From Swashbucklers to Supermen: A Brief History of Action-Movie Heroes

How we got from silent comedians to Tom Cruise hanging on to a plane in 10 easy steps

Credit: Everett (2)

There’s a moment in Mission: ImpossibleRogue Nation — Tom Cruise career-saver, franchise MVP and the summer's best non-Imperator Furiosa action blockbuster — where the CIA director refers to the film's relentless hero as "the living manifestation of destiny." As a government official talking about an unpredictable agent, the line is patently (if knowingly) ridiculous. As Alec Baldwin talking about Tom Cruise, the dialogue sounds right on the money. That phrase could be dropped into the first sentence of his biography and nobody would think twice.

When the superstar first stepped into the role of superspy Ethan Hunt 19 years ago, it was unclear what kind of action hero the spritely and hyper-intense Rain Man star was going to be. Now, five movies later, the answer is clear: All of them. As the franchise has progressed, Cruise has done nothing less than take 100 years of action movies and collapse them into one (very compact) person. If we take a closer look at the archetype at the end of the Summer of Rogue, would it confirm that we've reached the logical conclusion of the Hollywood action hero as we know it? Or might we be on the precipice of something new — hanging on to the edge of a cinematic jet by our fingertips as it soars into parts unknown?

As the tentpole-über-alles season slouches toward Bethlehem (a.k.a. awards season), we're taking one last look back and tracing how this staple of Hollywood movies has morphed over the decades. It's the evolution of the action hero — from the 1920s to the present day — in just 10 easy steps.

The Acrobat
Action has been a staple of the movies since Edwin S. Porter sent a locomotive barreling straight at the audience, but the first proper action heroes were actually comedians. You do not get Jackie Chan without Charlie Chaplin; Bond — James Bond — is virtually unthinkable without Buster Keaton; and it'd be impossible to imagine Ethan Hunt without a clock-hanging Harold Lloyd.

The silent era's funnymen are remembered as clumsy agents of chaos, but they were also daredevils who'd risk life and limb for a good laugh and laid the groundwork for virtually all the derring-do that followed. Nobody exemplified this better than Keaton — watching him grab on to moving cars, jump across chasms, swing across waterfalls,  leap around and on top of moving trains (including one stunt that left him with a broken neck), and ride a motorcycle on its handlebars, you can feel your pulse quickening. Even when he did stunts that made it seem as if the action was happening to him — like the famous falling house sequence from Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928) — the comedian had a knack for making the act of standing still seem totally kinetic. Forget the Western tough guys; the modern action hero really starts here.

The Swashbuckler
Meanwhile, on the other side of town, Douglas Fairbanks Sr. was laughing in the face of danger. Brawnier and more overtly athletic than the great comedians of the time, the agile actor gave birth to the action hero who could save the day, make the girl swoon, and then swing in on a burning chandelier or the dangling sail of a pirate ship just in time. Like Errol Flynn after him, the only thing that seemed to separate Fairbanks' characters from the actor's legendary off-screen persona was a frilly costume and a bendy rapier. And by the time Flynn would cross sabers with Basil Rathbone's Sir Guy in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Hollywood made the chivalrous man-of-action it's default hero mode and would never look back.

The Lone Wolf
After World War II, a generation of American men were forced to become action heroes in their own right. When they came back from the fighting, they had changed — these soliders had seen things they couldn't unsee, and the movies that were made for them reflected that.

John Wayne rose to fame before the war by playing relatively uncomplicated gunslingers, men who would roam the wilds of Monument Valley because that’s where they were thrived. During the war, he was cast as an officer if not a gentleman, leading fighter squadrons on air raids and helping grunts raise the flag at Iwo Jima. But in 1956's The Searchers, however,Wayne revealed a new shade of ugliness of action, leveraging his kidnapped niece into a genocidal crusade against the Comanches. His unrepentant racism was the scar of a fractured world, and the film ends with his character effectively being exiled from civilization, too deformed to reintegrate back into the society that he had risked his life in order to preserve.

The Cool Customer
Not only did Steve McQueen define the type we're talking about here (see The Great Escape, The Magnificent Seven, Bullitt...just see almost any Steve McQueen movie, really), he also described it best: "I don't want to be the guy who learns, I want to be the guy who knows." A far cry from, say, North by Northwest's Cary Grant and your run-of-the-mill Hitchockian wrong man, a McQueen hero was the sort of guy who'd jump his Triumph motorcycle or launch his Ford Mustang over the hilly roads of San Francisco, all with the bravado of a man who knew he could always stick the landing. Calm, collected, and ready for anything, he might toss off a line like "We deal in lead, friend" or find a renewed sense of agency behind the wheel of a muscle car.

