern man is confusing to say the least. There are two, near-opposite visions/versions: one is the softer guy seen in the many romantic comedies flooding mainstream cinema. Gone are the cocky, robust, bad boys of the past. Instead, the modern man has become “schlubblier” for lack of a better word: for example, Seth Rogen's character in any movie he's been in or Vince Vaugh's character in Wedding Crashers. The modern male protagonist is emotional, lazy, hedonistic. He is, for lack of a better word, imperfect, one who fights with his mind rather than with his hands. On the other hand, there is still a definite demand for the hyper-masculine. Like the bulging beasts of men in 300. Like the James Bond who spends more time topless than the Bond girls. However, these two polarizing visions do serve a purpose. Comedy is all about relatability and the schlubby man succeeds in getting the audience to empathize with him. On the other hand, action movies are our modern mythology where men are larger than life and their deeds echo throughout eternity. Their viciousness is celebrated because they do things that any normal person wouldn't.
The opening scene in Forgetting Sarah Marshall typifies/shows one aspect of the emotional man: he is schlubby. Here is the set up: The main character, played by Jason Siegel, is getting ready to shower before meeting up with his highly successful actress girlfriend, Sarah Marhsall, played by Kristen Bell, for dinner. As Sarah Marshall enters the room, she promptly breaks up with him, and In his shock, Jason drops his towel, exposing his entire figure in the frame. It becomes painfully apparent to the audience that Jason Siegel does not have the body of a body builder. Not even close. His figure looks more like a potato than Michelangelo's David. His character even cries later during the scene. It's brutally honest and pathetic. But, as pathetic as we may think he is, we empathize with him. Any man in the audience could be Siegel's character, schlubby and emotional. Siegel's physique is a testament to the YouTube generation: he is successful because he looks like one of us. We empathize with him because he does go through everyday tragedies like we do.
The initial scene can be any one of the stories on fmylife.com or a similar website. Today, men talk about their feelings all the time, and to some extent, have been emasculated. We like him because he is like us. Another aspect of the emotional man is how utterly logical he is. Very few secrets are kept between himself and the film, making it easy for audience members to project themselves upon the character. Take, for example, Owen Wilson's character in Wedding Crashers (even his name, John Beckwith, sounds generic but that may be the point). The reason why the movie is so funny is because he reacts the way any one of us would react. The scene where his love interest’s mother asks him to feel her breasts, he acts like any one of us would act. First his face fills with disbelief and then disgust, not at the breasts, but perhaps at himself for being in the situation and going along with a madwoman's wishes . A neat touch is that the frame is set behind the woman and we actually never see her breasts; we only see John's expression because the breasts are not the point. The point is his reaction because it reflects the audience's reaction to the situation. He is definitely relatable to the modern audiences. A final aspect of the modern man is how he always has a best friend.
"Bro-mances" as a genre is picking up steam: Wedding Crashers, I Love You, Man, and Superbad are all films about the strange relationships men share…relationships that oddly resemble a romantic relationship. Towards the end of Superbad, for example, both male leads literally proclaim their love for each other after a wild night with of trying (but failing) to have sex with girls. It is an awkward experience to watch, but is perhaps typical in any American setting. Which boy hasn't grown up with a best friend? The scene is emasculating because it implies that men do really care and need each other. Men are not senseless sex-driven beasts, but that they have feelings and hearts that are as fragile as any woman's. It’s pathetic, but an honest expression of friendship that audiences can relate to.
Take these three factors and contrast them to a '90s romantic comedy like You've Got Mail, and what you get is a clear evolution of male archetypes in romantic comedies. You've Got Mail's Tom Hanks is a successful bookstore magnate. While John Beckwith crashes weddings to find girls, Tom Hanks charms his outspoken competition, played by Meg Ryan, like charming her with his nephews. On the other hand, Jason Siegel's character has lots of empty sex trying to get over Sarah Marshall. All Tom Hanks had to do to win over the love of his life was to be honest with her and show her the side that he shows everyone else. Jason Siegel and Owen Wilson do their best to get rid of their love interests' boyfriend at all costs. Tom Hanks has one black friend that disappears in the third act of the movie. The two best friends in the movie share virtually every frame together. The modern man is slightly more pathetic, no doubt about that, but he is also more relatable, to. No human is perfect and the modern interpretation of the masculine lead reflects that. We laugh harder because we empathize with their situations. Their story is our story and although they may be lazy bums, they are our lazy bums. On the other hand, there has also been a definite rise in hyper-masculinity in action films.
