Arnold Schwarzenegger vs. Sylvester Stallone: The great '80s action movie star debate


Image Credit: Everett Collection

If you want to understand America — what we are, what we were, and most of all, what we want to be — then you have to understand Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone. The two actors exemplify two of our country’s most primal national myths. Stallone is a classic Horatio Alger protagonist, rising from impossibly humble beginnings into a world of fame and fortune and triumph and tragedy. Schwarzenegger is simply the Great American Immigrant Success Story, a boy from the forests of Austria who became a national celebrity, a canny businessman, and the chief executive of the eighth-largest economy in the world.

In the 1980s, the two men owned Hollywood, releasing a relentless series of blow-em-up action movies whose ridiculous excesses were perfectly matched by the stars’ impossibly muscular physiques. But which of the ’80s action gods reigns supreme? Read on for a spirited discussion about the eternal battle between the Italian Stallion and the Auspicious Austrian. Or, put simply: “Ooouuuggghhhh?” or “Aayyaayyuuggghh!

(This is part of an ongoing series of posts in which we descend into the metaphorical Thunderdome in the middle of the EW offices to settle the great pop culture rivalries. Check out our Captain Kirk/Captain Picard Star Trek showdown here, and don’t forget to come back next week for a pair of debates focusing on the late-’90s teeny-bopping pop music scene: A boy-band grudge match between ‘N Sync and Backstreet Boys, and a pop-diva showdown between Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera.)

Keith Staskiewicz (Stallone supporter): Sylvester Stallone is the underdog in this fight. He’s half-a-head shorter than Schwarzenegger, is generally mentioned second in the pantheon of 80s stars whose forearms are as big as your neck, and has little to no gubernatorial experience. But if the Rocky series proved anything, it’s that everyone loves the underdog. Also, robots can take care of children and “Thunderlips” is an acceptable name for a man.

Darren Franich (Schwarzenegger partisan): But the Rocky series had to constantly bend over backwards to keep making Stallone into the underdog, which just got more and more ridiculous with every installment: “Uh oh, Rocky has brain damage! And also, he’s poor again!” Whereas the joy of Schwarzenegger was that he was always a cartoon of near-godlike masculinity. And Schwarzenegger was smart enough to work with directors who knew exactly how to glorify or deconstruct his cartoonishness — John Milius, James Cameron, Paul Verhoeven, even Ivan Reitman. Stallone mostly stuck to working with his favorite collaborator: Sylvester Stallone.

KS: Was he? Commando doesn’t deconstruct anything other than about 16 buildings, an army of mercs, and an entire island nation. I will admit that he worked with some pretty formidable talents, but I don’t know if I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt that he was making conscious decisions like, “My Teutonic he-man-ism will certainly mesh well with Paul Verhoeven’s style of ultraviolent black comedy!” For the one-two punch combo of Conan the Barbarian and The Terminator that made him a star (Conan the Destroyer was just the drawback on the first punch), he wasn’t really in a position to turn down those roles. He was just utilized well by those directors. For the most part, Schwarzenegger’s biggest contribution was lifting heavy things and then putting them down again and again for a period of years. Stallone on the other hand made his own fame with his own hands. He wrote Rocky, starred in it, and garnered two Oscar nominations in the process. That’s two more than Arnold ever got — if you don’t count that time in 1990 when he beat up Jessica Tandy and stole hers.

DF: You’re right to say that Schwarzenegger wasn’t always in on the joke — and in bad movies like Conan the Destroyer, The Running Man, and pretty much everything after 1992, his performances tend towards the preening and the self-satisfied. But in his great films, Schwarzenegger has an incredibly intuitive charisma that regularly switches from hilarious to invigorating to just plain awesome. You can laugh at some of his line readings in Conan the Barbarian — “Who ahhhh youuu?” has always been a favorite — but the sheer steroidal physicality of his onscreen presence in that movie puts all the future whiny action heroes to shame. To me, the comparison point here is Beatles/Elvis. Sure, the Beatles wrote their own music, but Elvis performed the living hell out of songs that weren’t his. Both are equally valid roads to greatness. Except that, in this metaphor, imagine the Beatles basically kept on writing new versions of “Hard Day’s Night” over and over again, until they finally reached a miserable time period drowning in nostalgia and became relevant again.

KS: And then Elvis got rhinestoned, ate giant bacon-peanut-butter-and-quaalude sandwiches, and died on the toilet, a sad end not dissimilar in its scope of tragedy and embarrassment to Junior, Last Action Hero, End of Days, and Jingle All the Way. That’s not even mentioning the flurry (sorry) of terrible “freeze” puns in Batman and Robin. Stallone may go back to the same well a bit too much, but he never went cute, which I think is key. And he’s always been able to surprise us with a quality film. Like Rocky, as soon as you think he’s down for good, he hits back with a Cliffhanger, or a Cop Land, or The Expendables. He’s 65 years old with arms still the shape and size of large hams. That’s badass.

