James Badge Dale plays the hero in The Lone Ranger. He’s Dan Reid, a Texas Ranger with scruffy facial hair and pained sky-blue eyes. He’s soft-spoken but quick with a one-liner, half jocky frat-boy and half wounded warrior. He makes fun of his little brother but clearly loves his little brother, and when he sets off on his third or fourth dangerous mission of the day, he says goodbye to his wife and child with a mixture of apology (because he’s a man who can’t help how much he likes his dangerous job) and tremendous care (because he’s a man who loves his family and knows that every time he sees them could be the last time). He’s a little bit John Wayne and a little bit Han Solo, a hero who’s also clearly a scoundrel, a fraternity president who’s also a noble lawman. He’s dead by around the half-hour mark.
There’s no place for obvious heroes in contemporary Hollywood blockbusters, is what Lone Ranger tries to say over and over again; Dan Reid needs to die so his nerdy younger brother can become him. (The fact that his nerdy younger brother is played by genetic superhuman Armie Hammer is one of several thousand indications that The Lone Ranger is too stupid for its ambitions.)
Fortunately, contemporary Hollywood blockbusters do have a place for James Badge Dale. The actor has popped up in three memorable supporting roles in this summer blockbuster season, all of them variations on a theme: The Dude Who Gets the Job Done. They’re all military dudes, or thereabouts. In World War Z, he played the modern version of Dan Reid: A drawling soldier who seems mildly amused by the zombie epidemic even as he’s bravely leading his men into the undead terror. In Iron Man 3, Dale played Eric Savin, a cocky enforcer for the movie’s Big Bad who steals all his scenes; he’s the first supervillain in a while who makes villainy look like a blast. I’ll just get the Mild Spoilers out of the way now: Dale dies in World War Z and in Iron Man 3 too. Dale has been dying a lot lately: In 2012, he played a cancer patient; in the incredibly misunderstood The Grey, he survived a plane crash just to die in the wreckage.
There’s something a little bit old-fashioned about Dale; he looks like the guy who was starring in movies before the nerds took over. It’s that chin, that jocky demeanor, the fact that his middle name is “Badge.” Dale has been around for a while now; he played a pivotal role in 1990′s Lord of the Flies. (He died.) He had a season on 24 where his character had two purposes: Play second banana to Jack Bauer (he was great) and have believable chemistry with pre-funny Elisha Cuthbert (an impossible task). He bounced around the background of TV screens for a while — he was on all three CSI shows — before his leading role in The Pacific suddenly reintroduced a whole new Badge Dale paradigm. As real-life soldier-turned-author Robert Leckie, Dale exuded confidence shading into vulnerability and melancholy; it was like watching the hero from a World War II movie suddenly realize he was trapped in a Vietnam movie.
The Pacific landed Dale a lead role in an AMC drama back when AMC could do no wrong. Unfortunately, that drama was Rubicon, a conspiracy thriller with a funny name that played like an episode of 24 on Quaaludes. (It rewarded people who stuck with it; nobody did.) But if TV didn’t work out for Dale, then this summer has shown him entering a new fascinating phase. He’s a character actor whose character would’ve been The Hero 30 or 40 years ago. He plays men who have a job to do, and do it, even if it’s dangerous. They don’t complain; they don’t have origin stories, or daddy issues; they aren’t Christ figures. His exit in World War Z is one of the most shocking deaths in any blockbuster movie this year because it’s so nonchalant. He plays a guy whose job is killing zombies. He gets bitten by a zombie; he does the math, puts a gun to his head, and that’s that.
In many ways, the 2013 model of James Badge Dale feels a little bit like the American counterpoint to Sean Bean. Like Dale, Bean specializes in playing two kinds of characters: old-fashioned heroes draped in nobility (see Game of Thrones or Troy) and grinning villains (see Goldeneye). Bean’s Boromir in The Fellowship of the Ring is a cousin to Leckie in The Pacific; they’re both a little bit too good for the bad war they find themselves in. Like Dale, Bean usually plays the guy who could almost be the main character: Boromir is mini-Aragorn, and John Reid is a proto-Lone Ranger. And like Dale, Bean dies onscreen. A lot. But there’s a sense of cheerful, All-American cynicism in Dale’s recent performances; his characters seem to know they’re going to die, and they tend to accept it without much fuss. He’s a cancer patient smoking a cigarette; he’s a soldier doing his job.
The Summer of Badge hasn’t led to any leading roles yet; he’s playing Lee Harvey Oswald’s brother in the JFK assassination flick Parkland (playing second fiddle to Zac Efron) and he’s in the ensemble of Joe Carnahan’s Stretch. Dale’s not too old and he’s got those blue eyes, but he seems unmistakably grown-up, and Hollywood doesn’t have much place for grown-up heroes right now. (Although Charlie Hunnam does an inadvertent Badge Dale imitation in Pacific Rim.) TV still seems like the best bet. You can see him in an FX drama like Justified. In an alternate universe, he could’ve been The Walking Dead‘s Rick Grimes, another old-fashioned cowboy in a confusing new world. But in a trio of gigantically budgeted movies that run the gamut from good to okay to terrible, Dale has emerged as the stealth MVP of the summer box office season. He’s the hero who dies so lamer heroes can live; he’s the only guy grinning through the end of the world.