Watches in the World of Action Cinema
What do the 80s tough guys, James Bond and more than a few of The Avengers have in common? Reading time off their wrists, as it turns out. Here’s how watch culture punched its way into the cinematic mainstream with our favorite heroic archetypes in modern action films
It goes without saying that product placements in films isn’t exactly a new phenomenon. Since the days of the sponsored intermission, brands and marketing executives have worked ceaselessly to sell all manner of things to consumers using the power of celluloid: everything ranging from an actor’s choice in clothing to their preferred on-screen beverage. Occasionally, screenwriters will even tee up excuses to utter brand names in the course of on-screen dialogue – all with wildly varying degrees of success, I might add.
Over the last three to four decades, wristwatches have become an increasingly popular means of building characterisation on-screen; better still, they’re finding favour as devices that enrich the story that any given filmmaker is trying to tell. Certainly, that’s a phenomenon you’ll see playing out across the entire film and television landscape, but it’s especially prevalent in one particular genre – the blockbuster action flick.
There’s ample room to suggest few other styles of filmmaking have lent themselves as effectively to horological culture. Beyond the laundry list of reasons that are self-explanatory (i.e. the venn diagram between male consumers, luxury watches, and action films) there’s a thematic quality that resonates between timekeepers and those actors who wear them. On-screen, watches are often depicted as invaluable tools: aiding the protagonist to triumph over life-threatening perils; whilst adding context and richness to a character’s backstory.
To better illustrate this point – and consider how watch culture has punched its way into the cinematic mainstream– we’ve pulled our favourite heroic archetypes from three eras of the modern action film, beginning our journey in the 1980s and culminating with the ongoing craze that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe (‘MCU’).
First Blood: Action Film Watch Fandom in the 1980s and 1990s
Although watches have been a leitmotif in cinema since the days of the matinée idol, they were adopted as objects of cultural fascination more widely sometime in the 1980s. By and large, this was a turn most cultural commentators consider organic, as Felix Scholz, Co-host of OT: The Podcast, explains. “So much of watch spotting in modern movies is direct product placement,” says Scholz. “That’s simply not the case with movies from the 80s and 90s – the golden era of the overblown action flick.” In a decade that spawned VHS classics like Die Hard and Bloodsport, studio executives were only just beginning to realise the potential of merchandising tie-ins. At that time, the on-screen proliferation of watches was largely down to filmmakers themselves: actors, directors, and costume designers who saw, in such minutiae, an opportunity for big worldbuilding.
Of course, the popular media of the 1980s – Cold War techno-thrillers and escapist science fiction – influenced which watch brands made it to set, with few so prolific as Seiko. The Japanese conglomerate had already been a fixture of the watch industry at the outset of the decade, due to the upheaval of the Quartz Crisis; and its emphasis on cutting-edge technology made it popular among action stars of the day, ranging from the Übermensch to everyman. “They were huge at the time,” says Scholz, “with a massive catalogue and distinctive designs”.
In 1985, Arnold Schwarzenegger forever solidified Seiko’s appeal amongst beefy, cigar-chomping macho men, when he wore an H558 quartz diver for his portrayal of former Delta Force operative John Matrix in Commando. Part of the ‘Tuna’ family of Seiko divers, the H558 famously appears in the film’s final act, as Matrix gears up to confront a (hilariously generic) South American dictator. The watch was among the first ‘hybrid’ analog-digital wristwatches, bringing with it a suite of practical features including an alarm, chronograph and unidirectional diving scale. Though it originally began life as a bit of costuming, it’s clear Schwarzenegger developed a fondness for the H558. Following its big break in Commando, the ‘Governator’ would go on to sport the 45mm design in multiple other on-screen rampages: including the 1986 crime flick Raw Deal; and, again, as an elite special forces type in the first entry of the Predator franchise (1987).
