When I looked at the plot description for Jason Momoa’s new Netflix film Sweet Girl, all I could think of was: “How many times are they gonna make this movie?” To wit, the action-thriller is being advertised thusly: “A husband vows to bring justice to those responsible for his wife’s death while protecting the only family he has left — his daughter.” Apparently, life out here for cinematic men isn’t easy: It’s not enough you’re constantly having to save the day, but you also have to do it while protecting someone else. Sure, that may sound like a lot to ask, but for male action stars, these stories are a nifty way for them to seem both macho and sensitive: “See, I can kick ass and be nurturing/paternal all at the same time.”
Intrigued, I decided to look into this particular subgenre, which I’m calling the “Male Savior” movie, to see how many different variations of the “I must protect ____” narrative I could find. Turns out, there’s a lot, with little offshoots happening all the time. I elected not to include the Taken template, where the hero has to go and rescue somebody, and instead focused on films in which the whole idea is that the main character has to keep someone weaker/younger/a lady safe. No matter what type of viewer you are, there’s a Male Savior film that may speak to you.
Here’s a quick, by-no-means-definitive rundown of some popular favorites…
I Must Protect an Amish Kid (and Also His Pretty Amish Mom): Witness
What’s It About? Incredibly, Harrison Ford’s lone Oscar nomination came in this terrific thriller-drama-romance, which starred him as a Philadelphia cop who must keep an Amish boy (Lukas Haas) safe after he witnesses a murder in the big city. There’s a lot of genres intermixed in Witness — including a fish-out-of-water plot in which Ford’s crusty, streetwise detective must figure out how to live without electricity once he has to hide out in the boy’s community — and also a lot of heart as he slowly falls in love with the kid’s beautiful mother Rachel (Kelly McGillis), who’s initially wary of this outsider.
What Makes It Special? Sure, Ford’s cop is keeping this boy (and his mom) safe, but they’re also teaching him a different way of life. Witness nicely subverts the tropes of this subgenre by making the big hero not necessarily the swaggering macho man who always saves the day. This is Ford at his most sensitive and vulnerable.
I Must Protect a Boy Who Will Lead the Resistance Against the Robot Uprising: Terminator 2
What’s It About? You may remember that, in the first film, Arnold Schwarzenegger played an evil killing robot. Well, in Terminator 2, he’s been sent back in time by the good guys (humanity) to protect Edward Furlong’s Guns N’ Roses-loving punk kid from a more advanced Terminator (Robert Patrick) who’s been tasked with eliminating him. (The logic being that, if Furlong is eliminated, he can’t lead the revolution, and therefore the robots’ reign will be assured.)
What Makes It Special? In this film, the Terminator is the ultimate protector — seemingly indestructible, unflappable and unkillable — and yet we’ll see that he, too, has vulnerabilities. Filmmaker James Cameron envisioned Schwarzenegger, Furlong and Linda Hamilton as a de facto family working together to stay alive, in the process crafting an ironic scenario in which her character (who’d been traumatized by Schwarzenegger in The Terminator) now has to learn to trust him. As for Arnold’s seemingly unfeeling android character, this rescue mission causes him to learn messy human emotions like love — as well as, of course, how to deliver catchphrases like “Hasta la vista, baby.”
I Must Protect a British Colonel’s Daughter (and End Up Falling in Love With Her): The Last of the Mohicans
What’s It About? An adaptation of James Fenimore Cooper’s novel, this adventure yarn stars Daniel Day-Lewis in a rare action role as Hawkeye who, in the 1750s, is assigned to help safely escort, among others, the beguiling, free-spirited Cora (Madeleine Stowe), who’s just arrived in the Colonies. It’s an opposites-attract situation — she’s a proud British woman who refuses to settle down, while he’s a headstrong white man who’s been raised by Native Americans — that’s far more intense because of the dangers posed by the violent Huron tribe, who want the British off their land.
What Makes It Special? We tend to think of Day-Lewis as Mr. Serious Actor — and even in The Last of the Mohicans he went to great lengths to get into character — but this is also him at his most movie-star-ish, playing a big, buff hero who won’t let anything happen to his true love. His Hawkeye is the man you’d like to think you are if you ever had to protect your special someone. Of course, you’re not even close to being him, but movies are all about pretending, right?
I Must Protect This High-Maintenance Superstar (and End Up Falling in Love With Her): The Bodyguard
What’s It About? Kevin Costner is Frank, a grouchy former Secret Service agent who agrees to watch after Rachel (Whitney Houston), a diva-ish actress and singer who’s been getting death threats. They don’t like each other! But, you know what: If they start spending some together, maybe they’ll find some common ground.
What Makes It Special? One of the defining Male Savior films of a generation, The Bodyguard is incredibly cheesy, which no one in the massive audience that made the movie a hit cared about at all. Plus, the film is an alluring little fantasy that suggests an ordinary guy can land a mega-famous star simply by being macho and rugged — she’ll be so grateful to you for keeping her safe that she can’t help but sleep with you.
