While it’s true that we don’t have much emotional investment in the latest franchises, we still tolerate the new brand of protagonists in such recent series as The Matrix, Spider-Man, and X-Men, who, despite being superhuman, are often paralyzed by neuroses and self-doubt. But are we ready to see our original stoic brutes brought back infused with such human frailties? The new Indiana Jones poses a particularly dubious challenge.

Harrison Ford’s rugged archaeologist is scheduled to fight Nazis again in two years, when the actor will be 66. Aside from the issue of Ford’s age (and his midlife-crisis earring), there is the problem of fighting Nazis years after they were wiped off the map. Indy’s nearly 20-year absence should have him resurfacing sometime in the mid- to late fifties. Will he be battling lumpy Eisenhower bureaucrats for possession of some saint’s dusty shinbone?

Bruce Willis is only 51, so there’s nothing necessarily preposterous about his resuming the role of a New York cop after a 12-year hiatus with 2007’s Live Free or Die Hard—except how out of place he might seem among all the heroes who have debuted during his time off. The classic male archetype of the eighties has been so thoroughly lampooned, twisted, and mangled with irony that most of the cool leading men to emerge this decade aren’t even men anymore—literally.

Buffy, Rogue, Lara Croft, Kill Bill’s the Bride, Serenity’s River Tam, and Underworld’s vampire/assassin Selene all illustrate what we expect from our latest action stars: sleek, uncompromising, impossible beauty. These killer ladies are certainly more compelling than their male counterparts. Ben Affleck, Jude Law, Orlando Bloom? In the eighties, we knew what to do with attractive actors who bore a touch of adolescence—we sent them to John Hughes and made them play teenagers.

It’s a new conceit that action flicks should be the realm of hot young actors. Until the last decade or so—just when Rocky, Rambo, Indy, and McClane were taking what we thought were their final bows—it was almost unheard of to entrust a costly action picture to someone based on his looks and the modest success of one film. Ford was 39 when Raiders of the Lost Ark came out, 47 when he made Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. When First Blood was released, in 1982, the 36-year-old Stallone was already a bit long in the tooth for a young Vietnam vet. Schwarzenegger was 37 the first time he said “I’ll be back” and 56 when, in 2003, he did his final Terminator (a fourth installment is in preproduction, without Arnold). The new James Bond, Casino Royale’s Daniel Craig, is starting his 007 tour of duty at 38. If Sean Connery represented him at his oldest in 1983’s Never Say Never Again, Bond retired at 53.

That’s an ideal age at which to give up brawling and shooting. It’s a good decade more than we allow athletes. But the men who taught us how to be men simply aren’t going for it. We may wish them to age with more dignity and take on mature, fatherly roles. Except nobody’s ever done that—not even Clint Eastwood. Sure, he hasn’t done a Dirty Harry flick since 1988, but he was 58 when he phoned that one in. He then spent ages 60 to 72 playing about-to-retire and just-back-from-retirement lawmen and outlaws before he finally weaned himself off the action altogether. Hell, maybe it’s just that kind of bulldog tenacity that makes these men men. It’s a creed that Danny Glover and Mel Gibson, then 52 and 42 respectively, defiantly chanted toward the end of 1998’s fourth and (probably) final Lethal Weapon: “We are not too old for this shit!” It’s a nice theory, but we’d rather not watch you test it.