“I’ve always loved comics,” Rebecca Burch enthuses. “I still have a huge box of them from my childhood. I love the Marvel and DC movies. But I really worry when I see my nephew, who has a closet full of superhero suits, with abs and biceps stitched in. What will he think of that when he’s an adolescent trying to attain these in the real world? And he’s a little guy, so I don’t think he’s going to get there.”
Burch, Associate Professor of Human Development at New York State University, is joking, but her concern is real. When she conducted a study three years ago of the physical dimensions of 3,752 Marvel comic characters, she found not only that—as measured by body mass index— female superheroes tended to be underweight, but the male ones tended technically to be obese. More particularly, their ratios—notably of shoulder width to waist, creating that classic inverted triangle—just weren’t realistic.
“More than that, they’re unattainable,” she says. “They’re absurd. You might imagine that they’re just bodybuilder big. But these proportions are not possible in reality. On the one hand that lets people off the hook to know that. But the problem is that they shape our conception of the physical ideal now, and with it the idea that this level of muscularity is what a ‘hero’ should look like.”
All the more so, she adds, with the Marvel and DC movie franchises increasingly attempting to echo the hero representations of the original comic books, in which proportions are exaggerated for effect. “And it’s not just the films either, as these franchises are a huge part of popular culture now,” Burch stresses. “It’s all the toys, the clothes, the spin-offs, the merchandise. Those new ideals of the female and male bodies are around us all the time. That shapes not just what we think of ourselves, but also who we’re attracted to. Of course we had the Stallones and the Schwarzeneggers before [with the likes of Rambo and The Terminator respectively]. But [in part due to the amplification of social media] muscularity has never permeated the culture to this extent.”
The body is (mis)represented
Women have suffered from the representation of unrealistic body shapes for decades, of course. The feminine ideal had Barbie’s impossible proportions (Burch cites the satiric superhero Big Bertha, whose power is her plus- size, who vomits to achieve her transformation, and whose alter ego is a supermodel). But she says it seems we may not have learned the lesson: now the 21st-century conception of masculinity is being railroaded into one defined by bulk. Indeed, we seem to be going backward in terms of body shape diversity—check out the likes of 2009’s Watchmen for how it used to be not that long ago.
Certainly to be believably superheroic, muscularity has to be at a level beyond what’s feasible for gym-going men. As these whey-powder-powered gym goers have gotten bigger, superhero representation has had to outpace it.
There’s an arms race for bigger biceps. That’s why it’s not enough—in a trend started by Christopher Reeve (opposite) for the 1983 Superman movie—for the actors playing these characters on screen to be contractually in full-time thrall to trainers and nutritionists for months ahead of shooting. Feel, if you will, for the cast of Top Gun: Maverick, who put in the endless gym hours for a beach scene, then, having got back on the doughnuts, had to go through it all again when Tom Cruise later insisted on a re-shoot. Their superhero costumes must, with the aid of clay inserts, bulk them up further still in the process continuing to distort ideas of what a healthy body actually is.
“Back in my day, we didn’t need moulded bodysuits, [it was just] pure West,” as Adam West, who played Batman in the original TV series, once quipped on The Simpsons.
“There has been what you might call an aesthetic inflation [of physiques] but the physicality is a function of character—they need to look capable of doing what they show you, say, picking someone up and throwing them against a wall,” chuckles Simon Waterson, the UK-based fitness instructor who worked with Pierce Brosnan and Daniel Craig for their Bond roles as well as Chris Evans, Chris Pratt and Benedict Cumberbatch for their respective Marvel outings. For the last six months he’s been up with Tom Hiddleston every day at 4am to get him into shape for the next series of Loki.
“We’re all aware now of those stories of what actors go through to get into incredible shape, but that can be overdone to the point where their characters are no longer believable,” adds Waterson, who says he can only work within the genetic limits of what any actor comes with anyway. “Even superheroes have to leave you feeling they could be a guy walking down the street in a suit somewhere.”
The superhero prototype
Waterson believes these actor-superheroes are powerfully motivational to anyone looking to get fit. Yet arguably, Hollywood’s global reach means that ‘incredible shape’ has a homogenising effect too. Dr Ratna Cahaya, Lecturer in Arts and Design at Nusantara University, Indonesia, notes how the superhero ideal is increasingly being standardised.
