Stallone and Schwarzenegger: how their action heroes differ

What sets Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone's action heroes apart from one another?

There are spoilers within for Predator, Terminator 2, Cobra, the Rambo and Rocky films, and Big Momma’s House 2 (just seeing if you’re paying attention there).

Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger. At a certain point, you cannot think of one without the other. Action icons of the ’80s, they are as synonymous with 80spop culture as the side ponytail, hair metal and New Coke. For action fans they are yin and yang, the flip sides of the same sweaty bicep. While they bear some superficial similarities, their star personas are actually quite different.

Stallone – The Underdog

Though he boasts a bulky physique comparable to the former Mr Universe, the essence of Stallone’s appeal is that he is inherently an underdog — this is why he is perfect for Rocky Balboa, and miscast in Cobra and Judge Dredd.

Stallone, unlike Schwarzenegger, is not suited to playing pure archetypes. In his action movies, he has to overcome adversity to transform himself into a superman. Therein lies the key difference between their respective star personae. As Eric Lichtenfeld observes in his book Action Speaks Louder, while Schwarzenegger is presented from the outset as a ready-made hero, Stallone begins as a man who has to turn himself into one — while this is partly a result of his success in Rocky, it is also indicative of their respective talents.

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Though his career choices include a extensive list of car wrecks (Rhinestone, Over The Top, Stop Or My Mom Will Shoot), Stallone is a talented actor, as his turns in Copland and Rocky Balboa have proved. As a trained actor, Stallone is capable of playing out the beats of a character arc; the inverse of Schwarzenegger.

The Rambo franchise (1982-2008) is Sylvester Stallone’s most successful venture into the action genre, and a good deal of the series’ appeal is based on the character of John Rambo, and the struggles he faces conform to Stallone’s underdog persona.

Though he possesses an extensive skill set for killing, with Stallone in the role Rambo comes across as a more worldly and damaged version of Rocky Balboa, rather than just another monosyllabic brute. This focus on Rambo’s bruised humanity is highlighted in the first film in the franchise, First Blood. Rambo is a drifter who is antagonised by a sadistic, small town sheriff. After being arrested on trumped up charges, Rambo is then subjected to various indignities by the sheriff’s deputies, experiences which trigger memories of his wartime imprisonment. 

Traumatised by this melding of old and new pain, Rambo’s old survival instincts kick in and he escapes to go on a rampage against his former captors.

Throughout First Blood, Rambo is never presented as the one-man-army he would become in the sequels. He is presented as a victim of a society that has no place for him, and does not want to accept him. In this way, Rambo is even more of an underdog than Rocky, who manages to find acceptance and love from his family and community.

This psychological dimension would be reduced in the sequels, but the character’s past trauma continues to inform the most visceral moments of the sequels, whether its the death of Rambo’s ally Co-Bao (Julie Nickson) in Part II or (more ludicrously) his attempt at a more spiritually fulfilling life as a buddhist in Rambo III

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This psychological dimension is also rooted in another convention of the Rambo series: the self-surgery sequence.

Injury and torture are key motifs in Stallone’s action movies, and are synonymous with 80s action movies as a whole. If the hero is wounded or tortured, it is ritualised as a masochistic form of spectacle. This convention is a key motif in Stallone’s work, from the brutal training and matches in Rocky to his half-deaf cop in Copland.

In each movie of the Rambo series, Rambo has to perform self-surgery on himself. Think back to the scenes in the Rambo movies in which Rambo has to perform self-surgery. This self-surgery motif reaches its cartoonish peak with Rambo III, in which Rambo uses gunpowder to cauterise a massive hole in his side). This convention serves a similar function to a training montage — if Rambo can get through the pain, he has crossed some insane psychic barrier to regain his mojo and beat the villains. 

Stallone is a great action star, but while he is often lumped in with Schwarzenegger as a muscleman, his appeal is closer to that of Bruce Willis (John McClane) and Mel Gibson (Martin Riggs). While he lacks their sense of humour and more, uh, relatable physiques, Stallone invests characters like Rambo and Rocky with a degree of vulnerability and humanity.

This becomes a problem when Stallone is cast in the role of a pure action hero. The best example of this disconnect is Cobra (1986). An urban action film along the lines of the Dirty Harry series, Cobra is Stallone’s attempt at a pure action archetype. Beyond the movie’s obvious flaws (covered in a recent episode of the podcast How Did This Get Made?Cobra does not work because it negates the very things that make Stallone watchable. His eyes, the key to measuring Rambo’s pain, are covered by glasses and he is fully clothed in leather. Part of the vulnerability of his most famous characters Rocky and Rambo is that their bodies are always partially exposed.

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In Nighthawks, another action movie set in an urban environment, Stallone’s wardrobe is not used to make him look tough. During two major action sequences in Nighthawks, Stallone is even dressed in drag. Whereas Nighthawks is about an ordinary cop who is out of his depth, Cobra is about a super cop who is (literally) ready for anything.

