Upon the reveal that Mark Wahlberg had negotiated a $1.5m salary for himself as part of the reshoots of Ridley Scott’s All the Money in the World while his co-star Michelle Williams made a paltry $80 a day, the overwhelming feeling I experienced from others on social media was a complete lack of surprise. Regardless of what each individual thought of Wahlberg as an actor or person, it all just seemed rather predictable that he’d hold out for such a deal while his female co-star took what was given. This was before we even got into the myriad discussions of their agency’s failings, issues of gender and wage disparity, and Wahlberg subsequently donating the fee to the Time’s Up legal fund. Even those who liked the actor thought it seemed entirely like something he would do. A lot of the conversations around this problem struggled to focus on the central issue of how the teams at William Morris Endeavour view two of their major stars: One a bankable blockbuster figure, the other a critically acclaimed multiple-Oscar nominee. Prestige seemed to be its own reward for Williams under this gaze, but Wahlberg? He’s gotta get paid. In a 2012 Men’s Health interview, he described his philosophy in a succinct manner: ‘Acting careers are short-lived; a business will last a lifetime.’
The image of Wahlberg — the ultimate Masshole done good, the Funky Bunch boy who hustled to become the headliner of one of the biggest franchises on the planet — completely fit with all that we heard about him during this saga. Everyone seemed to have a story of meeting him and his first question being ‘Are you getting paid?’ Money talks, and even with the idolatry of the A-List superstar losing its tarnish in the franchise age, he seemed to possess a keen awareness of his worth. That’s something white dudes in the industry have in higher stocks than everyone else, of course, but Wahlberg’s self-confidence has revealed itself in other fascinating ways. He’s not just the idealised every-man of the big screen: He’s the ultimate good guy who can and will save everyone. Wahlberg’s eager to do so, and he’ll happily bend history to accomplish it.
The Funky Bunch made Wahlberg a star, Boogie Nights made him a serious actor, but it was Martin Scorsese’s The Departed that made him Mark Wahlberg. His performance as Staff Sgt. Sean Dignam is a revelry of foul-mouthed spitfire insults. In a film full of Boston accents, he somehow manages to be the most Boston person there, even against fellow Massachusetts boy Matt Damon. He’s forceful and somewhat overwrought but effectively so. Dignam is a guy who clearly works on all his cursing before trying it out on the guys at work, and Wahlberg nails that feeling of trying just hard enough. It landed him a Best Supporting Actor nomination at the Golden Globes alongside the legendary Jack Nicholson, and when the Oscar nominations came, he stood alone in the category amongst his co-stars. But more than that, it cemented an idea of Wahlberg that has permeated throughout his biggest works in the following decades. People come to Tom Cruise for clean-cut invincibility; they go to Brad Pitt for the pretty boy turned dedicated character actor; they want Leonardo DiCaprio for the sheer exhausting commitment he brings to each role; but with Mark Wahlberg, they want a relatable arsehole.
Plenty of people know a Wahlberg type in their lives: Loud, able to command a crowd, colourful with his language, and ultimately just one of the dudes. It’s easy to imagine that this image isn’t far from the reality of Wahlberg’s life. That assumption is helped by HBO’s Entourage, the ultimate bro-fest that was inspired by his own experiences coming to Hollywood. Even though Wahlberg has shown himself on several occasions to be a skilled actor with the right direction and material, it’s in that perception of him as the foul-mouthed bro where he succeeds the most with the general public. Think of him as the hot-tempered detective in The Other Guys, a role that practically begs for comparisons with The Departed. Soon, a series of mid to high budget action thrillers followed, allowing Wahlberg to fully lean into this bro-hole persona. For those who like that thing — and going by his box office receipts, that’s a lot of people — it’s an easy to root for kind of image. There’s comfort in watching Wahlberg swear, shoot and be just bad enough. He’s not a hero here, but he’s certainly not the bad guy.
