Looking to movie stars and the parts they play for moral or behavioural instruction is like gazing at a shattered mirror for help applying your eyeliner. In fact, the traffic between mainstream entertainment and its audience usually travels in the opposite direction: films take so long to get made that what reaches the screen crystallises trends and ideas that are already prevalent in the culture. By that reckoning, two new releases – Thor: Love and Thunder and the Russo brothers’ shoot-’em-up thriller The Gray Man – represent precisely the sort of action movie that the early 2020s deserves. What is celebratory to some, however, will resemble a crisis to others.

In his fourth solo outing, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is now sharing his name, and even his defining weapon, with Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), who styles herself as the Mighty Thor. “Um, that’s my hammer,” he says sheepishly. “And my look.” One theory for the etymology of the hammer’s name, Mjolnir, is that it comes from the Norse word meaning “to grind” or “grinder”. Which is simultaneously too much, and yet entirely in keeping with a film in which gay male rock creatures procreate by holding hands.

It is not just the hero whose former dominance is questioned. The gods, too, have lost their authority. Zeus (Russell Crowe) is prone to inappropriate remarks, and scarcely interested in anything beyond the next orgy. The film’s antagonist, Gorr (Christian Bale), is not simply villainous: he also exhibits microaggressions to complement his macro ones. “You lost, Lady Thor,” he sneers at Foster, outing himself as the type of person still clinging to words like “usherette” and “comedienne”.

There is a similar shift in the gender dynamic in The Gray Man, which stars Ryan Gosling as a CIA assassin known as Six. The multiple global locations and spectacular action sequences are as transparent a bid for comparisons with James Bond as the hero’s name: “007 was taken,” he quips. But Six is a different breed: laid-back, witty and, when he isn’t killing people, gentle. Telephoned by an associate while on the run, he is asked where exactly he is. “Emotionally?” comes the deadpan reply. During one fight scene, he lets off a scarlet flare so that the ensuing fisticuffs take place within billowing clouds of pink smoke. It’s like witnessing the climactic set-piece of a camp Las Vegas magician.

When his fellow agent Dani (played by Ana de Armas from No Time to Die) comes to his rescue yet again and asks if he is hurt, Six replies: “My ego’s a little bruised. I’d like the chance to save you” – before rushing to clarify that he doesn’t want her to be in danger just so he can ride to the rescue. Combat is no longer enough for this modern hero: he has to read as feminist, too, and be prepared to work alongside confident women without feeling emasculated. Men who can’t meet those standards – especially Six’s sadistic pursuer, Lloyd (Chris Evans), who orders a female colleague to “shut up and go sit in the corner” – are destined for the boneyard.

It is fitting that Six should be played by Gosling, who has really put in the hours when it comes to helping the male action hero to evolve. Paired with the lumbering, dishevelled Crowe in The Nice Guys, he seemed delicate and fine-boned, and as light on his feet as a ballerina. Though set in the 1970s, that picture showed Crowe’s old-school machismo running headlong into Gosling’s goofy hipsterdom. Curiously, both men started their film careers in the same place, playing violent, shaven-headed fascists: Crowe in Romper Stomper, Gosling in The Believer. Yet their avian surnames always hinted at their contrasting personalities and where they might be headed: the soft, fluffy gosling so distinct from the disagreeable crow.

Gosling took the historically female role in The Nice Guys: the clueless sidekick flailing and shrieking at the first sign of jeopardy. He is an actor unafraid to be feminised, which in movie terms means he can be made vulnerable (his Hamlet-like man of inaction in Only God Forgives) or beautiful (as in Drive, where his shiny, silky bomber jacket calls to mind the Pink Ladies from Grease) or both.

To anyone in thrall to the codes of traditional movie masculinity, Gosling must be a discouraging phenomenon. That makes it all the more delicious that he will be seen next year as Ken, who finds himself adrift in the real world in Greta Gerwig’s Barbie movie. It is impossible to tell yet what the tone will be – Gosling said cryptically that “it’s not what you think it is, unless it is” – but the Day-Glo snaps released so far of the actor with his feathery platinum haircut, sleeveless denim jacket and tanned six-pack promise something parodic and affectionate. And it’s a mark of how primed the world is to see Gosling as Ken that the role is even referenced on-screen in The Gray Man. When Lloyd orders his stooges to track down Six and “put a bullet in this Ken doll’s brain”, we are witnessing in-film marketing for another, as-yet-unmade movie – as well as recognition of the fact that Ken might be the role Gosling was born to play.

Even a necessary change in the landscape, though, can appear from another angle to be an earthquake. If Hemsworth and Gosling – or Benedict Cumberbatch and Kodi Smit-McPhee in The Power of the Dog – represent the new face of screen masculinity, this may be dismal news to anyone worshipping the monolithic stars of 80s and 90s action cinema: Schwarzenegger, Stallone, Chuck Norris, Steven Seagal. (Their modern-day equivalents, such as Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham, at least have an agreeable levity.) Perhaps to those viewers, the advent of Gosling and Hemsworth looks like the rise of the woke blokes, now that the dreaded W-word is directed at anything that the right chooses to weaponise in its bogus culture war.