Seiko’s reputation for technological prowess also held a profoundly stylistic connotation. During the making of the 1986 sci-fi blockbuster Aliens, James Cameron – revered as one of the great action filmmakers of the 20th century – tasked the company with creating a wristwatch that wouldn’t look out of place in 2179 (when the film takes place). Reportedly made specifically for Sigourney Weaver’s on-screen portrayal of tenacious survivor-turned-heroine Ellen Ripley, the reference 7A28-7000 appears to be one of the earliest examples of a wristwatch made with a fictional protagonist in mind – a marketing hook now rife within the luxury watch industry. Seiko did not take the task lightly: its executives enlisted assistance from Italian automobile designer Giorgetto Giugiaro, better known for his work on homologation sports cars like the BMW M1. Cam Wolf, a Features Writer at GQ, describes Giugiaro’s style of vehicular design as one “[juxtaposing] voluptuous curves with hard angles, as if he considered the elbow the most attractive part of the body”. That wilfully brutish, polygonal style of designing – which Giugiaro had so often deployed in his work for Lancia and Lamborghini – resulted in the ‘Ripley’, an offshoot of Seiko’s 7A28 lineage that is now tied up inextricably with the folklore of the eponymous, flamethrower-toting heroine.
By the arrival of the 1990s, the cult of action star fandom had exploded into a global phenomenon. Whereas in the previous decade, on-camera watch placement had been a kind of creative expression, this was the decade when many of cinema’s most lucrative partnerships were beginning to take shape. Around this time Panerai, then a little-known manufacturer of defence equipment for the Italian navy, entered the picture. Galvanised into finding civilian customers because of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the company was presented with a unique opportunity – to have its watches featured on the person of American actor Sylvester Stallone. Arguably the biggest movie star on planet Earth during this era (following the success of the Rocky and Rambo franchises), Stallone had reportedly agreed to wear a variety of the brand’s Luminor divewatches for the 1996 disaster film Daylight, at the urging of his friend Cedo Komljenović – a flamboyant Montenegrin society photographer. Though details regarding the exact scope of the infamous ‘Slytech’ partnership remain shrouded in controversy, Panerai managed to win an important cultural victory by getting its flagship product onto Stallone’s wrists. In so doing, the brand was able to rapidly augment its desirability in the public eye and subsequently became one of the dominant forces in the big-watch era of the early 2000s.
Omega: James Bond’s Choice
Concomitant with maneuvering by brands like Panerai and Audemars Piguet, the 1990s yielded one of cinema’s most enduring marketing partnerships that continues to be relevant today – that of Omega and James Bond. The Crown Jewel in Swatch Group’s sprawling portfolio of brands has benefited immensely from its association with Bond over the years, ingratiating the Omega name amongst large swatches of the general public who might otherwise remain unfamiliar with the Constellation and Speedmaster lineages.
Since the Bond franchise’s inception in 1962, the various actors who’ve donned the proverbial dinner suit have worn a range of watches, oftentimes imbued with the spirit of their era. Roger Moore famously favoured kitschy digital contraptions from the likes of Hamilton and Seiko; Timothy Dalton complemented his no-nonsense acting with an appropriately stoic TAG Heuer Night Diver; whereas Sean Connery (living up to his reputation as the most book-accurate incarnation of 007) favoured the steely good looks of Rolex.
Amongst the (unsurprisingly large) subset of Bond fans who enjoy watches, the eponymous character’s penchant for Rolex is a matter of canon. In the original novels, creator Ian Fleming described his quintessentially British superspy as wearing an “Oyster Perpetual on an expanding bracelet” – a line that gave Eon Productions, long-running makers of the Bond films, perfect justification to work Rolex into the character’s early adventures. In particular, the reference 6538, with its slim case and large winding crown, proved essential to Bond’s appeal: the design was tough yet refined – much like Connery’s acting – and dovetailed with the ‘60s-era appeal of marine diving (then at a high point of popularity). “The watch became so linked with [Connery’s] Bond,” says Jason Heaton, author and founder of Swimpruf, “that collectors today call the 6538 and similar ‘big crown’ versions, ‘James Bond’ Submariners”.
Under the stewardship of multiple actors following in Connery’s footsteps, Bond’s reputation as a ‘Rolex man’ persisted well into the 1980s. However, in 1995 Swatch Group executives – led by Nicolas Hayek and marketing messiah Jean-Claude Biver – successfully clinched a million-dollar deal with Eon, to turn the Omega Seamaster into Bond’s timepiece of choice. “007 has worn a surprising range of watches throughout the franchise,” says Scholz, “but for me, Omega is the clear winner. Not necessarily because it’s the ‘best fit’ for that character, but because the brand deal Biver masterminded with Eon set the tone for the future of product placement on film.”