He embodies a macho styling that feels most secure in its exaggerations. It’s a fantasy, sure, but one that can be laughed at and with. Opinions remain divided on Michael Bay’s Pain and Gain, his take on a true story of bodybuilders, extortion and the bastardised American dream, but few could argue that Wahlberg wasn’t perfect for the lead role. He has the body of the masculine ideal, and the myopic thought process required to maintain such a thing, but he’s also astoundingly stupid. For someone who has sold himself as everyone’s favourite bro, Wahlberg can do guileless jackass better than anyone else (see also his work in the wildly successful Ted comedies).
The past five years have seen Wahlberg form a collaborative partnership with director Peter Berg. The pair have worked on three films together: Lone Survivor, Deepwater Horizon, and Patriot’s Day. Each of these is based on true events, and Wahlberg is the undisputed star of them all, as well as a producer. Lone Survivor became a surprise box office hit, and opened the door to a new kind of cinematic Wahlberg. Gone was the Masshole anti-hero: Now, we had a god-like hero among men. He wasn’t the everyman anymore: He was the man everyone wanted to be. Deepwater Horizon sees him play a real-life figure caught up in the oil-rig explosion and spill, but with Patriot’s Day, a dramatization of the Boston Marathon bombing, he plays a composite of various police officers. Each film is moulded like a blockbuster, with suitable levels of tension and spectacle to satisfy the masses. They are what Amy Nicholson called ‘docbusters’, movies that ‘took recent-ish headlines and simplified them, and their idealized saviors, into a satisfying adventure where the good guys win — or, at least, make it clear who’s to blame.’ Wahlberg is a blockbuster man, a businessman as much as he is an actor, and one who knows that there’s greatness to be found in old-school movie heroism. Why be the anti-hero when you can save the day in real time?
There has been a lot of justified pushback to Wahlberg’s work with Berg. They’re oversimplified, they place too much emphasis on binary notions of good versus evil, they turn tragedy into popcorn fare, and so on. Most egregiously, they allow Wahlberg to be the ultimate hero. He doesn’t just save the day; he goes above and beyond reality to make it happen. It’s expected that history will be condensed for such storytelling purposes. Characters will be eliminated or rolled into one, events truncated, and even crucial details omitted to speed up proceedings. I’m sure these were the justifications used to explain how Wahlberg’s character became the lynch-pin of every major moment of the investigation, but it does little to explain the ego of it all. He’s the guy that does everything right, that everyone loves, and who nobody can be without. Wahlberg’s character is just one of the hard-working guys on the street who doesn’t want to get caught up in bureaucracy and has nothing but the best of America’s intentions at heart. The only reason he’s not lit up like Jesus at every turn is because it would go against Berg’s style of realism. He’s a superhero with a police badge instead of a cape, and it’s a staggering display of ego that even Wahlberg’s fans seem to be rejecting.
Deepwater Horizon and Patriot’s Day were both financial disappointments. They weren’t the Wahlberg people wanted. When you’ve built yourself up as a lovable anti-hero, switching to the ultimate moralizing good takes some getting used to. Applying that to real history and smudging events to force yourself into the narrative as the ‘real hero’ is a whole other problem. It’s one that cannot overcome Wahlberg’s own past. This is the man who beat a Vietnamese man repeatedly with a stick before making repeated racist statements. This is the guy who was charged with attempted murder and did time for it (albeit only 45 days of a two-year sentence). This is a guy who fractured the jaw of a neighbor in another attack ‘without provocation or cause’. This is a man who, when he applied for a full and unconditional pardon for his convictions in 2014, was described as ‘a racist [who] will always be a racist’ by one of his victims. This is a man who infamously said he would have stopped 9/11 had he been on that plane. People can change, and Wahlberg has expressed regret for his past, but knowing those details as you watch him become the false idol of real tragedies cannot help but feel like a man trying to insist he’s always been the hero.