The Joy of Being Expendable
Stallone finally understands masculinity.
In case you live under a Richard Simmons rock, you know The Expendables 2 is coming out this Summer. I’m so pumped for this movie my penis looks like Stallone's forearms whenever I watch the trailer.
Sure, the second installment of this all-star action franchise will have enough testosterone to give even Jon Stewart secondary sexual characteristics, and Schwarzenegger will rip the door off a Smart Car—which is the best commentary on the Smart Car I’ve seen. But it will also have depth and maturity unseen in most Oscar contenders, let alone movies with more guns than people.
It started with Mickey Rourke’s famous monologue in the first movie. In it, he confesses to Stallone that he let a young girl die many years ago when he was psychologically numb from battle. He didn’t kill her, and maybe he wasn’t responsible for her death, but he did let her die. The incident still haunts him to this day. The confession is a turning point in the movie. It motivates Stallone to go back to the dictator’s island and save a girl who he may have let die. (Plus it leads to this scene,which is important.) This was a turning point in my life, too—not only because I use this scene as a friend test, but also because it drove home a point for me that I needed to learn at the time.
Embracing the fact that you’re going to die is an important part of growing up because growing up means losing your illusions. Not coincidentally, death is a difficult idea to internalize. Humans have even convinced themselves God and an after life exist to repress it. And most of life is spent trying to be more permanent than we are. This is what you learn in advertising. People are ten times more motivated to hold onto something they have than attain something they want. The drive for stability is stronger than the drive to flourish.
In The Expendables, however, the guys understand their transience goes beyond mortality. They are, ahem, expendable. It’s not only a cool-sounding name, it’s the subtext of the movie. Yes, Stallone may write dialogue like meathead, but he knows what subtext is. The expendables are hired to carry out dangerous, secretive missions. They put their lives on the line constantly, yet the only people who know or care are their enemies right before they die. Each one is expendable in the context of the group, as well. Family and friends are only mentioned through lies, Jason Statham can’t hold on to a girlfriend, and Mickey Rourke has had 50 girlfriends (which means he’s been replaced 50 times).
The action movies of the 80′s, while awesome, weren’t like this. They were mostly fairy tales for men. In Commando, Schwarzenegger plays the movie on God mode to live in peace with his daughter.
To settle a long-standing disagreement among action movie connoisseurs, this is why Predator is better. Everybody dies except Schwarzenegger, and even he barely escapes. Regardless, nobody is going to know about the mission. It was the battle of their lives, and it was effectively pointless. Plus, there are no female speaking roles.
Similarly, as much as I love the Rocky movies, if they can aptly be described as “Flashdance for guys,” they’re not the pinnacle of action-movie achievement.
Even if a man embraces his mortality, he can still hold on to the thought that he will have an impact on the world. This makes a man just as lazy as going to church. There is an extremely high chance the world will go on just fine without you. Your girlfriend will find a new boyfriend, your friends will drink new beers and come up with new inside jokes with someone else, and your boss will get a stack of 100 resumes from people who can do your job better than you. Sure, people will mourn you, but they’ll die too, and so will the people who mourn them. It doesn’t take long to be a few degrees of separation from the world.
There are two ways to feel about this. You can use your transience as an excuse to eat Cheetos. Or you can use your transience as an eternal axe to grind, as the true, Sisyphean struggle. The fact that you are expendable makes you angry, which is another way of saying it’s a wellspring of energy.
“Happily ever after” could sum up the final act of every chick flick. It’s indicative of the need for a psychic anchor in the female mind. This is why chicks keep mementos, take pictures, and want to be friends on Facebook. It’s why they start planning their wedding even when they still think boys are gross. The wedding is the drive for permanence, which is comforting for girls. And for girls, comfort is empowerment.
Guys are different. The more we hang on to the idea that we are somehow special only because we’re us, the more expendable we become. Stallone may be too old to make an action movie without growth hormone, but he’s finally old enough to make an action movie that matters.