And then there was James Bond, the sort of man who could be tortured in the morning, save the world after lunch, and sleep soundly beside a buxom (and totally interchangeable) babe that night — someone like Lt. Frank Bullitt, who dared to look in the mirror and consider his own reflection, was practically a philosopher by comparison. The most recent incarnation of the character has complicated things a bit, but Bond was born as a man with no chinks in his armor, no wrinkles in his tuxedo, and no thoughts in his head other than "kill the bad guy, get the girl, save the world, and look good doing it." For the first time since the swashbucklers, the action hero doubled a bona fide sex symbol.

The Vigilante
The next generation of action hero resulted from a simple question: What if Steve McQueen were an unrepentant asshole? Their presence was announced by gunshots instead of footsteps, and they punctuated every sentence with a bullet. They were mean sons of bitches who walked with a swagger and broke all the rules just because they could — unsurprisingly, a lot of them were cops (some things never change). Anything to catch the bad guys, right?

Clint Eastwood already knew his way around a six-shooter thanks to his star-making years in spaghetti Westerns, but everything changed when they put a .44 Magnum in his hand. Once a taciturn gunslinger who just wanted to ride into the sunset with his piece of the action, Dirty Harry saw Eastwood reborn as, well, a sociopath. Harry Callahan didn't just stop the bad guys, he also messed with them for his own sick amusement. He wasn't forced into violence, he was excited by it — for this breed of action hero, the villain was just a good excuse. Tellingly, the movie ends with Callahan tossing his badge into some murky water.

But Harry Callahan was practically a boy scout compared to The French Connection's Detective Jimmy "Popeye" Doyle (Gene Hackman), the bigoted, womanizing alcoholic who accidentally killed a fellow officer during his film's climactic chase and didn't even stop to say sorry. And then there was the Death Wish series, which didn't even bother to give its hero a badge. The iconic Seventies urban-paranoia, Horror City franchise just gave Bronson's everyman an excuse to take justice into his own hands — and thus his action hero went from peaceful architect to one of the most prolific movie mass-murderers of the 20th century.

The Killing Machine
Arguably a delayed response to the failure of the Vietnam War (the Rambo series charts the descent from sensitive vet to brainless one-man army), the action hero of the Eighties had the difficult task of finding a gun bigger than the arm they were holding it with. They were glistening human cartoons, with biceps strong enough to carry an entire movie — anonymous hordes of enemy henchmen would practically dive to their dooms when Sylvester Stallone or Dolph Lundgren came lumbering towards them, sacrificing themselves to the steroidal gods of carnage. Arnold Schwarzenegger would perfect this breed of hyper-masculine steamroller in 1984's The Terminator, elevating himself from strongman to icon by playing a literal killing machine.

Eventually these characters grew so outsized and ridiculous that parody became the only recourse, leading to the likes of Kindergarten Cop in 1990 and The Last Action Hero in 1993. Thankfully, some estrogen was en route.

The Heroine
Hollywood has never been a particularly welcoming place for action heroines: In order to find a good one you had to look in Japan, in the grindhouse, or — most reliably — in outer space. Asian cinema had Lady Snowblood, blaxploitation had Foxy Brown, and the mainstream had one blaster-packing princess traveling around a galaxy far, far away.

And then there was Ellen Ripley. Written as a man but cast as a woman, the Alien heroine was a cinematic drag act whose gender was largely irrelevant to the conflict at hand. The sequel pushed the needle away from androgyny, the introduction of Newt effectively transforming Ripley into a maternal figure (and forcing her into a Darwinian fight to the death against a mother who had just lost all of her babies). Sigourney Weaver's bad-ass protector set the stage for the Sarah Connor 2.0 we got in Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), with a muscular Linda Hamilton transforming the original character from damsel in distress to shotgun-toting death-dealer.

Of course, it was only a matter of time before Hollywood confused gender for sex, and the small handful of female action heroes that cropped up during the Nineties and the early aughts were mostly hyper-sexualized to the point of regression. (Remember Barb Wire? Hopefully not.) Somewhere off in the distance, Imperator Furiosa was waiting patiently, ready to be called off the bench and out in the field.

The Everyhero
John McClane was obviously never going to die, but that didn't mean he couldn't be killed. He was bleeding from his feet. He was balding. He was estranged from his wife, but still felt a very real obligation towards her. He was just supposed to come out to the coast and have a few laughs. Hans Gruber and his troop of German terrorists never stood a chance, but McClane nevertheless introduced a measure of doubt into the equation.

When Die Hard arrived in 1988, brawn was suddenly replaced by attitude, and bloodlust was replaced by situational mandate. McLane wasn't gung-ho, he was put-upon; you knew there was always somewhere else he would rather be. He was an everyman caught in a sticky situation, and that dynamic proved so compelling that Hollywood would riff on this throughout the 1990s (and beyond), introducing a wide variety of unlikely heroes whose glory was forged by one very bad set of circumstances. There's a terrorist in a building. There's a bomb on a bus. There's an Ed Harris on Alcatraz. There's snakes on a plane. There's a man who's going to rise to the challenge.

