The Self-Mocking, Self-Destructive Masculinity of the Predator Franchise

Even if you’ve never seen the 1987 Arnold Schwarzenegger sci-fi action classic Predator, you’ve probably seen this scene: A musclebound Arnold grins slyly as he saunters toward an equally brawny Carl Weathers. The two men clasp their hands together in the center of the room, creating a thunderous clap that resounds even as director John McTiernan holds his camera on their rippling, bulging biceps.

It’s a very manly moment from a very manly movie, the first of three (and soon to be four) entries in a very manly franchise. Even when Arnold and Weathers cede the series to actors not known for their massive physiques (Danny Glover in 1990’s Predator 2 and Adrien Brody in 2010’s Predators), and even when women get to play a more active role (Maria Conchita Alonso as a tough cop in Predator 2, Alice Braga as an Israeli sniper in Predators), these movies remain fixated on a specific type of exaggerated masculinity. And that sort of makes sense, as the series is about alien hunters who test their might against Earth’s greatest warriors.

But here’s the thing: As much as these movies love their muscles and explosions and outsized weapons, they ultimately make machismo look silly, and sometimes even horrific.

Consider the way the first Predator movie portrays bravado. It begins as a straight-forward action flick, not unlike Arnold’s other ’80s hits: Recruited by Weathers’s CIA agent Dillon to rescue American officials from a Communist base in Latin America, Arnold’s Dutch brings together a team of hardened commandos, including former pro wrestler Jesse Ventura and imposing character actors Bill Duke and Sonny Landham. Throughout this part of the movie, Dillon, Dutch, and the other soldiers repeatedly remind the viewers—and one another!—that they’re the best set of soldiers the U.S. has ever produced, a claim they back up in their attack on the radicals’ base. With catchy one-liners (“Stick around,” a smirking Arnold tells the soldier he just impaled) and copious explosions, our heroes take down the enemy soldiers, breaking only enough sweat to make their muscles glisten.

Like most of the sequences in the movie, the jungle attack scene is supremely entertaining, and McTiernan remains one of the best directors of clear and intelligible action. But it is also thoroughly, unrepentantly over-the-top. And in the same way that stunt men jumping away from explosions always looks exactly like stunt men jumping away from explosions, never to be confused for people actually blown back by concussive blasts, the movie’s celebration of swaggering, muscular men always feels like a joke, never an endorsement of the lifestyle.

For example, early in the movie, we learn of the deep bond between Ventura’s Blain and Duke’s Mac. When Blain becomes one of the first to be cut down by the Predator’s blasts, the film gives Mac a moment of mourning. As a tune approximating “Taps” enters Alan Silvestri’s score, the camera goes low to the ground to watch Mac uncover Blain’s body and get one last look at his partner. Mac takes a solemn sip from the flask they shared before placing it on Blain’s wounded neck, whispering, “Goodbye, bro.”

The film later gives Duke a soliloquy, in which Mac’s mourning turns to anger. Sitting under a full moon and recalling the adventures they had together, Duke twists his smile into a scowl, vowing to find the person who killed Blain and “cut your name into him.”

For a moment, the scene carries genuine pathos as it unfolds, largely thanks to Bill Duke’s outstanding performance. But whatever real feelings it invokes, the scene’s verisimilitude quickly gets choked out by the goofy boasting, rendering the entire moment (pleasingly) absurd.

With a film as well made as Predator, it’s hard to tell which jokes are intentional and which are accidental, but one gets the sense that the movie laughs at its swaggering heroes. As the only non-bodybuilding member of Dutch’s team, Hawkins (played by Shane Black, the director and co-writer of 2018’s The Predator) proves his mettle by making crude jokes about his girlfriend’s anatomy, jokes always followed by an impotent explanation. Likewise, when a wounded Blain tells a concerned teammate “I ain’t got time to bleed!”, the macho line is immediately deflated when the camera catches the teammate responding with an unimpressed, “Okay…”

Whatever the intention, most of the bravado inspires more laughter than awe, and Predator’s commitment to genre excesses makes the heroes’ boasting risible and even campy.