From his clothes, to his car, to his ridiculous arsenal, Cobra is designed to be instantly iconic — which misses the point of Stallone’s appeal as an action hero. With Schwarzenegger, we can buy him instantly as a super cop, a super warrior, or a superhero. But not Stallone. With Stallone, it’s about the character’s journey to become a superhero. That’s his essence as an action hero, and the defining element which separates him from his Austrian rival.

Schwarzenegger – The Superhero

While Stallone, through his performance in Rocky, will always have an innate advantage over Schwarzenegger in terms of acting ability, it was Schwarzenegger, at least in their heyday, who showed a shrewder understanding of how to best utilise his limited abilities.

The key to why Schwarzenegger was able to outpace Stallone in the ’80s and boast a stronger filmography was an understanding of what his appeal and limitations as a performer were. Stallone at his best is basically David fighting Goliath – an ordinary man with great tenacity and talents which allow him to persevere against enemies with greater physical advantages. Schwarzenegger is closer to Hercules, a hero of great, near-supernatural strength who is tasked with ridding the world of supernatural creatures who are even powerful than he is.

Hence the focus on high concepts and genre films. Only in an outlandish situation would someone of Schwarzenegger’s speech and physique work as a protagonist. 

Part of the fun of watching Schwarzenegger is seeing how this superman deals with a particular herculean task. There is no real need for a deep character arc or introspection in these roles. This lack of depth is partly the reason why his characters do not lend themselves to sequels as Stallone’s do (The Terminator movies do not count since he technically plays a different character in each movie).

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Predator is an example of the Schwarzenegger persona at its zenith. He opens the film as the leader of a crack team of commandos and is shown as highly competent and concerned for the wellbeing of his men — he is clearly a hero. Once the Predator turns up, the movie begins stripping Schwarzenegger of his superhuman sheen. His team are wiped out, his weapons are useless and his body, lovingly photographed by McTiernan, is inadequate to the task of defeating his alien foe.

In the film’s extended climax, Dutch has to prove his superiority by outsmarting his foe. It is only at the climax of a Schwarzenegger movie that he can appear to be more vulnerable. Even at the climax of Terminator 2, when his T-800 is outmatched by the T-1000, his weakness and ‘injuries’ make him seem more vulnerable and sympathetic. It is only when he is placed against an enemy who is bigger and stronger than he is that Schwarzenegger makes sense as a relatable hero for an audience to root for.

The reason why Schwarzenegger faltered in the 90s was that he seemed to forget what made him a star in the first place, and tried to make films which required a broader acting range than he was capable of – hence the lame comedies (Junior) and action flicks (End Of Days) in which he plays average guys going through the kind of redemptive character arcs that he had previously avoided.

Unlike Stallone, who has matched his physique to blue collar characters like Rocky, Schwarzenegger is not Joe Average — his one unalloyed success of the ’90s, True Lies, proves this by having him play an American James Bond in a milieu which bridged the gap between the comic book excess of his eighties hits and the CGI-augmented, MTV-influenced carnage of the new decade.

The most emblematic example of where Schwarzenegger went wrong is End Of Days. On release, End Of Days was seen as a comeback for Schwarzenegger after the failure of Batman And Robin and the success of his heart surgery.

For reasons that remain baffling, Schwarzenegger elected to turn his back on his strengths as a one liner-popping muscleman and play an everyman. Jericho Cane is an over-the-hill cop with a tragic past, who drinks to mask his pain. This is a role designed for an actor, not Schwarzenegger, and the already silly pre-millennial premise is undermined by his casting.

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Even if the role been designed along the lines of Predators Dutch — a gifted professional with no real inner turmoil — the movie still would not work because the premise is contingent on a flawed man being tempted by the Devil.

While the movie did not perform to expectations, Schwarzenegger continued down the path of playing ordinary heroes with bodybuilder physiques and Austrian accents. None of these projects (The 6th Day and Collateral Damage) were particularly successful, and reinforced the essential problem underpinning Schwarzenegger’s decline. While as an audience we take Schwarzenegger’s foreignness for granted, it is always in the context of him playing a role that accounts for his accent and build — a secret agent, a cyborg, or a special forces soldier. When Schwarzenegger steps too far out of his established persona, his movies suffer.

The Heroes Return

Ultimately, Stallone’s franchises were the basis of his comeback, while Schwarzenegger’s initial efforts (The Last Stand and Stallone co-staring Escape Plan) have thus far failed to jump start his career. Part of that has to be quality — while they have their good points, none of Schwarzenegger’s new vehicles boasted the kind of popcorn high concept that would support his outsized presence.  

And so Schwarzenegger is taking a note from Stallone and going back to the well, with a sequel/reboot to The Terminator out this year and a potential sequel to Conan The Barbarian in the works. While age may have made Schwarzenegger’s image somewhat outmoded, I would not count him out yet. Elder action heroes have had second winds before, and with the resurgent popularity of the comic book, fantasy and science fiction genres, the potential for the kind of comic excess Schwarzenegger is remembered for remains a possibility.