It would seem to me that you could successfully argue that the secret purpose of cinema in the ’80s was to establish movie archetypes. Mostly it happened in grand scale — it’s why, for example, basically all of the movies you think of when someone says “think of an iconic action movie” are from the ’80s (The Terminator, Die Hard, First Blood, Bloodsport, Predator, etc.) — but it also happened in a very exact, very specific, very meta, small scale, too. (The Breakfast Club, which came out in 1985, is built up entirely on the idea of the interactions between different archetypes).
And of all of the archetypes that were celebrated during that period, I don’t know that any (outside of the Big Action Hero) had as exciting, interesting, and quintessential a run as The Underdog. There were just so many all-timer Underdog moments. There was Daniel LaRusso in The Karate Kid, perhaps the greatest underdog in movie history. There was Leroy Green in The Last Dragon, perhaps the most underappreciated underdog movie in history. There were the nerds in Revenge of the Nerds (though you could certainly make the case that they weren’t actual underdogs, but a collection of sex criminals who the All-American Stan Gable and his football-team friends were simply trying to get rid of). There were The Goonies in The Goonies (none of whom were sex criminals, FYI).
There was Ren McCormack in Footloose (he was a dancing underdog). There was Scott Howard in Teen Wolf (Teen Wolf is a remarkable study in the psychosis of The Underdog because we get to see Howard toggle back and forth between being an underdog and also an alpha male — or alpha wolf, as it were). There was Rocky III and Rocky IV and Over The Top, and those ones were great because they all somehow made it seem like Sylvester Stallone was an underdog. There was Veronica Sawyer in Heathers, which was quietly an exceptional underdog movie, and Gary and Wyatt in Weird Science, which was loudly an exceptional underdog movie. There was Ronald Miller in Can’t Buy Me Love (he buys his way out of underdog status), Lucas in Lucas, E.T. in E.T., the entire basketball team in Hoosiers, and I could go on and on and on.
Of all the different underdogs we saw then and have seen since then, nobody has been more consistently great in that role than Sean Astin (The Goonies in 1985, White Water Summer in 1987, Toy Soldiers in 1991, Encino Man in 1992, Rudy in 1993, and all the way up through the Lord of the Rings franchise). He just had all of the traits you need to have to be a good movie underdog. (Without getting all the way bogged down into the specifics, he was: (1) cute without being intimidatingly handsome, (2) small, (3) able to look scared but only in a way that seemed to magnify his unexpected bravery, and (4) able to present himself in an aw-shucks manner but never so much so that it undercut how intelligent he appeared.) I mention him now because I just finished watching the new season of Stranger Things, in which he appears as Bob Newby, dorky new boyfriend to Winona Ryder’s Joyce.
Having Sean Astin, a fundamental part of ’80s cinema lore, play the adult version of the character archetype he molded in the ’80s as a child on a show that, at times, feels like it was created solely to pay homage to ’80s cinema lore, is a deliciously enjoyable tidbit, and one that I am entirely thankful for. In part because those sorts of pretzeled-up hat-tips are always fun, but also because what if it means they’re going to do similar things in the next few seasons? (Stranger Things is already guaranteed to deliver us a third season, and the Duffer Brothers, creators of Stranger Things, have hinted that they’d like to extend it out even further.) What if it means we get Ralph Macchio soon (he’s the very polite new cop in town, but guess what: He has a dark secret)? Or what if we get Ally Sheedy (she’d play Joyce’s sister, obviously, or possibly Joyce’s high school enemy who’s moved back to Hawkins, and guess what: She has a dark secret)? What if we get Matthew Broderick (his dark secret is that he is still adorable) or Molly Ringwald (she works at the high school and is in charge of the social clubs)? Could we possibly — be still my heart — get an Eddie Murphy story arc or — be still my heart again — a Harrison Ford story arc? There are so many options.
If we treated this whole situation like a draft of sorts — like an ’80s Movies Stars Inserted Into Stranger Things draft — who lands where? It’s tricky because you can’t just grab the biggest stars of that time period, because that’s way too clumsy of a way to handle it. The reason the Sean Astin angle worked so well in season two was because it was nuanced and smart. That’s the road you’d need to follow for the next short-order cameo if you wanted it to be more than just an Oh Hey Haha Sylvester Stallone Is a Boxing Gym Coach in the New Season of Stranger Things thing. You want the people who were, if we’re looking for a phrase, Time Capsule Stars; people who instantly get associated with that era and little else.
