How did Mark Wahlberg become a leading man? When did he become a man at all? Persistent, befuddled boyishness has always been part of Wahlberg’s appeal, starting with his brief adventures as a white-kid hip hop star in the early 1990s. Back then he was known as Marky Mark, a name that willfully confused a child’s innocence with a grown-up’s firm identity. In the 1991 video for “Good Vibrations,” Wahlberg, a bare-chested twenty-year-old, danced and shadowboxed for the camera, rapping lines like, “I’m gonna get mine—so get yours. I wanna see sweat comin’ out your pores.” It was hard to tell if the song’s message was romantic or fitness-oriented, but it was easy to see that Marky Mark, whatever musical gifts he may have had, was relying on his body to get noticed.
Affectless but for his impish eyebrows, Wahlberg is most convincing onscreen when he has physical work to do—his body speaks for him, which is why he seemed right playing a porn star in Boogie Nights and why the audiences flocking to his new movie “Invincible” apparently agree that he could make it through an NFL season without being decapitated. In the movie Wahlberg plays Vince Papale, a walk-on special teams player for the Philadelphia Eagles in the mid-1970s. There was (and is) a real Papale who played three seasons of pro football for the Eagles; film clips at the end of the movie show grainy footage of Papale making tackles and grinning like a kid on the sidelines.
Thanks in part to Wahlberg’s laconic performance, Invincible is a deeply telling depiction of American manhood, a catalogue of conventions layered one on top of the other, an embarrassment of male archetypes. There are blue collar jobs; there is a neighborhood watering hole; there are friends helping each other with their cars. There is also a whole lot of unruly man-hair—the story takes place in the 1970s, after all, and the movie renders that decade’s shaggy manes and mustaches in loving detail. The only important female character in Invincible is Papale’s love interest, a slim blonde who wins all the guys’ hearts by talking tough and, well, being a slim blonde. Her feminine mystique is underscored by the fact that she is a Giants fan. Montagues, Capulets, put away your poison; nothing could be as star-crossed as sexual intrigue between an Eagles fanatic and a woman in a Giants jersey.
More than anything else in Invincible, there is football. The men in the film go to Eagles games together, and play together in a nighttime recreation league. The movie dutifully captures the crunching violence of the sport at every turn, but there is never a suggestion that the high-velocity musculoskeletal trauma of football is not a necessary aspect of American manhood. At one point in the movie, Papale’s father recalls a famous touchdown from Eagles lore, and tells his son in hushed tones, “That touchdown got me through 30 years at the factory.” That’s why grown men should play violent games: so that other grown men can remember the freedom of youth. Forget the brutality, forget the war metaphors; the gridiron is a field of dreams.
On second thought, don’t forget the brutality—it’s important. As the Times observed, Invincible is another in a long string of Disney productions that celebrates sports underdogs. What’s different about this film, though, is that it marries the feel-good storyline of a Disney movie to the sensibility of Fight Club. In Invincible, our lovable underdog doesn’t just want to win; he wants to hurt, to be hurt, to hear the sound of cracking bones. His friends and teammates share his taste for blood. And even though the director, Ericson Core, includes credible depictions of underemployed blue collar men, it is sometimes hard to swallow the movie’s code for male love and friendship: if you care about your buddy, you’ll go get injured with him.
Of course American cinema has always been fascinated with violent men. One of our great native genres, the Western, is one long journey into the psyche of the lonely gunslinger. But cowboys like John Wayne and Gary Cooper portrayed older lawmen who had learned a thing or two about violence and its costs. In more recent American movies, our vision of manhood has shifted to younger men who seek out painful collisions for no apparent reason. There is no ranch to defend; there are no men in black hats. And unlike the weathered loners in old Westerns, these younger heroes do it all with their fists. Think of Matt Damon’s character in Good Will Hunting, the blue-collar math genius who just happens to beat a stranger to within an inch of his life on a basketball court. Think of the Edward Norton character in 25th Hour, who convinces a good friend to beat him to a pulp before he’s shipped off to prison. Think, again, of Edward Norton and Brad Pitt in Fight Club, playing a couple of young guys (or was it the same young guy? I never got that) who, well, form a fight club.
And think of Mark Wahlberg, the mannish boy who earns the honor of getting his ass upended, over and over again, in Invincible. What the movie really shows is that we now expect young men to enact their manhood through fights that don’t mean anything—violence is there to prove that a guy’s tough, but being tough doesn’t result from understanding the nature of violence or when to use it. This is why Mark Wahlberg is a leading man: he has a body that looks capable of violence, and a face that does not register any struggle with the implications of violence. He gives us American manhood the way we’ve apparently come to expect it: fists and fights and football, and don’t look back. It hurts—but if you’re a real man, only for a little while.
Brian, what a funny, well-written review! I only wish you’d mentioned Rudy, that movie about that walk-on to Notre Dame. I’ve seen that movie like five times (it’s always on TV) and I could see it another five times, even though I know it’s sappy. But it would have fit in so well to your discussion about manhood, violence, and spunky little underdogs. Rent it. Anyway, I could get addicted to your reviews. Can’t wait to read another one…