By Darren Franich and Keith Staskiewicz
Updated August 04, 2011 at 04:00 PM EDT
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.