Although it swaps 1980s jungle warfare for the (then) futuristic gang-controlled streets of 1997 Los Angeles, and replaces the first film’s musclemen with Danny Glover, Gary Busey, and Bill Paxton, 1990’s Predator 2 continues the original’s focus on bad dudes with attitude. Glover’s Lieutenant Mike Harrigan may be less built than Arnold, but he’s no less macho when he ignores the laws of the city and of good sense to drive his car into a shootout between a SWAT team and a heavily armed street gang. In dialogue scenes, Glover clearly recalls all the lessons he learned playing Murtaugh in Lethal Weapon (also written by Shane Black), getting into shouting matches with his police chief and refusing to cede jurisdiction to government agents. Harrigan repeatedly tells the viewer that he’s going to do things his way, first to bring down the battling Latino and Jamaican gangs, and then to stop the Predator that’s hunting cop and crook alike.

Theoretically, Los Angeles streets might seem like a more realistic setting than the first movie’s jungle, but the movie’s treatment of gang crime comes right out of tabloid television and conservative stump speeches. The Colombian gangsters carry military-grade weapons that they deploy against helpless citizens, while the Jamaicans kill their rivals in “voodoo” rituals. Gang members hassling a nerdy subway rider find that not only is their target packing a gun, but so is nearly every other rider, from little old ladies to parents with kids. Nothing demonstrates the city’s lawless chaos better than an establishing shot in which director Stephen Hopkins pans across an LAPD station to find punks, prostitutes, and pimps openly fighting against the cops trying to book them. There is no civilization here, and only the strong survive.

By breaking the rules that impede him and staring down gang leaders and a Predator, Harrigan proves that he’s the strongest of all. But as with the previous movie, Predator 2’s milieu is much too silly to be taken seriously. Everything on the screen feels as lurid as the descriptions given by a sleazy newscaster (played by real-life provocateur Morton Downey Jr.)—literally and thoroughly unbelievable. So when Harrigan barrels through a group of gang members or goes toe-to-toe with the Predator, we’re entertained, but we’re not impressed. He’s just one more bellowing cartoon in a city full of bellowing cartoons.

By itself, this over-the-top quality isn’t remarkable, but the movie follows the Predator model by spotlighting its manly characters. Paxton’s cocky Jerry Lambert is all bluster and bragging, from his numerous attempts to hit on Alonso’s Leona Cantrell (she responds by squeezing his testicles and threatening worse) to the battle cry “Let’s dance!” he shouts before lunging at the Predator. Busey’s government agent Peter Keyes hunts the Predator with Ahab-esque determination, expecting to one-up Arnold’s team and secure his supreme manliness.

Predator 2 lacks the overt jokes that the original made about its heroes’ masculinity, but its excesses achieve the same result. The gang war is so flagrantly overdone, Harrigan and Lambert are such larger-than-life movie heroes, and Hopkins’s treatment of police work is so shallow that it’s impossible to take seriously Glover’s final victory, when he beats the Predator in the alien’s own ship. The climactic moment isn’t awe-inspiring—it’s just one more beat in a relentlessly goofy action flick.

On first glance, 2010’s Robert Rodriguez-produced Predators seems to break from its predecessors. In place of the first two movies’ squads is a random collection of tough guys, including American mercenary Royce (Adrien Brody), convicted killer Stans (Walton Goggins), Cartel enforcer Cuchillo (Danny Trejo), Sierra Leone-based soldier Mombasa (Mahershala Ali), and creepy doctor Edwin (Topher Grace). Instead of a terrestrial warzone, Predators takes place on an unidentified planet where Predators gather and hunt prey from Earth, which means that we not only get to see a classic Predator, but a whole host of even more threatening variations. But the biggest difference is its change in tone.

With the beefcake and bravado of ’80s action heroes out of pop cultural favor, director Nimród Antal builds his scenes around shiny CG effects and dour conversations about the nature of violence. Charismatic character actors Trejo, Goggins, and Ali bring humor and flavor to their roles, but most of the jokes come at the expense of Grace’s wimpy doctor, thus constantly reminding us how awesome these guys are, even when they aren’t killing digital monsters. And if these scenes weren’t enough to convince viewers that these characters are dangerous, writers Alex Litvak and Michael Finch make subtext text by having Braga’s IDF sniper Isabelle declare, “We are Predators. We’re just like them.”

To their credit, the writers do give Isabelle more to do than any other woman in the series, and they craft a clear character arc for Royce. He begins the movie cynical and self-centered (when Isabelle asks how Royce understands the Predator’s hunting style, Royce growls, “Because that’s what I would do”), and eventually regains his humanity by caring for his teammates.