Of course, it helped immensely that the Seamaster first appeared in a Bond film so universally beloved as Goldeneye. Worn by Pierce Brosnan in his debut outing as the titular character, the Seamaster Professional (first in quartz, and later, self-winding iterations) would go on to make an indelible mark on cinemagoers throughout the 2000s. Perhaps more than any other branded partnership from the Brosnan era – whether Brioni suits or bottles of ‘88 Bollinger – the Seamaster felt like the ultimate embodiment of the James Bond lifestyle – an IRL reminder of the explosive, gadget-laden antics of films like The World is Not Enough. “Plus,” says Scholz, “I reckon that I personally know at least a dozen collectors who got their start with watches through Brosnan’s Seamaster Professional.”
The MCU: Plot Device and Product Placement
Somewhat unsurprisingly, the partnership between James Bond and Omega broke the practice of surreptitiously marketing watches on film wide open. Point in fact: this kind of paid placement is now so ubiquitous that even the most casual cinemagoer has likely been exposed to it multiple times in the past 15 years, especially if you’ve seen a film or TV series set in the MCU. Marvel’s pantheon of comic heroes looms so large in popular culture that now, for good or ill, the watches inspired by their likeness don’t even necessarily need a movie tie-in (I’m looking at you Royal Oak ‘Black Panther’).
Among the definitive action blockbusters of the last two decades, each ‘phase’ of Marvel film has possessed plenty in the way of watchspotting. The connection to horology began as early as 2008, when director Jon Favreau described his vision for Iron Man as the “ultimate spy movie” – likely a reference to the hi-tech gadgetry so central to the appeal of the James Bond and Mission Impossible franchises.
Fittingly, for a series about a “genius-billionaire-playboy-philanthropist” who gallivants about in a suit of bleeding-edge armour, the first watches glimpsed on actor Robert Downey Jr in the original Iron Man are as much in aid of visual storytelling, as they are product placement. “Of all the tech from that first movie – the one that kickstarted the MCU – the item that always stuck with me was Stark’s watch,” says Tony Traina, founder of Rescapement. “I always remember how this superhero, who seemingly has all the gadgets in the world, still appreciated a simple, old-school Bulgari Diagono. This watch (and many others besides) play a supporting role in the rest of the franchise. Stark eventually trades the Diagono for a basket of roadside strawberries in Iron Man 2 – to me that shows off the subtle characterisation and sentimental warmth that makes the MCU something more than just heroes beating up bad guys.”
Downey Jr’s acclaimed portrayal of the Armoured Avenger would see him appear in no less than 9 Marvel films. Across the length of this filmography, he has sported a plethora of luxury watchmakers: including Jaeger-LeCoultre (name-dropped explicitly in Iron Man 2) and Urwerk, the indie brand best known for its inventive takes on the ‘wandering hours’ complication. Still, the distinctive emotional quality tied up with mechanical watchmaking (to which writers like Traina have referred) is most prominently displayed in the 2016 film Doctor Strange. An early and crucial entry in ‘Phase 3’ of Marvel’s cinematic oeuvre, the film charts the origin of the eponymous Dr. Stephen Strange: a brilliant, conceited surgeon who eventually becomes Earth’s protector and Master of the Mystic Arts. When we’re first introduced to the character – in a barnstorming debut performance by Benedict Cumberbatch – it’s clear that watches are merely another symbol of Strange’s preening narcissism – much like the Huracán that later costs him his hands and high-flying medical career.
Desperate to fund an array of costly experimental treatments, Strange subsequently sacrifices all his worldly possessions, including the Heuer Monaco, Reverso 1931 and pre-ceramic Daytona we catch glimpses of early on. Despite this being the lowest point in Strange’s narrative arc, the future Sorcerer Supreme finds himself unable to relinquish a certain JLC perpetual calendar – given to him by the film’s love interest (played by a reliably understated Rachel McAdams).
Insofar as costume design goes, Strange’s choice ‘hero’ watch strikes me as an astute one. The Master Ultra Thin Perpetual celebrates JLC’s wider renown in the field of classically styled mechanical complications; and at north of US$23,000, feels authentic to a protagonist who begins his journey as a vain, perfectionist neurosurgeon. What’s even better however is the way in which the watch actually mirrors Strange’s transformation: initially appearing pristine (but inconsequential); then, visibly affected by traumatic forces; and in the final act, pieced back together with scars to match. “The journey that [that JLC] goes on,” says Scholz, “is a fantastic illustration of the sentimentality a lot of collectors feel towards their watches”. That enthusiasts get to see that emotive connection play out amidst the cinematic adventures of ‘Earth’s Mightiest Heroes’ is nothing less than magical.