DF: Stallone definitely beats Schwarzenegger if we’re just talking about the sheer breadth of a career — from Rocky in 1976 to the upcoming Expendables 2, Stallone has been semi-consistent for over three decades, whereas the essence of Schwarzenegger lies in the 10-year period between Conan the Barbarian and Terminator 2: Judgment Day. (Confession: I’ve never liked True Lies.) But I think the breadth is also Stallone’s weakness: His films only really look good if you consider them in a group. If you mix all six Rockys together you might get one good movie; there is probably about half an hour in every Rambo movie that is ludicrously entertaining.

But it’s hard for me to point at any one of his movies and say, “This is a purely good movie in and of itself. This is the essential Stallone document.” Whereas Schwarzenegger has Conan, and Predator, and the Terminators, and Total Recall. You could make an argument that all of those movies are Schwarzenegger’s best, but all of them are actually very different from each other —  none more so than the two Terminators, in which Arnold flips from being an unstoppable killing machine to a lovable robot stepdad who only aims for the kneecaps.

KS: But that was nearly two decades ago. And I haven’t even gotten to Schwarzenegger’s most recent work, Ah-nold Goes to Sacramento, which was long, no fun, and riddled with logic holes. It’s hard to even imagine him arguing a parking violation now, let alone ripping off both of someone’s arms at once. Stallone took out 4,598.5 people just a few years ago in Rambo, and then more in The Expendables. Schwarzenegger graced that movie with his presence, but could you seriously imagine him suiting up with the rest of the team and jumping out of airplanes and twisting necks and punching bears and whatever else they do in that movie?

DF: Schwarzenegger doesn’t have to kill anyone else. He already basically eliminated the entire male population of Val Verde in Commando. Actually, though, you’re bringing up something else I’ve always found interesting about the two action stars. Stallone started out as a relatively average-looking dude, but now he’s a walking mass of muscle and eerily plucked eyebrows. Schwarzenegger moved in the exact opposite direction: he started out as a granite-carved Adonis, but his years in politics have left him looking like a normal guy — like a rich uncle who goes to the gym a couple times a week. And actually, that’s the narrative arc of most of his great performances — notice how every Terminator film literally tears Arnold to pieces. In a sense, all his great movies are about an invulnerable man discovering his vulnerability, whereas most of Stallone’s iconic roles are about an awesome dude who briefly doesn’t think he’s awesome and then remembers he’s awesome.

KS: Or they’re about an invulnerable man discovering his fertility. Look, this is my final word on the matter: Stallone’s great exactly because he goes Over the Top. Sure, he’ll never win an Oscar, and maybe his career got a little Rocky at times, but as an actor he’s Driven, and that’s why in this debate he’s assured Victory. Also, Darren, you better stop. Or my mom will shoot.

Comments (97 total) Add your comment
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  • Jay

    I think Stallone is the better actor BY FAR…. that being said, I think Arnold has gotten better roles through the years, and been in better movies.
    Its a tough call. I think personal preference is the only real tie-breaker.
    Arnold has really only had 1 total stinker… Junior. that thing was awful

    Stallone has had, Over the Top, Stop or my mom Will Shoot, and Rocky 5 as his awful flicks.
    Based on the count of god-awful movies, I guess Arnold gets the vote from me

    • Jay

      Forgot Judge Dredd….. another awful Stallone flick

      • Sam J

        The Terminator, T2, Predator, True Lies, Total Recall, Commando, and Kindergarten Cop


        Rocky, Rocky II, First Blood, Rambo, Demolition Man, Cliffhanger, and Cop Land

        Result = Swarzenegger Wins!!!

    • Jay

      Ooh… forgot Batman & Robin for Arnie. Quite possibly the worst movie ever made, and he is ridiculous in it. Stallone still touched bottom more than he did

      • Jen

        What about that Christmas movie Arnold played in with Sinbad? I’d still agree Stallone’s career has worse movies.

      • Jay

        Jingle All the Way wasn’t THAT bad. It did have Phil Hartman in it, after all

      • Cygnus

        This is talking about their 80’s movies. Remove the 90’s and see what you get.

      • Brad H

        Arnold KILLED the original Batman franchise as Mr. Freeze. That’s pretty impressive. That being said… the difference was Arnold WAS the 80s. Ridiculous plot lines, insane and unrealistic action, cheesy lines. In summary, Sly is MUCH more talented, and had much higher quality films, but (outside outside of Tango and Cash) Sly’s movies were more realistic than a lot of Soap Operas in the 80s.

    • jay

      But…but…I love The Running Man! But mostly because of Richard Dawson playing an evil version of himself (or just himself, I don’t know). If they do a remake, it would be fun to see Alex Trebek in that role.

