While action movies in general have been and will always be a perennial part of the cinematic landscape, the specific offshoot that occurred during the 1980s was a result of numerous changing trends and factors in popular culture. The action hero had already been through a number of variations over the decades since movies began, ranging from square-jawed, morally upright authority figures to mythical portrayals of historical icons like the gladiator and the cowboy.
During the 1970s, thanks in part to increasing permissiveness in film, action heroes of all types tended to get darker, compromising their ethics in the name of justice and crossing numerous moral lines. These characters putting themselves above the law meant that, by the dawn of the ’80s, it became de rigueur for action heroes to eschew all manner of ethical, legal, and moral boundaries. Audiences accepted their actions in a “might makes right” fashion, which — along with the unabashed freedom they enjoyed — made them fun to watch.
Even though superhero cinema would not become the norm until the 21st century, the characters portrayed by the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Chuck Norris, Mel Gibson and others acted as de facto superheroes, larger-than-life characters who were ostensibly human but could miraculously survive any explosion if the script called for it. Their attitudes followed suit, as they displayed a confidence bordering on arrogance that was topped off with a sardonic wit, usually demonstrated in the form of a pithy one-liner uttered upon killing a baddie or blowing up a truck.
Although the ’80s action hero type was changing by the end of the decade — John McClane in “Die Hard” was lauded for being visibly injured and exhausted during the film, for instance — the trend continued through the early ’90s.