Schwarzenegger Vs. Stallone

The Two 80’s Action Icons Have New Movies Hitting The Theaters Over The Next Two Weeks, So This Seems As Good A Time As Any To Settle This Argument Once And For All

Say what you will about the 1980’s (I recall it fondly maybe because it perfectly encompassed my high school and college years), sure it was cheesy and the fashion was goofy and the art was pretentious (come on, Basquiat? Really?) but it was also a decade that spawned some of the greatest arguments of all time. Magic vs. Bird (Magic), Michael Jackson vs. Prince (Prince, I don’t care what record sales say), Thatcher vs. Reagan (I’m going with Thatcher, Meryl Streep isn’t making a movie about Reagan), Ska vs. Punk vs. New Wave (Punk wins the battle of rock sub genres in my book), The Rat Pack vs. The Brat Pack (only one has Frank Sinatra), John Hughes vs. Actual Teenage Angst (Hughes, who needs the real stuff) and many more. But maybe the greatest debate of the 1980’s was Schwarzenegger vs. Stallone for the title of best action movie star. The years may have past these men by and they now seem to be playing comedic caricatures of themselves (purposely, I might add) but the debate still lies, albeit barely smoldering, unresolved… until now. Let’s take a look at the various arguments and let’s call a winner! Who’s with me?!

Okay, maybe it isn’t that exciting, but I’m still going to do it.

Box Office

The #3 Movie of 1994

The gross numbers at first glance appear pretty straightforward. Stallone’s movies have grossed a total of $1.83 billion at the domestic box office while Scharzenegger’s have made $1.7 billion. Not a huge win, but it would seem like a definitive win for Sly, that is until you take half a beat to look a little deeper. Stallone’s totals come from 35 movies which averaged $52.2 million. Arnold has 10 fewer flicks (25) and his averaged $71.1 million*. Sly also wasn’t running (I will let you debate how well) our most populous state for the better part of the last decade while movie grosses skewed higher and higher driven by ticket price increases. Getting a little more box office geeky, Sly had at least one movie finish in the top 10 in four different years, 1976 (where the original Rocky was a top 10 hit but doesn’t do ranking previous to 1980), 1983 (Rocky III was #4 at the box office), 1985 (Rambo: First Blood Part II was #2 and Rocky IV was #3) and 1993 (Cliffhanger sneaks in at #10). Meanwhile, Arnold also achieved that feat four times; in 1988 (Twins was #5), 1990 (Total Recall was #7 and Kindergarten Cop was #10), 1991 (when Terminator 2: Judgement Day was the #1 movie of the year) and 1994 (True Lies, the forgotten great movie of that year finished #3 at the box office).

So where does all of this box office sabermetrics get us? Do we value gross numbers, do we value averages, do we value performance in relative years? I think where it gets us is here…


The almost $20 million per movie advantage is the tipping point for me.

*These averages may seem low given the box office numbers generated today, but keep in mind Arnold and Sly’s biggest hits were in the 80’s and early 90’s when box office totals were a lot different. For example, in 1990 only 9 films broke the $100 million barrier at the domestic box office and only 19 movies grossed more than $60 million. Last year 28 movies grossed over $100 million domestically and 51 surpassed $60 million. In other words, Sly’s $52.2 million average would be comparable to say The Bourne Legacy from this year and Arnold’s $71.1 million is somewhere closer to Taken 2 or the last Ice Age movie.

Cult Classics

To me, a true cult classic is a movie that is inarguably ludicrous, stupid or bad and yet is also undeniably entertaining and infinitely re-watchable. And the best cult classics, be it Big Trouble in Little China or The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension, always make you feel like the people making it were in on the joke. While Sly has a few movies that would fit this criteria under his belt (Demolition Man and Tango & Cash chief amongst them) cult classics seemed to have been Arnold’s specialty, particularly early in his career. Just look at Arnold’s IMDB page and the flix he made in the 1980’s:

