Last night at The Avengers, one of the 150 trailers they showed prior to the movie was this one for Expendables 2.
If you don’t feel like watching (Spoiler: things blow up), forward to 1:13 to see Arnold deliver his catchphrase, “I’m back!”
As the packed theater erupted in laughter, my 13-year-old daughter leaned over and asked, “Dad, what are they laughing at?”
And it occurred to me that the answer to that is complicated.
There’s nothing inherently funny about the line, but I laughed along with everyone else. Now there has never been any illusion that what Arnold Schwarzenegger does is acting, or that when Arnold Schwarzenegger is in a movie he’s playing a character distinct from Arnold Schwarzenegger. It’s always Arnold Schwarzenegger playing “Arnold Schwarzenegger” playing whatever his character is named this time. This has been true since at least 1985, when Commando essentially invented the genre of the Schwarzenegger movie, a genre brought to its Platonic ideal just one year later with 1986’s Raw Deal, which was marketed with the greatest tagline in movie history (“The system gave Schwarzenegger a raw deal. Nobody gives Schwarzenegger a raw deal!”)
But now there’s so much more to the shtick, a laundry list of things he’s back from. There’s his stint as Governor. There’s his legal troubles and his paternity suit. His divorce. There’s his advanced age and just the inherent ridiculousness of these grown men running around playacting this way. And underneath all of that, there’s always been this nod-and-wink to Schwarzenegger’s delivery, this sort of knowing glance that passes from him to the viewer and back again that says, “Can you fucking believe that I — an immigrant who can barely speak the language and with no discernable acting talent — am up here getting paid obscene amounts of money to deliver this terrible dialogue? This country rocks!”
Yeah, I’ll go there: Arnold Schwarzenegger is America. Deal with it.