That’s certainly true in the West, as comparing earlier and more recent incarnations of characters (the likes of Superman and Batman) quickly shows. Just consider Michael Keaton’s Batman, weighing in at 72kg, versus Ben Affleck’s at 98kg; or Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine in 2000 and then in 2013; and to the extent that those characters who don’t conform to this ideal (the likes of Kick-Ass or the Crow) tend to be more comedic or decidedly alternative. These days, even the anti-heroes—whether it’s Deadpool or Guardians of the Galaxy’s Star-Lord—come with a six-pack.
But this is also seeing more local superhero variations being squeezed out. Cahaya cites the Javanese character Arjuna: “still handsome, but in a feminine way, small and slender”. He’s a smooth talker; he likes to dress up. He’s in keeping with a Confucion ideology that portrays the ideal man as a harmony of wen (mental achievement) and wu (physical achievement), with wen the more highly regarded. Or there’s the tradition of doe-eyed manga characters in historically agrarian, patriarchal Japan, in which superheroes embody what she calls a “positive energy”, delicate, neither square-jawed nor massively muscled.
Kumail Nanjiani, who played Kingo in Eternals, took some heat for going against the director’s wishes in adding 12kg of muscle to his frame so that he could play what he called a strong South Asian hero. Maybe he should have more closely considered the Asian conception of the heroic first.
“In fact, the prototype [for traditional Asian superheroes] is actually close to being what we might think of more as feminine,” Cahaya says. “They’re victorious in every battle, of course, but they don’t have to be big to be so. Western superheroes help others, ultimately, through their physicality. But Japanese superheroes celebrate the strength of character— respect, humbleness, an ability to control one’s anger—over bodily strength.
“If Superman hits someone, it’s heroic [whereas] a Japanese superhero has to be much more subtle. The problem is that more and more people are being exposed to the western hero archetype, before they get to explore those of their own culture.”
Muscles? Yes, please!
Our attachment to muscles is not just a 21st-century phenomenon. Celebrations of the male form, from ancient Greek statuary—maybe of the original superheroes, Hercules and Achilles—to Michelangelo’s ‘David’ or Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, have celebrated the beauty of the perfectly adapted body. This is hardly surprising, given our psychological make-up. Those muscles—together with the broad shoulders, the nipped in waist and so on—are what evolutionary biologists refer to as ‘supernormal sexual stimuli’. Such hyper-masculine traits are ones we’re programmed to pay attention to.
And quite literally: in our many day-to-day interactions with strangers, men and women alike spend more time looking at individuals with bigger physiques. Indeed, it takes just 0.33 milliseconds for people to make a remarkably accurate estimate of someone’s strength just from the way they look. So we pay special attention to superheroes because their hyper- masculine traits are beyond human capability.
But men and women also respond differently. Studies show that women typically prefer the ‘built’ male body over even the ‘toned’ or ‘brawny’ kind, with ‘typical’ and ‘chubby’ at the bottom of their wish list. Women find muscles sexy—though it doesn’t follow that in this case, more is more. Anecdotally, the actors playing these superheroes tend to rank as ‘most fancied’ for their pretty facial features rather than their pumped bodies. And intriguingly, women report their short-term sexual partners as more muscled than their other partners; women make fewer demands of ‘built’ men, maybe because those muscles signal genetic fitness, but don’t necessarily stick with them for the long run unless they can also demonstrate other desirable characteristics.
Yet, men like muscles because they find them intimidating, which fits some theories that men’s mating success is down to an ability to display dominance to sexual competitors rather than attractiveness to one’s potential mate. This association between muscles and power and authority perhaps explains the appeal of the Marvel/DC movie characters to their overwhelmingly male audience—and why these superheroes typically seem so asexual: with increased muscularity comes not some homoerotic response so much as an increased respect for the heroes portrayed.
“The importance of muscularity tends to shift with culture and over time, but the idea of muscularity as an expression of masculinity has been consistent across cultures and history. The words ‘masculinity’ and ‘muscularity’ even have the same root,” notes University of Cambridge Psychologist Rob Henderson, who’s conducted an overview of research on the topic. “Even cultures remote from mass media associate muscularity with dominance and power. It’s intrinsic to some extent, but that doesn’t mean it’s intrinsic in us to strive for muscularity.”