Martial artists would quickly co-opt this type as well, flexibly adapting from killing machines into more ordinary guys: Steven Seagal played the super deadly cook of a hijacked ship in 1992's Under Siege, and Jean-Claude Van Damme was, um, a security guard at a high stakes hockey game in 1995's Sudden Death. They didn't know it at the time, but these guys were among the last generation of action hero who didn't have to compete with the special effects that brought their exploits to life.

The Superheroes
…And then God created spandex.

Superhero movies existed long before Iron Man sparked the big bang of the Marvel Cinematic Universe in 2008. But the genre explosion that resulted from the birth of the MCU cobbled together a fresh action archetype from a mess of familiar parts in much the same way as Tony Stark cobbled together his first Mark 1 prototype.

They look like Abercrombie models, they quip like Han Solo, and they dress like they've just been rejected from Cirque du Soleil. They're all in ridiculous shape, but the modern action movie's reliance on the magic of CGI has lowered the physical requirements of its stars, rendering their muscles almost purely cosmetic (Paul Rudd spent months carving out a six pack for Ant-Man, but his abs are only seen in a single shot, revealed in a scene that exists for the sole purpose of showing them off).

They're huggable, they're meme-able, they're a walking compilation of gestures that can be readily reduced into GIFs. They're fuzzy enough that the actors can wear their costumes to visit hospitalized children, but tough enough that teenage boys feel comfortable gawping at their feats of strength. They're a fellowship of equals, relying on each other like the heroes from the men-on-a-mission movies of the Sixties (there's no "I" in "Avengers"). They are focus-grouped to perfection, and while they wrestle with themselves (or, in Christopher Nolan and Zack Snyder's movies, they brutally cage fight their inner demons), their devotion to the greater good is seldom in doubt. Most of all, they are here to stay.

The AARP Generation
Taken was hardly the first time that an action movie was fronted by someone eligible for Social Security (Charles Bronson was approximately 412-years-old in the accurately titled Death Wish V: The Face of Death). But there's no denying that Liam Neeson elevated "I'm getting too old for this shit" from a hacky line of dialogue to a bonafide sub-genre. Innocuously dumped into American theaters in January of 2009 (almost a year after it debuted in France), Pierre Morel's unapologetic B-movie tells the story of a retired, overprotective CIA agent named Bryan Mills who's super paranoid about his teenage daughter's trip to Paris. Naturally, she's targeted by a ring of human traffickers about six seconds after she clears customs.

Despite being 55 years old at the time, Neeson murdered half the henchmen in Europe, snapping enough necks to make Steven Seagal blush. And thanks to the wonders of shaky-cam and rapid-fire editing, the whole thing was probably less taxing on Neeson's body than his performance in Love Actually (I mean, he had to cry in that one).

It was ridiculous, and it worked because Neeson didn't have to pretend that it wasn't. During a press stop between sequels, the actor candidly remarked: "It's like, I'm 61 years of age. I mean, come on. It's a joke. It's like [pretends to pick up a phone], 'How much?' Ok, I'll be there.'"

Taken proved that audiences weren't hung up on the ages of their male action stars, at which point everyone from Denzel Washington (The Equalizer) to Sean Penn (The Gunman) decided to cash in on the pensioner-kicking-ass wave. It also demonstrated that filmgoers were willing to go along with pretty much anything so much as it played against the austerity of an actor's image or stoked a measure of nostalgia. And so, a little more than two years later, Stallone slapped together The Expendables, the franchise providing a veritable retirement home for the action stars of yore.

The Manifestation of Destiny
Which brings us back to Ethan Hunt.

Leveraging the role into an opportunity to be the platonic ideal of the action hero, Tom Cruise has routinely displayed the fearlessness of the silent stars (remember that free-climbing madness from the beginning of Mission: Impossible II?), the easy charm of a swashbuckler, the cool resourcefulness of James Bond, the intense inner turmoil of John Wayne, the recklessness of Harry Callahan, the invincibility of John Rambo, the breezy camaraderie of the Avengers, and — if you squint — the cracking veneer of a guy who's not as young as he used to be.

And yet, watching Cruise do all that, it's telling that the big takeaway from this summer's biggest non-superhero action hit was a rival agent who can go toe-to-toe with Hunt and still come out a foot taller. Rogue Nation ace in the hole may be its heroine, with Rebecca Ferguson's secret agent Ilsa Faust proving to be Hunt's equal match in spy-vs-spy shenanigans, and his superior when it comes to wielding high-powered rifles while wearing evening gowns and heels. The end of the film makes it clear to whom Hunt will report, should there be a Mission: Impossible VI. Where Ilsa goes from here, however, is anyone's guess.