  • Conan the Barbarian**
  • Conan the Destroyer (Wilt Chamberlin on a horse is priceless)
  • The Terminator
  • Red Sonja (sorry, this one is just bad)
  • Commando (co-starring a young Alyssa Milano)
  • Raw Deal
  • Predator
  • Running Man (one of my favorite, mostly forgotten, 80’s movies)
  • Red Heat
None of those were huge hits during their theatrical runs (not even the original Terminator), but most of them were really entertaining and many of them live on today. One of the things that really separated Arnold in the 1980’s from every other action star was that he always seemed to get how ultimately silly the whole thing was. He got that he could barely speak english, couldn’t really act his way out of a paper bag and, with his body building physique, never even looked like a real person. He got it and that is why all of his movies, particularly these early one’s, were winking at the audience the entire time. It took Stallone years (really, not until Demolition Man in 1993) to stop seeming to take it all so seriously and embrace the goofy fun of it all. That’s why, in a walk, this one goes to…
**I’ve told this story before, but I can not mention Conan the Barbarian without telling it again. My high school economics teacher, a hysterical guy who loved movies, told me that he had watched Conan the Barbarian 10 times (this was only a year or so after it came out) and he was planning on continuing to watch it until he could figure something out. He wasn’t sure if Conan was the worst movie ever made or the most brilliant comedy of all time. Where the movie fell was entirely a function of whether or not the filmmakers did it that badly on purpose. If they knew what they were doing, according to my economics teacher, they should have won the Oscar.
Particularly in the action genre, launching a film franchise is one of the endearing marks of greatness that any star can have on their resume. As action stars where would Bruce Willis be without Die Hard or Mel Gibson without Lethal Weapon? If it were not for Taken would anyone have ever associated Liam Neeson with action movies? Arnold and Sly are the godfathers of this trend, of this rite of passage for any would be action icon. Arnold’s Terminator series has out grossed the Alien, Die Hard and Lethal Weapon series and “I’ll be back” has become one of the most iconic lines in movie history. That’s pretty good for the former Mr. Universe, but can it compare to the man who was at the center of two of the biggest franchises in movie history? Forget the total box office numbers and other measurable ways to judge the popularity of a film franchise and ask yourself what would you rank higher than Rocky and Rambo? Harry Potter? Probably. You’d likely put James Bond, Star Wars and Indiana Jones ahead of it too, but after that it starts to get hard to find another franchise you’d put ahead of either of Sly’s (probably some of the comic book one’s, but that is almost a separate category in a way). Look, if you want to know who to blame for Part II, 3 in 3D and so on look no further than Sylvester Stallone. This one was easy…
Other Genres
I may be one of the few defenders of Oscar, Sylvester Stallone’s foray into farce from 1991, on the planet. Having said that, as a rule, Sly and comedy were never natural bedfellows. Arnold, on the other hand, from Twins to Kindergarten Cop to Junior to Jingle All The Way has always been accepted in comedies (even if they weren’t always great comedies). I think it goes back to what I was talking about in Cult Classics, Arnold has always been in on the joke, even when he was the joke, so comedies aren’t a big transition. Still, with all the success Arnold had with comedies can any of that trump Rocky? If Rocky were an anomalous display of dramatic acting chops for Stallone maybe Arnold’s comedies would hold up, but with Fist, Rocky II and Cop Land Stallone has shown that, given the right material, he can act, he can be something other than what we think of him to be. I guess really the only question is, where does being Governor of California fit in? I say it doesn’t…
At Their Best

When was Arnold at his best? As much as I may love Predator or Running Man or even Conan the Barbarian*** by most any measure (box office, personal preference, etc.) Terminator 2: Judgement Day has to be viewed as Mr. Schwarzenegger pinnacle, and it is a pretty great pinnacle. T2 has to be on every short list of films that visually blew audiences away by giving them things they had never seen before (The Matrix, Avatar, LOTR: The Two Towers, would be the recent history list), Linda Hamilton was a shocking revelation as she rebuilt her body in a way no actress had ever done before and James Cameron found a place to take a story that seemed to be over at the end of the original movie. All in all T2 is one of the top 10 movies of the 1990’s and one of the top 20 Sci-Fi movies of all time.

You’d think all of that glowing praise for T2 would make Arnold tough to beat, until you remember that Stallone has Rocky on his resume. Rambo: First Blood Part II may be Sly’s biggest box office hit but no one can argue that the discussion of Stallone at his best begins and ends with the winner of the Academy Award for best Picture in 1977 and one of the greatest sports movies of all time. As great as T2 is it can’t compete with that.


*** Just kidding. I’m not going to tell the Conan story again.

At Their Worst

Red Sonja is bad. So is Conan the Destroyer but it has Wilt Chamberlin and Grace Jones (Wilt is so tall that his feet are nearly touching the ground when he is riding a horse) and so it somehow falls into that weird category where it isn’t “so bad it’s good” but when it is on you do feel compelled to watch a few minutes. But Red Sonja, no, it’s just bad. As bad as Red Sonja is (I mentioned it’s bad, right?) it isn’t even in the ballpark of un-watchable horror that Stop Or My Mom Will Shoot! or Rhinestone are. Those have to be two of the worst movies ever made by an “A” list actor at the height of his or her fame (ooh, that would be a fun list to come up with). Two truly, painfully dreadful films.


The Tie Breaker

So, now we are all tied up 3 to 3, as it should be (no great argument should be one sided). What breaks the tie? What is it that truly separates Sly from Arnold or Arnold from Sly? Simple … height. Arnold is probably not actually 6’2″ tall since he was listed as short as 5’10” earlier in his life, but he isn’t short. Sly is listed at 5’10” tall, but I met him once and he was definitely more than 4″ shorter than me. Why does it matter? Well, it goes to believability doesn’t it? I mean, Stallone can pump himself full of steroids to keep himself ridiculously ripped but it doesn’t make him taller and the fact that he refuses to acknowledge that he is short in his films doesn’t help. Give Arnold credit, he recognizes who and what he is as an actor. He recognizes he has a comically thick accent, he recognizes he is inhumanly large and he doesn’t try to ignore those things in his movies. Sly, like many an actor who is short (yes, I’m looking at you Tom Cruise) not only refuses to acknowledge his lack of height, he tries to pretend he is not short (like we didn’t notice when Bridget Nielsen was a foot taller than him in Cobra). As an action hero it hurts him. Now he is doing the same thing with his age, trying to pretend we can’t notice he is getting old. Arnold’s tag line for his new movie is “retirement is for pussies” and the trailer for The Last Stand shows him acknowledging, when asked how he’s doing, the he’s old. Bullet To The Head posters feature a ripped and shirtless Stallone pointing a gun, the same poster that would have been made if Sly was starring in this movie when he was 35 not 66. Sly has always had the problem of taking himself too seriously coupled with an inherent vanity that prevents him from acknowledging shortcomings (no pun intended). Arnold has always tried to use his obvious shortcomings, starting with his name, to his advantage. That is the difference to me and that is why I now declare…


But hey, what do I know? I’m Fat.