Old Heroes and Aging Icons

The Action Star in His Sunset Years

As a tyke growing up in the 1980s, I lived and breathed Philadelphia Phillies baseball — and anchoring the Phillies’ pitching staff back then was a legendary southpaw by the name of Steve Carlton. A conditioning freak who used to train by jogging in a vat of dry rice, Carlton dominated National League hitters for the better part of 15 years during a career which landed him in the Hall of Fame. Ol’ Lefty was a bit eccentric in other ways as well; he refused to speak to the media for most of his career, and finally ended his silence upon election to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1994 — when he proceeded to ramble about everything from world affairs (controlled, in his eyes, by a group of 12 Jewish bankers) to his belief that the government invented AIDS.

A few years earlier, as he’d neared the age of 40 — long after most of his contemporaries had been put out to pasture — Carlton began to slow down, and shortly after his 41st birthday, the Phillies wanted to retire his number and give him a send-off worthy of a franchise legend. The only problem? Steve still wanted to pitch. And so on he traveled to San Francisco, who figured that perhaps he might still have something left in the tank. After seeing Carlton’s heretofore unhittable slider rocketed all over Candlestick Park, the Giants passed him on to the Chicago White Sox, who then moved him on to Cleveland, who…well, you get the picture. Finally, when not a single team in the major leagues showed any interest in putting Carlton back on the mound, he hung up his cleats and shuffled off forlornly into the night.

Why do I bring this up? Because nobody wants to see their heroes grow old — and Carlton’s erosion is what jumped to mind when I first read of Sylvester Stallone’s plans to make Rocky VI (a.k.a. Rocky Balboa. It’s a hard enough sell as it is to bring back a 60-year-old guy to play an action role, but to enter a boxing ring? Of course, Stallone ain’t exactly Rick Moranis out there; even at 60, he’s still in phenomenal shape, and could pound the living daylights out of you, me, and anyone else who might happen to be reading this.

As Robert Thompson, director of the Syracuse Center for the Study of Popular Television, puts it: “Yes, a pushing-60 boxer stretches the limits of what you would perceive as likely or realistic, but then again, so did the first Rocky movie stretch the limits of likely or realistic. I mean, after all, we’re talking about Hollywood movies. We’re talking about fantasies. The fact that some of the territory that this Rocky movie may be going into may be pushing it — isn’t that what movies do all the time? ”

Okay, point taken. And if I could buy that Soviet-trained Ivan Drago could generate upwards of 2,000 pounds of pressure per square inch from his right hook in Rocky IV, why shouldn’t I believe that a senior citizen Italian Stallion could slug it out for 10 rounds (well sort of) against the reigning heavyweight champ? (Stallone himself thought that this might be a bit too far-fetched even by Rocky standards, so title-holder Mason “The Line” Dixon breaks his hand early on and is handicapped throughout much of the fight. This didn’t seem to be that big of a deal to me while I was sitting in the theater, but later, it struck me as leaving Balboa’s ’victory’ somewhat tarnished. It’d be as if Gary Kasparov came out of retirement 30 years from now to knock off the world’s current chess champion, except that the champ moved his pawns while downing a three-martini lunch.)

But it ain’t just Rocky. Stallone plans to release a fourth Rambo film in 2008 — the same year that Indiana Jones 4 is expected to hit the theaters. Harrison Ford will be 66 that year, making him seven years older than Sean Connery was when he played Indy’s dad in The Last Crusade. I’m not denying that these aren’t your ordinary senior citizens, but having Indiana doff his trademark fedora in search of artifacts when he should be comfortably ensconced in a cushy faculty position seems a bit ... forced.

What’s really going on here? Two things: the Baby Boomers’ collective discomfort with aging, and the loss of shared cultural pop icons. “Starting after the Second World War, when the Baby Boom began, this is a generation of people who are identified with their youth from the get-go, ” says Thompson. “I think we’ve produced a generation that is maybe the first to absolutely refuse to grow old. In their time, they’ve got Botox to make their faces look younger, they’ve got all kinds of cosmetic surgery. Just when their libidos should be beginning to relax, Viagra comes along so they can party like it’s 1969. In an age where we define 50 as the new 30, it makes perfect sense that we’d be resurrecting Rocky Balboa for yet another shot. ”

It’s not just Stallone and Ford that refuse to grow old, of course. Mick Jagger is still gyrating onstage as the 63-year-old frontman of the Rolling Stones, and The Who continue to churn out rebel anthems long past the age of rebelliousness. Madonna is nearing 50, and now admittedly spends far more time at the gym than she does crafting music; it’s the only way she can hope to maintain the sex-kitten image she’s marketed through her dance-pop tunes over the last couple of decades.