I Must Protect the President of the United States: In the Line of Fire
What’s It About? What if you were a Secret Service agent assigned to President John F. Kennedy’s detail who was there the day he was assassinated? It would be a hard thing to get over, and that’s certainly true of Frank (Clint Eastwood), who’s still working the job, despite eternally blaming himself for JFK’s killing. He must relive that guilt when a madman who calls himself Booth (John Malkovich) starts plotting the murder of the current president — even worse, the would-be shooter knows all about Frank’s past and is trying to get inside his head, vowing to humiliate Frank all over again.
What Makes It Special? What’s unique about In the Line of Fire in terms of this genre is that it’s one of the rare films in which the protectee is barely a character at all. (I had to look up who played the president since I had zero memory of that: It’s Jim Curley.) The movie is mostly a battle of wits between Frank and Booth, so the target isn’t all that important as a person — it’s merely the fact that it’s, you know, the president of the United States who may get killed that makes him meaningful to the plot.
I Must Protect My Son From Hitmen: Road to Perdition
What’s It About? Look, Michael Sullivan (Tom Hanks) knows what he is — he’s an “enforcer” for the mob — but when he’s double-crossed by the boss he’s been loyal to for years (Paul Newman), he and his boy (Tyler Hoechlin) must go on the lam. And, hey, maybe this father and son will do a little bonding along the way, too.
What Makes It Special? This is the first of several “Dad protecting his son” movies on this list, but it’s perhaps the most sentimental, which might seem strange for a film in which the main character is a hitman. But Hanks and director Sam Mendes turn the original graphic novel into a treatise about how our fathers are unknowable — the movie’s told from the kid’s perspective — as well as an examination of the lengths men will go to keep their children safe. Road to Perdition is a stylish period coming-of-age story that happens to include a fair amount of killing amidst the male bonding. (By the way, Hanks would revisit the Male Savior genre for last year’s News of the World, this time protecting a young girl he barely knows who’s lost her family.)
I Must Protect This Girl… Oh Shit, She Got Kidnapped: Man on Fire
What’s It About? Life hasn’t gone Creasy’s (Denzel Washington) way: This former government operative has lost his idealism and now works as a mercenary. But his next assignment, protecting a young girl named Pita (Dakota Fanning), causes him to soften a little since he and his charge start to form a close connection. Well, that evaporates quickly once she’s kidnapped by some terrible men — which prompts him to cross every ethical line to get vengeance.
What Makes It Special? As he would do again later with his reboot of The Equalizer, Washington in Man on Fire must watch out for a defenseless woman, but it’s notable that Pita is mostly a way for us to gauge our hero’s emotional well-being. This hyper-violent Tony Scott action-thriller puts a child in danger so that the man can grow and change — in this case, becoming someone who starts believing in the best of humanity. The kid’s really just a prop — it’s the adult who’s given the real complexity.
I Must Protect the Last Pregnant Woman on Earth to Preserve the Species: Children of Men
What’s It About? Arguably Clive Owen’s best performance comes as Theo, the cynical former idealist who’s enlisted to transport Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey), a young pregnant woman, to safe haven. Why is Kee so important? Well, in this dystopian sci-fi thriller, it’s a future in which no one’s been able to conceive a child in nearly 20 years, a disturbing development that will guarantee the end of humanity if it continues. Theo has to make sure nothing happens to Kee or her unborn baby.
What Makes It Special? Similar to Man on Fire, Children of Men positions its Male Savior narrative as a vehicle for a disillusioned male character to regain his spark. But Alfonso Cuaron’s terrific film actually makes those stakes resonate — as well as hints at the nobler man Theo once was, and could be again. Most movies in this genre celebrate the power of the male protector, but ironically Children of Men puts Theo through an arduous ordeal to protect a woman because, after all, they’re actually the gender with the ability to propagate the species. From a certain point-of-view, the film’s about Theo realizing how irrelevant to the whole process he ultimately is.
I Must Protect My Son in This Post-Apocalyptic Hellscape So He’s Not Eaten by Cannibals: The Road
What’s It About? Based on Cormac McCarthy’s acclaimed novel, The Road traces a nameless man (Viggo Mortensen) and his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) as they walk across America after the country’s been leveled by a nuclear attack. The man knows he’s dying, but he hopes he can keep his boy safe — and teach him how to survive on his own — before his inevitable demise.
What Makes It Special? Any father can interpret The Road as a worst-case scenario of what every dad worries about: being able to protect your children from the terrors of the world. Granted, most men don’t have to worry about nuclear holocaust and fearsome scavengers who will kill and eat any survivors they find, but The Road is a frank portrait of the inherent impotence at the heart of Male Savior narratives: As much as we think we can keep our loved ones safe forever, we simply can’t.