Our heroes are lean mean, killing machines. It is no secret that set designers in the '60s used to make the doors slightly smaller so when the protagonists make their dramatic entrance, they seem bigger than life. Today, set designers don't need to do that. We have CGI, lighting, and actors willing to push their physical limits. 300 used a variety of CGI, artful lighting and a masochistic training regimen to sell the audience that these 300 men could really go against a million. Their skill at killing people is celebrated: there is a point in the movie where director Zack Snyder slows down an action sequence so the audience’s thirst for every bloody moment can be satiated. The camera pans along slowly as King Leonidas, played by Gerard Butler, mercilessly hacks down a line of soldiers, the shot ending with an image of his abs rippling. Another example would be the gritty fight sequence in Casino Royale in which Bond eventually overpowers a henchman. Instead of just cleanly downing him with a bullet, the film elongates the sequence to the point where the audience squirms with each heavy blow exchanged by the two fighters. The film further celebrates his masculinity with gratuitous shots of him shirtless even mimicking the body out of water shot popularized by the earlier James Bond films Octopussy and Die Another Day, even though both films featured the female lead coming out of the water. Also, in Crank, the male lead, an angry sociopath murderer with a mastery of bloody comic book violence - bashes and thrashes his way through the movie. in fact, not even a few thousand mile drop into the middle of the city can stop him (as seen with the release of Crank 2 in a few days).
Our heroes, today, are angry, muscular bad-asses. On one hand, the fact that we celebrate badass-ness alienates any sense of empathy the audience has for the heroes. No, there is no way any man can get that big (unless he is part of the LAX team). No, there is absolutely no way any movie going audience can kill a billion guys without feeling a touch of remorse. Our society now is one than condemns violence even in video games and suppresses even the vaguest inklings of anger. The suppression leads us to admire and even glorify acts of violence and hyper masculinity. Maybe that's why there is rise of masculinity in mainstream cinema. Today's action movies are the best way to escape from our everyday malaise we can't laugh about. America is fighting two different wars and faces a serious financial recession rivaling the Great Depression. As a result, today's audience, more than ever, does have a social consciousness.
Today's society is more aware of global problems than any other society has been in the past. The fact is, we do care about political correctness, we do care about what our enemies think, and everyone, almost from birth, is taught that violence is wrong and diplomacy is the best way. Our heroes don't have any weaknesses. Even Bruce Willis' character in Die Hard, did terrible things but did them so he could be with his wife (Ironically, by Die Hard III, the wife character is entirely written out). That’s why we want to see our larger than life heroes kick ass and take names without a second thought; it is because we can't do it ourselves. We certainly don't sympathize with them, but we celebrate it. They are our heroes because they dare to do something we don't.
Another theory about the rise of hyper masculinism, is that our society as a whole now celebrates perfection, particularly physical perfection. Where chubbiness was once been celebrated as a sign of wealth in Western cultures, we now celebrate hard bodies. This is the first time in history where members of a poorer social class are fatter than members of the richest. Let's face it; having a good body implies you have the time to attain one, which in turn implies you have enough means to do so. It is now our ideal. That's why our heroes have six packs and biceps rivaling most tree trunks. audience members compares themselves to each other and to the images they see on the screen. We are bombarded everyday by faces and bodies of physical perfection, something that couldn't happen in the days of the radio. Plastic surgery now even services children still in high-school. We try our best to be physically perfect and that's why our heroes have to be.
Masculinity in today's mainstream cinema is a two faced: on one hand, romantic comedies deflate the male mythos. The romantic leads are a reflection of today's audiences, they are the ones who we empathize with and feel for. If it has happened to us, we are more likely to laugh. On the other hand, our action movies have injected testosterone into our heroes. Our heroes now are strong, violent and Machiavellian. They are who we secretly want to be. They are physical perfection. These two projections of what it means to be a man are a product of society interweaving with each other and I can only wonder what tomorrow's heroes will be like.