The Adonis complex
As Henderson stresses, even with the fitness culture of the US, men who work out for Marvel levels of muscle mass are the extreme—and the countervailing levels of obesity and disinterest in exercise is likely much more widespread. But all the same, with Marvel/DC operating at the intersection of popular culture and fitness culture, the effects on younger generations—the so-called ‘Adonis Complex’, in which pre-school-aged boys fixate on achieving a muscularity often beyond their still-growing body’s potential—has yet to play out. As in boys, so in their toys: superhero figurines are up to 70 percent bigger in their musculature than equivalent figurines of 25 years ago. Guess which children overwhelmingly prefer too?
It affects the grown-ups as well. Studies by Scott Griffiths, at the Melbourne School of Psychological Sciences, suggest that repeated exposure to extremely muscular male portrayals in the media can, over time, erode men’s sense of self-worth. One report estimates that 45 percent of frequent male gym goers suffer from disordered body image, and this in a culture in which men do not yet feel free to talk openly about their body issues.
The impact may be behavioural as well as physical too. Studies by Sarah Coyne, Professor in Human Development at Brigham Young University, Utah, suggest that mere exposure to today’s superhero archetypes—by dressing in a superhero costume, for instance—makes young boys, through to early adolescents, far more likely to act aggressively. They’re also less likely to act in defence of someone else—that is, ironically, to behave in a decidedly unheroic way. They’re more likely to conform to gender stereotypes of masculinity.
“Superheroes represent an idea of hyper masculinity, certainly in how they look, but also in how they are,” Coyne argues. “They’re often closed off emotionally—you only have to look to Batman for the archetype of that. They typically solve problems by fighting, not by thinking. They play out [stereotypical] ideas of what it means to be a ‘real man’. There are character exceptions, of course—the likes of Dr Strange, for example. But these are not the pervading message of masculinity now for these billion- dollar franchises. Female superheroes can suggest empowerment, but even they are very masculinised in their portrayal too.”
As Coyne points out, superhero movies also explore ideas of loyalty, constancy, self-sacrifice, bravery, dependability, fairness and so on. So arguably more problematic is the association that the superhero entertainment universe draws between muscularity and what most people would consider to these more admirable traits. As Burch notes, in the world of the Avengers, muscularity may be necessary to achieve a sense of believability—as far as any superhero story can be considered believable—because every movie ends in a fight. That victory is ultimately achieved through violence may be problematic alone. But it’s also a world in which even Tony Stark’s Iron Man suit is represented as having entirely unnecessary muscles; one in which the weak and meek nice guy, Steve Rogers, is transformed into his perfected self, Captain America, by means of a super serum. Maybe that’s a prescient comment on steroid abuse.
“Superheroes are so uniformly muscular because in our culture we tend to assume that those who are physically fit, are also exceptionally virtuous and disciplined,” explains Natalia Petrzela, Associate Professor of History at The New School University, New York, and author of Fit Nation: The Gains and Pains of America’s Exercise Obsession. “Superheroes overpower their opponents with muscular physiques, which is an especially enticing spectacle for a viewership that in 2022 is more likely to work a desk job than in manual labour. That said, it’s important to note that superheroes tend not only to possess brute strength, but also superpowers and, if not book smarts, a sort of savviness. This in many ways, is the fantasy of modern masculinity: physically and intellectually powerful, and unrestrained by the dull norms of modern life.”
Might we in time come to believe that a man without the unfeasible physique is equally lacking in the moral attributes with which it’s now connected? Might today’s cinematic superheroes confine more exploratory, nebulous notions of masculinity—from the ‘macaronis’ of the 1700s through to the gender-bending of a Mick Jagger or David Bowie—to the history books? Or might indeed, the cookie cutter repetitiousness of this comic book formula— regardless it often seems, of the nature of the individual character—lead to muscle fatigue?
Rebecca Burch argues that there has to be some ceiling to muscularity for it to work as a super-stimuli, there still has to be something recognisably human about the characters who embody it. What makes cinematic superheroes interesting is that they exist at the junction of ‘super’ and ‘human’. Many may be gods or aliens or have come by their muscles through freaky genetics, but to foreground that is to risk losing a connection with the audience that wants to see itself in all those sculpted glutes and pectorals.
“I think that the bar has been set so high [for the physiques achieved by the Marvel actors] that we can’t go much beyond it now,” Simon Waterson says. “Besides, I don’t think these films can be sold on these physiques anymore. There was a time when they had a real wow factor. But there’s a sense that we’ve seen these physiques before now. That’s making the story all the more important. These days, what we want to see on screen are amazing stories.”
This story was first published in the November 2022 issue of Esquire Singapore.