I Must Protect My Son (Who Has Special Powers) from the U.S. Government: Midnight Special
What’s It About? An homage to Steven Spielberg and John Carpenter, Jeff Nichols’ 1980s-influenced sci-fi thriller is, really, a domestic drama — one in which a loving father (Michael Shannon) flees with his boy (Jaeden Martell) after the NSA discovers he has disturbing powers.
What Makes It Special? Midnight Special recalls, among other films, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but this story is far more intimate, exploring a dad’s concern for his son and his growing understanding that the child may be far more advanced than he is. Shannon’s performance is among his loveliest as this simple man who just wants to safeguard his boy, and the Oscar-nominated actor never lets you forget how profoundly powerless he feels. As much as this father loves his kid, he knows he probably needs to let him go so that he can reach his full potential — a sentiment that will strike a chord with any parent grappling with empty-nest syndrome.
I Must Protect a Young Mutant: Logan
What’s It About? An aging, weakened Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) discovers that, after years of believing there were no more new mutants, a powerful girl named Laura (Dafne Keen) has emerged — and that she’s being hunted by the villainous Reavers. It may lead to Wolverine’s own death, but he must do whatever it takes to keep her alive.
What Makes It Special? For his final starring role as the popular X-Men character, Jackman wanted to go in a darker direction, crafting a redemption tale for a hero who’d lost his way. And so we got Logan, which allowed the popular star to turn his beloved mutant into an almost Eastwood-esque Western outlaw who reconnects with the decency inside himself. Done properly, a Male Savior narrative is a great way to give a disenchanted character a sendoff with real gravitas: He sacrifices himself so that his protectee can go on to a bright future. Jackman envisioned Wolverine’s farewell in almost martyr-like terms, and it paid off with audiences, who made it one of the highest-grossing R-rated superhero films ever.
I Must Protect My Whole Damn Family From Aliens: A Quiet Place
What’s It About? John Krasinski directed and co-wrote this surprise smash, which starred him as Lee, an everyday father and husband who’s trying to keep his wife (Emily Blunt) and kids (Millicent Simmonds, Noah Jupe) safe in the aftermath of a devastating alien invasion. These malicious extra-terrestrials can’t see, but their hearing is incredible — and if you make a noise, they’ll pounce, ripping you to shreds.
What Makes It Special? In interviews, real-life couple Krasinski and Blunt have talked about how they saw A Quiet Place as a metaphor for parenthood, but the film’s especially effective at conveying the anxiety that the so-called head of the household faces when he has to protect his family from the dangers outside his door. It’s not hard to relate to A Quiet Place in terms of juggling fatherhood and a relationship in the midst of trying times — and all the while trying to stay sane yourself. (For the record, an even better movie set in a post-apocalyptic setting that deals with patriarchal pressure came out a year earlier: Trey Edward Shults’ barely-seen It Comes at Night.)
I Must Protect My Daughter All on My Own: Light of My Life
What’s It About? A pandemic has killed off nearly every woman, and the few left alive have to be kept away from the vicious, sex-crazed men around. An unnamed widowed father (writer-director Casey Affleck) journeys through a desolate landscape alongside his daughter Rag (Anna Pniowsky), whom he dresses as a boy so she’s not attacked.
What Makes It Special? A variation on The Road and A Quiet Place, Light of My Life switches things up slightly by focusing on a father-daughter bond. If it’s true that men are overly protective of their little girls, sometimes to an alarming degree, then Affleck’s survival drama amplifies the stakes, positioning this dad as the sole defense against a world that would do unspeakable things to Rag. Affleck has faced sexual harassment allegations, which might have made it difficult for some to consider watching a movie in which he casts himself as the good dad protecting an innocent young woman. But Light of My Life speaks to a universal fear for fathers — not to mention the anxiety men deal with in terms of feeling like they’re as nurturing as their wives.
I Must Protect a Girl Who ‘Shines’: Doctor Sleep
What’s It About? Years after the events of The Shining, all-grown-up Danny (Ewan McGregor) still suffers from the aftereffects of what happened at the Overlook. But this recovering alcoholic may have an opportunity to chase away those demons once he’s contacted by Abra (Kyliegh Curran), a girl who has the shining like he does — and informs him that a scary cult known as the True Knot are trying to hunt them down to harvest their powers.
What Makes It Special? Often with Male Savior films, the big, strong man has to do the protecting. But in Doctor Sleep, Danny is just as helpless as Abra — if anything, he’s more haunted and broken. But it’s interesting that, like with Man on Fire, this movie is about a flawed man who finds a new lease on life thanks to a young girl — in this subgenre, boys are actually the ones who need to be rescued, whereas girls are mostly there to teach you how to be a better person. It almost makes you wonder which gender is really doing the saving in these films.