The number-one pick would need to be somebody who was in a gigantic movie but wasn’t the main star of that gigantic movie. It’d also need to be someone who was absolutely associated with one of the ’80s movie archetypes. It’d also need to be somebody who, as soon as you saw who it was, you’d go, “Ha! That’s great.” To hit all of those things, you could go with, say, Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) from The Karate Kid. He would work out the most perfectly since he hits all those things. (He had a run of three movies in three consecutive years where he played a bully — The Karate Kid in 1984, Just One of the Guys in 1985, and Back to School in 1986 — which is kind of fascinating to think about.)
For the second pick, you’d want for it to be someone that, when you hear his or her name, you go, “Nah. No way,” but then after about two minutes of thinking about it, you go, “Actually, yeah. That’s an exactly right choice.” For that, it’d be very smart and clever to go with Jonathan Ke Quan. He was in only two American movies in the ’80s, which initially doesn’t feel like enough to justify a number-two pick, but given that those two movies were both massive and monumental (Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom in 1984 and The Goonies in 1985), he’s solid here.
For the third pick, it’s a toss-up. You’d want someone who was in multiple big movies, definitely, but also someone who never seemed bigger than the movies themselves. A good comparison would be Darius Miles, who was drafted third by the Clippers in the 2000 NBA Draft. He’s a person who, no question, is associated with a very specific time period for the Clippers and also a very specific move and partnership (him and Quentin Richardson doing that head tap thing after big plays), but also a person who it kind of feels like never really existed outside of that setting. That’s why for this pick you’d want it to be someone like either Molly Ringwald or Anthony Michael Hall. They both were exactly those things. (Although I’m willing to accept the assertion that Molly Ringwald was bigger and more talented than both Hall and Miles.)
The fourth pick is always a strange one because it’s not so far down the list that you can just be like, “Fuck it,” and pick whoever you want without worry, but it’s also not the top three, which means if you get it wrong nobody’s really going to care all that much. (A fun NBA one that people really don’t talk about a lot: Sam Perkins was selected 4th in the 1984 draft by the Dallas Mavericks. Do you know who was the 5th pick that year? Charles Barkley.) So you’d be able to get a little risky and, fingers crossed, your pick turns out to look like a genius move on some Kristaps Porzingis shit. That’s why I’d go with either Bob from La Bamba (Esai Morales), who’s already proven he can be excellent in a contemporary modern drama in Netflix’s Ozark series from earlier this year, or Leroy Green (Taimak) from The Last Dragon, whose ability to make his body glow would feel ordinary and useful in any science-fiction setting, particularly one that involves fighting off government agents and monsters.
Once you get down to the fifth, sixth, and seventh picks, you can start to stretch out a little bit and get risky. You could maybe go with someone like Johnny Five from Short Circuit for the fifth pick (just because of how poetic it is), Corey Feldman at the sixth spot (honestly this feels way too low for Feldman; he should probably be top three. His résumé, which includes no less than five First Ballot Hall of Fame ’80s movies, is nearly untouchable), and Billy (Zach Galligan) from Gremlins with the seventh pick. (I suspect Galligan would be the worst of all of these picks. Gremlins was for sure seminal, but the Billy character was mostly just background fodder.) (Yeah, Billy is definitely wrong here.) (I’m already regretting it.) (Particularly when you consider who’s getting drafted next …)
I want a guaranteed gem at the eighth spot, so give me Jennifer Grey here. She was very good as one of the Wolverines in Red Dawn (1984), even better as the annoying sister in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986), and absolutely perfect as the costar in Dirty Dancing (1987). She can hit all the acting levels we’d need, and also she’s someone whose existence carries its own form of nostalgia. She’d be perfect in the Stranger Things universe. (If she’s not available, I’m putting a call in to Lea Thompson. She was in, among others, All The Right Moves, Back to the Future, and Howard the Duck, which somehow holds up well today.)
No ’80s Movie Stars-themed draft could be done correctly and true to the times if it doesn’t include at least one problematic selection, so let’s go with C. Thomas Howell at the ninth spot. (Howell, who was in E.T., The Outsiders, and more, was also in a movie called Soul Man where the plot was, “Hey, let’s put a white guy in blackface for two hours lol.”) And then, to correct things, let’s go with a super sturdy, super unassailable, super bulletproof final pick at the 10th spot: Give me Harry from Harry and the Hendersons to close things out. And, just so we’re clear: I’m talking about the actual Bigfoot Harry, not the guy inside the suit who played him. If you could seamlessly slide a Bigfoot into any Netflix series, Stranger Things is the one to do it.