  • Seth

    You both make good points, but I’m choosing Arnold for six reasons:
    1. Terminator.
    2. Terminator II.
    3. Predator.
    4. Total Recall.
    5. Commando.
    6. Last Action Hero. (I love this movie, in a non-ironic way. For me, its constant inclusion in worst-movie lists will always be a baffling mystery.)

    • Seth

      Plus, #7: True Lies.

    • Jeff

      yeah, but Sly had the Rockys & Rambos plus Cobra, Nighthawks, Cliffhanger & Lock Up

      • DD

        Cobra! One of my favorite guilty pleasures

      • Lia

        Nighthawks rules! Really underrated.

    • Kimberly

      I loved all the Arnold movies you listed, even Last Action Hero. It was hilarious!

    • The Truth

      Rocky won 3 Oscars including Best Picture. Arnold is so manly he does not need to act. It all comes down to what you prefer.

      • Sam J

        Terminator 2 won 4 Academy Awards:

        Special Effects, Sound, Sound Effects Editing, and Make Up.

        Linda Hamilton shoulda been nominated for Best Supporting Actress

    • It’sJustMe

      What about The Running Man?

    • askew37

      Rubber baby buggie bumpers! I love Last Action hero, plus one of the best soundtracks ever.

  • Marissa

    I LOVE these little pop culture showdowns between you too so much. I’m voting for Arnold on this one!

  • tia

    I voted Arnold, only because the article lists this as an 80’s action star face-off. So, discounting who is still relevant now or had the longer career, I have to give this one to the Arnold. Terminator/Conan/Commando/Predator > Rambo/Rocky.

  • Jeff

    Overall, Arnold had more good movies. But Sly had the two iconic characters in Rocky and Rambo.

    • jj

      Can’t forgive Stalione for Rhinestone

  • d

    Eh, I’m more of a Chuck Norris-Delta Force kind of girl.

  • Anne

    Stallone by far, the better actor, more charismatic screen presence (Arnold is a turn off) and better looking. Love him.

  • Melinda

    They’re both the 80’s personified. Miss them!

  • Jen

    No contest, it’s Arnold. Even his non-action roles were better (Twins and Kindergarten Cop vs. Stop or My Mom will Shoot….)

  • Mouse

    Based on their 80s/early 90s movies, I’m going to go with Arnold. Never really got into Rocky/Rambo.

  • Twix

    Remo Williams all the way.

    • cocoachica

      Man, I loved me some Remo Williams.

  • Clete

    Always wondered, why do action heroes always lost their shirts?

    • Lia

      Their awesome muscles just burst through them!

  • John

    Judge Dredd and Demolition Man… DEMOLITION MAN….. Arnold wins….. P.S. I actually am a big fan of Jingle All the Way…..

    • Jay

      I actually really, REALLY like Demolition Man. I count that as one of Sly’s better flicks.
      Sandra Bullock, Dennis Leary, and an un-frozen Sly in the future….. its classic! Wesley Snipes didn’t even bother me in this movie (like he usually does)

      • Joe

        Off topic here but gotta reply, are you serious?! Wesley snipes is a pure badass! Well he was sick in Demolition man but the films that made him equally as good as sly and arnie to me is Blade and Blade 2. Sickest films going!

    • travisdogg

      i also liked Demolition Man. Soooo funny! Judge Dredd was okay, but ironically. “I AM THE LAW!”

      • John

        This doesn’t quite fit with my previous post- but, I think we are blurring the definition of an action movie. I am not sure you can consider Rocky (at least 1 and 2) as action movies. I view them more as Drama- Sports/Drama. I also recognize that there is a fine line there because Bloodsport, Lionheart and movies like that, I would consider to be more action movies than anything else. Example- Though I enjoyed Over The Top- it’s hard to say that was an action movie.

  • Scott

    Arnolds awesome and has made some great movies but I have to give this to Stallone. Not only does have great action films including Rambo, Demolition Man, expendables, and Cliffhanger just to name a few but he has shown he is a great actor as well. I know some people have never given stallone a chance but if they watch Rocky, Rocky Balboa, and Copland they will see Stallone is not only a great action icon but a great actor as well. For me Stallone has always been stereotyped into action roles and when he does something different people don’t want to watch it. We can’t blame him for doing mostly action when the gereral public doesn’t want to see him doing anything else.

  • The Perfect Storm

    Clearly, Stallone has the more honorable career, but I voted for Arnie because he is who I think of when I think 80’s action star. I remember it being an event at my house when Terminator and Commando were being shown on HBO. I was a kid in the 80’s so his massive physique made him even larger than life to my preteen sensibilities.

    ANYWAY, I just wanted to point out a Stallone movie that is AWESOME that no one has mentioned yet. Demolition Man! It was a little later in his career. Still, great. He looks good and it had a fun comic edge. Remember, with Snipes and Bullock!

    P.S. Let’s give True Lies more credit too folks. Arnie being funny, but in a way that was in line with his action hero persona.

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