But while that might provide some depth for Royce, it does so by invoking familiar gender stereotypes: Royce is a grizzled male loner, while Isabelle is a maternal figure who makes it her responsibility to improve his morals. Furthermore, the arc operates less by Royce seeing or admitting his errors and more by him agreeing with Isabelle’s position, which means that he’s almost always proven right. Most notably, when Edwin gets wounded, Royce ignores Isabelle’s urging to rescue the fallen doctor and abandons them both. He returns for them, but only after Edwin reveals himself to be a serial killer by paralyzing Isabelle with a poison and preparing to torture her. Thus, when Royce comes back, the movie frames him not as someone who has learned a better way, but as a hero whose initial cynicism is proven correct.

All of this might seem to be an uncharacteristically straightforward endorsement of masculinity in a Predator movie, except for one problem: it doesn’t work. The character progression happens only in leaden conversations between Isabelle and Royce, and the plot mechanics involving Edwin’s reveal as a killer and Royce’s return are labored and nonsensical. Dutch and Harrigan’s adrenaline-fueled one-liners might be gone, but Royce’s ruminations about killing and surviving are no more convincing.

But the biggest strike against Royce’s jock bonafides is Brody’s performance. Known largely for his dramatic and comedic roles, Brody was an interesting choice to lead an action movie, and the actor met the challenge by putting on significant muscle. But while he may look the part, Brody plays the character almost like a parody of Tom Hardy’s Max Rockatansky in Mad Max: Fury Road—growling every line, and punctuating his words with a wince evoking internal struggles.

It’s impossible to take Brody seriously as an ice-cold mercenary—but in that way, Predators follows the other entries. In every Predator movie, no matter how charismatic the actor, no matter how well-staged the direction, no matter how sharp the dialogue, the men come off as silly, pumping their chests to no effect other than laughter.

Well, almost no other effect. While the Predator films are action movies, they also feature a heavy dose of sci-fi horror. Every one of the movies have managed to make the Predators terrifying, and the directors’ use of heat-vision POV shots and images of the creatures uncloaking create real tension. We never forget that the Predators are monsters, willing to kill wantonly and to ultimately even destroy themselves to prove their prowess.

Predators may be the only film to directly declare the similarities between the monsters and the heroes, but the idea has been present throughout all the entries in the franchise. When, at the end of Predator 2, a group of Predators reward Harrigan with a trophy for defeating the hunter in his city, they demonstrate that he is one of them, that his manliness is worthy of their monstrosity. When Arnold covers himself with mud to fight the first Predator alone, shouting “Come on! Do it! Kill me!” with wild-eyed belligerence, he’s become just like his foe.

The movies often portray these connections as something to be admired, as if the heroes transcend mere human toughness to become intergalactically manly, but the actual plots undermine this thinking. The Predators may look cool, but they are not to be admired—they’re monsters who find value only in destroying other tough guys, tough guys like themselves. And if they can’t destroy their opponent, they must destroy themselves, choosing annihilation over the loss of alpha male status.

It remains to be seen if the series’ latest entry, The Predator, will continue the franchise’s thematic interest in hyper-masculinity, but events surrounding the film’s production and marketing reveal a problem that extends beyond mere plot points. After learning that director Shane Black gave a small role to Steven Wilder Striegel, a personal friend and convicted sex offender, actor Olivia Munn lobbied to have the scene removed, to which the studio finally agreed. Munn did the right thing by speaking out, but she has not been supported in her bravery. Not only is she being called “difficult,” (implying that she, and not Black, harmed the film) and called a “fake geek girl” (an invective that’s been directed at her since her days co-hosting Attack of the Show), but she has received virtually no backup from her male co-stars.

It’s hard not to see that same pathetic machismo in both Black’s decision to help a man who harmed women and in the male stars’ willingness to let Munn stand alone against a pedophile. The men are protecting each other, holding together as a band of brothers against a threat to their livelihoods, even if it comes at the cost of Munn’s career or the well-being of Striegel’s victim.

In the world of the Predator movies, macho men become laughable or horrifying. In these movies, tough guys ultimately destroy themselves—but we need to be more active to dismantle toxic masculinity in the real world. Supporting people like Munn, who take actual action against actual predators, is a good place to start.

Joe George‘s writing has appeared at Think Christian, FilmInquiry, and is collected at joewriteswords.com. He hosts the web series Renewed Mind Movie Talk and tweets nonsense from @jageorgeii.

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