Could you offer up a new, younger actor to play Rocky Balboa? No way. The character and actor are so intertwined that Stallone admitted recently, during a trip to Philadelphia, that fans even address him as Rocky. You could mess around with the chronology (as George Lucas did by having the late River Phoenix, in The Last Crusade and Sean Patrick Flannery, in TV’s The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles) portray younger versions of Indy. But what would be the point? We can safely presume that Balboa’s existence up until the first film consisted entirely of low-level extortion, club fights, and serving as the target of Mickey Goldmill’s barbs.

A fan of big-venue concerts I am not, but I’ve often stumped my friends in the past with this query: which “current” bands — formed, say, post-1990 — will be playing arena shows 10 to 15 years from now? Can’t think of many, can you? Pearl Jam, perhaps? Maybe the Smashing Pumpkins, assuming Billy Corgan gets bored? And if you narrow the range to artists which have sprung up in the last decade, the list becomes even tougher to compile.

This has nothing to do with the music itself, and everything to do with the evolution in music distribution. Up until the internet age, kids basically listened to the same bands — that is to say, whatever was playing on commercial radio and/or MTV. That’s what was readily available. Yes, there were always thriving underground scenes, but it took much more dedication and effort to stay on top of indie-rock bands 20 years ago than it did today. If you didn’t live next to a college radio station or have a friend or relative plug you into the music, you were basically listening to the same tunes that everyone else was. (Don’t get me wrong, I certainly don’t pine for those days, and can’t imagine becoming exposed to 95% of the current bands I listen to without the internet. How did people even know which bands were playing where?)

The increase in options has led to the fragmentation of musical tastes in recent years, so that there’s far less overlap in shared cultural knowledge today than in the past. And the same thing has occurred with regards to film and television. In many ways, the advent of the DVD and the proliferation of cable television stations has been a great thing (cf. nearly everything on HBO, as well as the new Battlestar Galactica television series, which I discuss elsewhere in this issue), but it also means that shared icons like Rocky Balboa and Indiana Jones are part of a dying breed.

(One of the few film franchises that has been able to survive a revolving door of lead actors has been the James Bond series, now on its 21st film and sixth 007. As to why this is the case, I’m really not sure. Perhaps this is because Bond tales are always driven by story and not character? I’ve seen most of the films, and still really couldn’t tell you anything about Bond himself other than his preferred choice of firearms and alcoholic beverages.)

I watched Raiders of the Lost Ark five times in the theaters. Five times! That’s what kids did back then. What else was there to watch? VCRs were still in their infancy, and television was dominated by the Big Three networks, which certainly didn’t air anything that could compete with the melting faces of sadistic Nazis. Rocky was a bit more of a gender-slanted taste — after all, it was about boxing, and perpetual wet-blanket Adrian paled mightily to the kick-ass Marian Ravenwood of Raiders. But Balboa is such an icon that a couple of Philadelphia-area journalists named Michael Vitez and Tom Gralish were recently able to market an entire book (Rocky Stories) comprised of the tales of men and women who merely re-created Rocky’s famous run up the steps of the city’s Art Museum. Will we see anything with the same cross-sectional cultural appeal again? I doubt it.

Perhaps that’s one reason why superhero tales have emerged again as a major Hollywood force. Rambo may grow older every year, but Spider-Man remains eternally a tortured young adult — and with his roots tied to comic books, we’ve all “seen” Spidey without inextricably linking his persona to that of any particular actor. For those of you keeping score, we’re on our fifth Batman now, and the series is in the best shape it’s ever been in the hands of Christian Bale and director Christopher Nolan. Kal-El of Krypton has been played by countless numbers of actors (most famously Christopher Reeve), and the franchise will continue to live on whether or not Brandon Routh decides to hang up the cape after the lackluster Superman Returns. In addition, advances in special effects now allow studios to believably depict these characters performing the same superhuman feats they enacted for years in the comics. For a reminder of what often happened during the dark ages of live-action superhero adventure, scour YouTube for clips of the old Amazing Spider-Man television series starring Nicholas Hammond, or hunt down the Roger Corman early ’90s version of The Fantastic Four.

The most frustrating thing of all is that the revival of the franchise that I actually did want to see never came to fruition: Mad Max. Mel Gibson’s post-apocalyptic warrior hasn’t surfaced since the uneven Beyond Thunderdome film in 1985, but director/creator George Miller fell in a love with a script for a fourth installment a few years ago, and Gibson signed on to reprise his taciturn anti-hero. However, the project was scrapped during pre-production, apparently due to security concerns over trying to film in Africa in the midst of civil unrest. Gibson had joked that they might have had to call the movie Fat Max, and has since given up on the idea of resuming the role, feeling that at age 51, he’s too old for the part. I’m disappointed because I’ve always loved the dystopian MM universe, but I respect Mel’s decision to leave the past behind him.

He just better not resurface for Lethal Weapon 5.