By any reasonable measure, Arnold Schwarzenegger doesn’t need a comeback. Over the course of his illustrious five-decade career, the Austria-born actor has become the world’s all-time greatest bodybuilder (courtesy of seven Mr. Olympia titles), arguably the biggest movie star of the ‘80s and ‘90s, the two-term governor of California from 2003 to 2011, and one of the most recognizable—and popular—public figures during the second half of the twentieth century. At 69 years old, his Teutonic accent, still-impressive physique and gigantic smile make him known, and beloved, worldwide—a Hollywood force of nature with a last name as larger-than-life as his biceps, and the living embodiment of the American Dream.
And yet here we are in 2017, with his latest film Aftermath having just arrived in theaters, and something feels slightly…amiss.
It’s been a tumultuous twelve months in the public eye for Schwarzenegger, largely thanks to his decision to preside over NBC’s corporate-boardroom reality series The Celebrity Apprentice—a post previously held by Donald J. Trump. With their roles reversed—former Republican governor Schwarzenegger hosting Trump’s TV show, while Trump runs the free world—a feud felt inevitable, and it wasn’t long before the two were sparring openly with each other in the media. Schwarzenegger may have come out of this squabble looking more presidential than his rival, but it did little to alter the fate of his Celebrity Apprentice stint, which likely thanks to audience fatigue with all things Trump-related, crashed and burned, prompting its replacement host to swiftly exit the franchise.
A brief, unsuccessful venture into reality TV could hardly derail Schwarzenegger’s larger fortunes. However, it comes on the heels of a string of big-screen misfires that have, to a greater extent, marred the man’s once-impenetrable winning streak.
In terms of box office power, the actor hasn’t participated in a $100 million-grossing film since 2010’s The Expendables (in which he delivered a glorified cameo). And the last time he actually headlined such a hit was 2003’s Terminator: Rise of the Machines. To be sure, Schwarzenegger’s fruitful foray into politics limited the number of movie projects he took on during the early part of the new century—between 2003 and 2013, he only had bit parts in Around the World in 80 Days, Terminator Salvation, and the first two Expendables installments. Yet having returned to acting full-time over the past few years, he’s found it increasingly difficult to regain his prior king-of-the-world form.
The young, insanely strapping Schwarzenegger cut a literal superheroic pose in early kill-‘em-all classics like The Terminator (1984), Commando (1985), The Running Man (1987) and Predator (1987)—the last of which remains the actor’s finest achievement, and not just because its handshake between Schwarzenegger and Carl Weathers epitomizes everything outsized, corny and awesome about ‘80s genre cinema. He was a living, breathing action figure; an incredible hulk demolishing bad guys with ease and delivering eye-rollingly perfect one-liners in the process.
That persona’s mileage began to wane some time around Batman and Robin, the ill-fated 1997 Joel Schumacher sequel in which Schwarzenegger played villain Mr. Freeze as a cartoon-of-a-cartoon who only speaks in cold-related puns (e.g., “You’re not sending me to the cooler!”). His performance came off as self-parody, and though he’s spent the ensuing two decades churning out functional action efforts—2002’s Collateral Damage, 2013’s The Last Stand, 2013’s Escape Plan (with Sylvester Stallone), 2014’s Sabotage—it’s often felt as if he never quite recovered from Mr. Freeze, insofar as that role fully tipped his big-screen mode of operation into the realm of camp.
Then again, it’s hard to keep playing heroic He-Men as you grow older, the lines on your face deepening and your body shrinking (albeit only somewhat—the man is, relatively speaking, still huge). Many of his recent works didn’t connect with moviegoers simply because of his age; he’s no longer credible as the type of badass goliath he once exemplified. Thus, it makes sense that he’s lately transitioned into more dramatic material, first with 2015’s Maggie (a somber father-daughter zombie saga) and now with Aftermath, which finds Schwarzenegger turning inward to deliver a brooding performance as a father grieving over the airplane-crash deaths of his wife and child—a loss that spurs him to seek out the air traffic controller (Scoot McNairy) whom he holds responsible for the calamity. As a film that plumbs the horrifying consequences of violence and vengeance, it comes tantalizingly close to doubling as an Unforgiven-ish commentary on the star’s own action-cinema identity.
No matter its minor virtues (including Schwarzenegger’s portrayal of sorrow), Aftermath is too small and understated to reignite the actor’s box office fortunes. And his future plans to revisit some of his prior franchises—such as Twins, which is set to get a sequel dubbed Triplets that’ll pair him with Danny DeVito and Eddie Murphy—seem misbegotten, destined to result in creaky rehashes that pale in comparison to their predecessors. The one exception to that is a third entry in the Conan the Barbarian series, considering how well he might slip into a more grizzled aged-king part and, in doing so, shed a new light on his past reputation for brawny brutality. Despite his own optimism about such a long-gestating project getting off the ground, though, recent reports suggest it may not come to pass—meaning even that scenario remains, for now, a pipe dream.
If Schwarzenegger really wants to reclaim the multiplex crowd, he’s best off going the original-comedy route, as his sly sense of humor (bolstered by the discrepancy between his massive size and underlying silliness) has long been his secret weapon. His upcoming participation in Saturday Night Live alum Taram Killam’s Why We’re Killing Gunther—in which he’ll star as an assassin who’s targeted by his professional rivals, and which will apparently allow him to show off his “shitty” singing skills—thus appears to be a shrewd move. Allowing him to once more employ his mega-watt charm for endearing having-fun-at-his-own-expense ends, and eschewing any pretense that he’s still his youthful killing-machine self, it could be the ideal vehicle for a legend’s legitimate big-screen comeback. Not like he really needs one.