‘People want to look like action stars’: the unstoppable rise of the Marvel body

Actors’ workouts and diets have become an integral part of the superhero journey – but is our idea of a healthy body becoming skewed as a result?

We’re so used to seeing the Marvel body. Muscular, yet thin; a lean package that is capable of packing a mean punch. It’s Chris Hemsworth’s glistening nudity in the latest Thor, or Natalie Portman’s much-talked about bulging biceps, or the star-spangled curvature of “America’s ass” (Chris Evans’). While Marvel stars, like Elizabeth Olsen, have defended the studio for never explicitly telling their actors to “get into shape”, the pressure on them to appear powerful has been sculpted over time.

“I want to look like someone who can take on Thor or Captain America, or any one of those people,” Kumail Nanjiani told GQ magazine, about his decision to beef up to play Kingo in Eternals. Motivated by his own desire to portray a strong south Asian hero, he gained about 28 pounds (12 kilograms) of muscle – against the wishes of director Chloé Zhao, who had cast him for his “mix of humility and charisma”.

Superhero films have been around for decades, but our idea of what a strong body looks like has dramatically shifted over the last two decades or so: consider the dramatic difference between Hugh Jackman’s first turn as Wolverine, back in 2000, and his more recent portrayals of the character, most recently in 2017.

Hugh Jackman as Wolverine in X-Men (2000) and in The Wolverine (2013)
Hugh Jackman as Wolverine in X-Men (2000) and in The Wolverine (2013) Composite: 20th Century Fox/Allstar,

Some of this change can be attributed to the seemingly unstoppable expansion of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, where extreme body transformations, like that of Guardians of the Galaxy’s Chris Pratt, are now regularly harnessed as vehicles for publicity. It has become routine for stars like Hemsworth and Portman and Evans and Brie Larson to promote their fitness regimes during press tours. Larson continues to share her #fitspo journey on Instagram, years after last playing Captain Marvel. And Hemsworth’s own foray into the fitness industry – his workout app, Centr – has banked him millions. There’s always greater gains to be made – financially and physically.

“Onscreen bodies have absolutely changed over time, especially superhero physiques,” says associate professor Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, US fitness and culture historian at The New School. “The 1980s were a big turning point in the rise of this new, strapping and striated superhero physique.”

She cites Rambo, Terminator and Rocky as the blockbusters that helped mainstream the bodybuilder silhouette into cinema. “Super-muscular male bodies had been featured in physique magazines for decades, but were very much connected with gay culture,” she says. Action stars like Arnie and Stallone carved a new mould for straight male masculinity, at a time when working out was starting to become an everyday fixture.

Today’s fitness culture means that yesterday’s super-bod is even more attainable – which means actors’ transformations need to be even more dramatic than they once were. “Superman seems less impressive, and perhaps less worth the ticket price, if his body is indistinguishable from any guy you might see lifting at your local gym,” Mehlman Petrzela says.

As more of Hollywood becomes folded into Marvel’s design, and as our superheroes multiply, growing bigger and more profitable, it seems imperative to measure the impact these on-screen bodies are having on our psyches. Are men feeling more pressures to become thinner and more muscular? Or is the swell of the superhero body merely an expression of today’s fitness norms?

“I don’t know if we can identify a cause and effect between what we’re seeing in the media and what people are doing through exercise, but they’re certainly happening at the same time,” says Dr Dan Jolley, lecturer in Fitness at Perth’s South Metropolitan TAFE. “People want an exhausting workout, and to really push themselves – that’s far more prevalent now than it was probably 15 years ago.”

The popularity of functional or high-intensity interval training (HIIT) has shifted the goalposts for the industry, Jolley says; people are wanting to become bigger, stronger, fitter than ever before. The last 15 years has also bulked demand for the workout supplement industry – pre-workouts, nutritional supplements, recovery aids – engineered to boost training and promote recovery. The problem being that the further you proverbially climb, the harder you’ll proverbially …

“I think part of the issue with the Marvel body is it increases people’s expectations,” says Jolley. “People want to look like an action star, but may not be aware that every frame of those films has some sort of special effect involved, which might include changing the way they look on screen, too.”

It’s these escalating expectations that have the potential to hurt audiences. Those who don’t have access to their own personal trainers or at-home chefs are lured to look elsewhere to achieve results: the increased prevalence and accessibility of performance enhancing drugs have had major impacts to fitness and physique, and are distorting our idea of what a healthy, active body looks like.

Talking about his workout and diet for the forthcoming Guardians of the Galaxy 3, actor Will Poulter said that he “wouldn’t recommend anyone do what I did to get ready for that job”, stressing it would be “unhealthy” and “unrealistic” to do what he did “if you don’t have the financial backing of a studio paying for your meals and training”.

“The research says that portrayals of male bodies in media have become more lean and more muscular over time,” says Dr Scott Griffiths, senior research fellow at the Melbourne School of Psychological Sciences, where his work explores eating disorders, muscle dysmorphia and the increasing prevalence of body dissatisfaction in men and boys. He has found that repeated exposure to extremely masculine and muscular male portrayals in media can, over time, erode male sense of self-worth and confidence.

“We have these unrealistic body images, and then as a result people push too hard, look for supplements, get injured, and possibly depressed and anxious when they can’t get the result they’re looking for,” warns Jolley.

Marvel has always been in the business of selling ideas; virtue, philosophies, the military-industrial complex and, now, the “perfect” body. But in universes where superpowers are bestowed via enchanted skittles and extraterrestrial talents, mutated genetics and supreme sorcery, it’s bewildering that heroes are rarely ever anything other than toned and muscular.

“We’ve imbued the ‘idealised’ body with all sorts of qualities, traits, and even morals – they are all part of the reason we feel we have to work to attain it,” says Griffiths. If the Marvel body appears strong and powerful, competent and capable, then what might we start to feel about those of us that don’t – or simply can’t – look that way?


Dejan Jotanovic

The GuardianTramp

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