The 80s were a simpler, more macho time. It was the era of Ronald Reagan, Rambo, and Bruce Springsteen’s patriotic denim buttcheek. But when I think about 80s pop culture, I think about heroes who got their asses handed to them. I miss that vulnerability and determination to keep going after a horrendous defeat.
When you think of classic Indiana Jones, you think of him getting beaten to a pulp and dragged under a truck. Batman used to struggle to keep fighting despite broken ribs and concussions. The most famous images of Spider-Man in the 80s show his costume torn to shreds and his face messed up underneath. Even the ubermenschy Arnold Schwarzenegger used to get taken apart pretty often on screen—notably in Conan the Barbarian, where he’s completely destroyed and gets chained up on the Tree of Woe.
There are a few images from the 80s that always come back to me when I think about heroism. There’s Batman, in The Cult and a few other notable comics, getting completely destroyed by a psycho sewer-dwelling cult. 1970s Batman is frequently horrified and disturbed by all the sick garbage he’s seeing, but 1980s Batman is just in pain and damaged, and has to grit his teeth to keep... fighting... and use the pain. This culminated in the 1993 storyline “Knightfall,” where Bats actually gets a career-ending injury.
The Judge Dredd storyline that sticks in my mind the most is the Cursed Earth saga, which ends with the image of Dredd so injured and messed-up that he’s forced to crawl across the post-apocalyptic nuclear wasteland, tormented by images that taunt him—he will not give up. He will keep going even if he has to drag himself along with his hands. (This was 1978, but I encountered it in the 80s, sorry.)
Jackie Chan got pretty nastily steamrollered in his early films—especially Drunken Master and Drunken Master II, which holy shit.
And then there’s the Doctor, in the classic 1984 Doctor Who story “The Caves of Androzani.” Peter Davison’s Doctor was consciously revamped to be more fallible and less of a know-it-all than Tom Baker’s 1970s version, and this gets taken to the ultimate extreme in “Androzani.” The Doctor is dying of Spectrox Toxaemia, he’s been beaten up by thugs, he’s burned himself horribly trying to escape—but he’s going to save his companion Peri, no matter what. I still get goosebumps at that big episode-ending speech... and then he’s crawling in the mud, with explosions going off all around him.
I guess I just like heroes who have to crawl in the mud instead of having it easy.
There are tons more examples. I asked on Twitter and Facebook, and they came flooding in. Mary McFly gets pretty badly wailed on. Snake Plissken gets beaten up so often, everyone thinks he’s dead. Rowdy Roddy Piper in They Live, Reese in Terminator, Donovan in the second V miniseries, Luke in Empire Strikes Back, Rocky II, Big Trouble in Little China, Evil Dead, Wolverine in Uncanny X-Men #132, Karate Kid, Die Hard, The Last Dragon, Deckard in Blade Runner, and so many others.
This was pretty much the hallmark of the 80s hero: Losing the fight, getting totally crushed, and then getting up and carrying on despite all the broken bones and pain. Back then, people used the word “rugged” a lot when talking about action heroes, and “rugged” to me denotes the idea of being able to take punishment.
The Blade Runner example helps to explain what’s going on here. The hero who loses almost every fight is a noir staple, and one thing I love about old hard-boiled detective movies and films is the way that scene changes are often accomplished by having the main character knocked unconscious by a blow to the head, only to wake up in a brand new locale.
And this is one reason I used to love Frank Miller, back in the day. He, more than anybody, understood the power of a protagonist who gets trashed and won’t give up. Because of his love for both noir and intense masochism, Miller is all too willing to subject Batman, Daredevil, and a host of other heroes to intense punishment.
80s pop culture basically taught me that the heroic thing isn’t just to win every time, but to get up after you’ve lost. When you consume 80s movies, TV, comics, and so on, the message you keep getting is that what makes you a hero is not giving up, even when you’ve gotten broken.
Nowadays, you have heroes who suffer setbacks, no question. Every movie has the “all seems lost moment” right at the end of the second act and the beginning of the third act. Every now and then, you get a hero who’s less than invincible, or who mistakes.
I really don’t think the “losing the fight and getting totally pulverized as a result” thing has been as prevalent since the early 90s. Batman is a case in point: He’s gone from being a breakable hero whose main “superpower” is his grim determination to keep fighting to being a near-godlike ubermensch who would wipe the floor with Galactus. (Because he carries a Bat-ultimate ullifier in his utility belt, right?) In general, I have a subjective feeling that even when heroes lose nowadays, it’s a lot less brutal.
This means violence with fewer consequences, escapism without the awareness that yes, you can actually get hurt in the course of fighting for what’s right. It’s the kind of fantasy that’s actually dangerously unrealistic, instead of wonderfully unrealistic.
I have a few theories about why this might be. First off, the PG-13 rating is a lot more important nowadays, and apparently there are pretty harsh restrictions on the kind and amount of gore you can show in a PG-13 movie. Second, these pop culture icons are catering, at least in part, to an aging fanbase that no longer really wants to think about physical pain. And then there’s just the pervasive sense that creators are pandering harder than ever before, and providing purer and more candy-coated escapism as a result. A hero who doesn’t just sail through every fight is more of a risky proposition, for audiences who just want happy fun times. Oh, and finally, all of the fights and explosions are CG nowadays, and nobody really wants you to think there’s a real human being getting chased by Transformers.
That said, there are definitely some notable exceptions. Add “a nasty beatdown” to the reasons why Mad Max: Fury Road was keeping it real. Netflix’s Daredevil and Jessica Jones both went there. In fact, one bright spot lately is that we’re finally willing to see female action heroes take some hits: the Supergirl pilot was surprisingly violent, which did a lot to offset the cheery/campy tone in general. The Hunger Games movies are always willing to put Katniss through the meatgrinder, physically as well as psychologically.
Let’s be clear that I’m not saying we need more violence in movies, or that it needs to be more explicit. I’m saying that if you’re going to show violence, and make that a major feature of the story, then I think it’s actually healthy to show the main character enduring the consequences. Heroes who dish it out but can’t take it are bullies. And really, violence is what happens when people have disagreements that escalate beyond brisk words.
Even beyond showing what violence leads to, what I really miss is heroes who can be hurt, and who show it. Heroes who don’t just shrug everything off while dodging giant CG meatballs. I love seeing the wince, the hesitation, before plunging back into the fray. I get more goosebumps from a hero who can’t give up, because my friends need me, than from someone who just sails through every fight unscathed.