That much was evident last year when the Conservative MP Nick Fletcher railed against the prominence of female heroes. Casting Jodie Whittaker in Doctor Who, he insisted, had left young male viewers to look to Peaky Blinders for their role models. “Everywhere … there seems to be a call from a tiny, but very vocal, minority that every male character or good role model must have a female replacement,” Fletcher said. Also on his charge sheet was the most recent TV incarnation of The Equaliser, which had allowed a role previously played by Edward Woodward and Denzel Washington to be passed to Queen Latifah. No point asking if the honourable member for Doncaster had seen her raising hell in Set It Off, all the way back in 1996.

Fletcher’s broadside (which also took aim at the female-led Ghostbusters, and Daisy Ridley in the Star Wars sequels) shows him to be a figure opposed not merely to progress and equality but also to sensitivity: this is the same MP, after all, who sent letters to schools in his constituency urging a “pushback” against students identifying as trans. But he is correct, at least, to identify a sea-change. The old-school macho movie hero and his admirers really do currently find themselves in an unstable place.

There is the corporeal frailty of assorted emblems of screen masculinity, such as Bruce Willis, who retired recently from acting after a diagnosis of the cognitive disorder aphasia. It is only natural that the old guard falls away – James Caan, who embodied masculinity in all its conflict and toxicity in The Godfather, Thief and Freebie and the Bean, died this month aged 82. And given how long-running and densely populated The Sopranos was, there will always be another actor from that Mob drama leaving for the great Bada Bing! strip-club in the sky; Tony Sirico, who played Paulie Walnuts, is only the latest.

One of the overarching themes of The Sopranos itself was the idea of (white) American men confronting their own extinction. Right from the opening episode, Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) is feeling obsolete. “Lately, I’m getting the feeling that I came in at the end,” he tells his therapist, Dr Melfi (Lorraine Bracco). “The best is over.” The difference from a more progressive perspective, one that Tony Soprano would never have allowed himself to accept, is that what represents death for one generation is opportunity and evolution for the next.

The arguments around men ceding ground to women, or becoming somehow less masculine in their pursuit of sensitivity and emotional intelligence, are as cyclical as they are absurd. They were spoofed in 1982 in Bruce Feirstein’s bestselling comic account of masculinity, Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche (followed in 1986 by Nice Guys Sleep Alone). The figure of the caring, tactile New Man was rife in that decade until it was eclipsed in the 90s by the metrosexual, which was part of the cultural currency by the time David Beckham wore a sarong and men began buying guyliner and male-varnish. At the dawn of this century, the metrosexual was replaced by the label JGE (just gay enough) to describe those straight men adopting habits generally associated with their queer counterparts. Exfoliating, yes. Anal sex not so much.

“Metrosexual” was coined by the British journalist Mark Simpson in 1994 – a year before James Bond (Pierce Brosnan) faced his most formidable challenge in the form of Judi Dench as M. In GoldenEye, she calls him “a sexist, misogynist dinosaur, a relic of the cold war”, then boasts of her own “balls”.

No surprise that Feirstein – of Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche fame – was one of the screenwriters on that picture. Since then, it has become de rigueur for Bond movies to destabilise their hero’s previously sturdy foundations. It’s a kind of stress test: how far can you bend Bond without making him something less than himself? The experiment reached its logical conclusion last year in No Time to Die, where the essence of Bond somehow became even more concentrated in the act of killing him off.

This is the point at which the masculine hero and his admirers now find themselves. Bond is gone. The western is now fully queer. Thor is job-sharing with a woman. And one of the biggest action movies of the year is not only a consonant away from being called The Gay Man, but also features a star who has colluded in the glorious feminised makeover of screen masculinity.

It transpires that the whole point of The Gray Man is to lay the old macho myths to rest. Late in the day, we learn that the course of Six’s life has been shaped by his personal war on brutal masculinity. As children, he and his brother were bullied by their father, who was determined that they should grow up as “macho men”; Six killed the old man, and ended up serving time for that murder. When his final confrontation with Lloyd occurs, it is in a moonlit fountain; the vibe is very Call Me By Your Name, only with fighting instead of fucking: “Damn, that stings!” cries Lloyd after Six makes his first move.

It is no spoiler to say that Six triumphs at the end of The Gray Man. But anyone who wishes to be spared the exact symbolic nature of his victory should look away now. After what one female onlooker describes as “two troglodytes bashing each other”, it is Lloyd – the personification of toxic, archaic masculinity – who lies face-down in the fountain. Macho is literally dead in the water. No coincidence, either, that The Gray Man and Thor: Love and Thunder conclude with identical scenarios: a male hero caring for a young girl whom he will presumably now raise as his daughter. Thor even wears a pinny. He may be making pancakes but I’d wager he wouldn’t say “no” to quiche.

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By akagami