This past weekend Sylvester Stallone's Bullet to the Head opened to a mere $4.5 million--a career low for the star. This came a mere three weeks after that other giant of '80s action movies, Arnold Schwarzenegger, saw his post-gubernatorial return to starring roles, Last Stand, open to the only slightly better figure of $6.5 million, also a career low.
This is less surprising than it may seem. Stallone's career peaked more than a quarter of a century ago, in 1985, when Rambo: First Blood, Part II and Rocky IV were the second and third biggest movies of the year--after which he did not see another $100 million hit until he piggybacked onto the Spy Kids franchise in 2003, and if one not unreasonably excludes that, The Expendables in 2010. Schwarzenegger's career peaked in 1991 with his all-time highest grosser Terminator 2: Judgment Day, after which True Lies (1994) and Eraser (1996) and Terminator 3 (2003) were islands of success in a sea of middling performers and outright flops (like The Last Action Hero, and Batman and Robin, and Collateral Damage).
The action genre simply moved on, to other sorts of protagonist, in other sorts of film. The musclebound hulks who cheerfully mowed down hordes of anonymous cannon fodder in the service of ripped-from-the-headlines bad guys (epitomized, perhaps, by 1985's Commando) gave way to speculative-themed, CGI-based spectacles negotiated by everymen, or by full-blown superheroes. The Bruce Willis-starrer Die Hard in 1988 was already a sign of things to come, and with Tim Burton's Batman in 1989 (starring an unlikely Michael Keaton in the role) the new age had already arrived, before the full departure of the last one, the two eras continuing to overlap in the decade of transition that was the 1990s.
Of course, Schwarzenegger and Stallone tried to adapt. Science fiction and fantasy had already been prominent in Schwarzenegger's list (Conan, Terminator, Predator), and he made his share of such films in the '90s, including a superhero movie (Batman and Robin), and other movies where he played everyman types (like The Sixth Day). Stallone made genre movies, too (1993's Demolition Man and 1995's Judge Dredd). But their established image left them swimming against the current, so that their bad luck with those particular films was close to fatal. Schwarzenegger's departure from filmmaking to politics gave the impression of a man leaving a sinking ship for a sinking ship of state, and Stallone was soon enough looking backward rather than forward, with Rocky Balboa (2006), with Rambo (2008), with The Expendables (2010) and its sequel (2012).
The disappointing grosses of Last Stand and Bullet to the Head make it clear that the success of The Expendables (modest compared with the really first-string blockbusters) was the triumph of nostalgia and novelty, not the resurrection of yesterday's hero.
On the Graying of the Action Hero