Brawn of a New Male Era
As Marvel (and its stars) hit middle age, signs of muscle fatigue set in: 'I won't do it again'
Oh, to be a movie god in the golden age of motion pictures. When hell-raisers like Bogie, Holden and Burton caroused late into the night while shooting on location, and often took a few nips during the workday as well. And all those cigarettes. They didn’t worry about their diets outside of keeping somewhat fit and camera-ready, and their idea of exercise was a game of tennis or maybe a few rounds of shadow boxing.
And the same attitude pretty much prevailed through the ’60s and ’70s, with Newman, Redford and Hoffman giving way to DeNiro and Pacino, then Eddie Murphy, Harrison Ford and, of course, Jack throughout.
Could any of them have anticipated what it really takes to be a household name in this new Marvel-ous era?
Consider Robert Downey Jr., who got the call from Marvel in 2008 (and the cash, totaling something like an estimated $400 million from the MCU since that auspicious beginning) and took on the role of Tony Stark in Iron Man. He went from a dissolute (at least in image) then 42-year-old to a jacked-up, wise-cracking titan taken from the pages of a comic book.
Or Chris Pratt, now 43, who went from Parks and Recreation to Popeye after reportedly dropping 60 pounds and packing on the muscle to play Star-Lord in 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy and, later, the Avengers movies.
Even the formerly dad bod-ish Paul Rudd, now 53, got shredded for Ant-Man, while Mark Ruffalo, now 54, shed his “sensitive guy” bona-fides for a bulked-up physique to play The Incredible Hulk.
But if the road to celluloid fame and eye-blinking riches is today paved with pecs, tri’s and abs, then what are we to make of one of Marvel’s most emblematic characters, who says he might be done with the whole damn thing?
That’s the redoubtable Thor, God of Thunder, as personified by Chris Hemsworth over the course of eight movies — and earning untold riches. (It’s hard to nail down the exact figure with back-end percentages, but in the last pre-pandemic box-office year, 2019, he earned $76.4 million alone, according to Forbes.)
A little background: for this summer’s Thor: Love and Thunder, the Aussie, in his 10th year playing the role, prepped for filming during pandemic quarantine Down Under with bouts of swimming, pumping iron, martial arts and eating and eating and eating— around 6,000 calories a day.
For not only Hemsworth but also his longtime stunt double Bobby Holland Hanton, that meant seven meals a day in the run-up to Love and Thunder and during filming. The star, now 38, wanted to be, as Hanton put it in an Australian radio segment, “the biggest Thor he's ever been.”
“It's crazy how big Chris got for this,” his director Taika Waititi told USA Today. “He's huge already, but when I saw his arms, they were twice as big as normal, as wide as my head.”
So this is what it takes these days to be a movie star in the era of superhero tentpoles? Can you imagine Brando, Redford or Ford doing the same thing, shuttling between workouts and an insane eating schedule to the exclusion of all else for months, nay, years on end?
It’s quite a turnabout considering the Hollywood body-image spotlight was almost exclusively on female stars in days of yore and the way they looked — sexually appealing (meaning thin and comely) — up until relatively recent times (where, of course, yes, Natalie Portman’s arms and the Black Widow workout now also make headlines).
THE AGE OF BRAWN SPAWNS
Guys mostly got by on charisma and a good face — at least until the ’80s (anyone remember a reporter asking Sidney Poitier his workout? Exactly). That’s when leading men — and the movies themselves in the form of blockbusters dependent on opening weekend numbers — began bulking up.
A harbinger of things to come was when a rangy 6-foot-4, Juilliard-trained actor named Christopher Reeve put 30 additional pounds on his lean frame for 1978’s Superman (and its following three sequels).
Then along came Rambo and Conan the Barbarian and muscle-bound stars Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger (a former Mr. Universe) in 1982. The age of brawn spawned.
That turn at the movies would influence a new male aesthetic. Prior to the ’80s, gym-going wasn’t so mainstream. But then came Equinoxes on every bougie corner, Zone bars, personal trainers and Muscle Milk. Now, any male star in his prime is expected to have a six pack and bulging bi’s, even in non-comic book movies. Look no further than a couple of examples this summer.
Top Gun: Maverick recreated the iconic volleyball scene from the original with new stars Jay Ellis, Glen Powell and Danny Ramirez — and while director Joseph Kosinski had originally planned for the scene to be “shirts” vs. “skins”, all of the actors wanted to be shot shirtless. “They were like, ‘No way, I worked too hard,” he has been reported as saying of those who thought they might have to cover up their hard-earned musculature. That sentiment came back to bite the actors, as the scene had to be reshot and they had to fall back into a strict training routine and diet again after a bit of slacking off.
And preproduction photos of Ryan Gosling as Ken in a sleeveless surfer vest, playing opposite Margot Robbie in director Greta Gerwig’s Barbie movie, showed an eyeful of ripped abs and enviable biceps that lit up the internet, even as the 41-year-old actor entered what used to be called “middle age.” Remember the Ken doll’s skinny arms? No more.
THE MARVEL EFFECT
In a study reported by science publication Inverse, SUNY Oswego associate professor Rebecca Burch, PhD, and co-author Laura Johnsen, a PhD student at Binghamton University, looked at the bodies of 3,752 (!) Marvel characters and found that the males were portrayed with exaggerated upper bodies and beyond the normal range of shoulder-to-waist ratios.
These hyper-masculine forms reflect what could generally be called the traditional laws of heterosexual attraction, the academics also noted. There is also a tribal aspect — studies show that (cis) males rate rival males with higher shoulder-to-hip ratios as more attractive and dominant and start paying attention to sexual, physical dimensions in adolescence. In short, it’s hard-wired — with the internet a new arena in which to flex (and flex).
Hence the explosion of adolescent and young men — the prime superhero movie audience — on social media with their “thirst trap” physique photos and turning the “The Marvel Workout” into the grail of Reddit #goals. (The downside? Ten to 40 percent of men who hit the gym suffer from muscle dysmorphia or “bigorexia.”)
Closer to home, even Hemsworth’s spouse, actress Elsa Pataky, was not a fan of the 38-year-old actor’s gargantuan gains.
“My wife was like, ‘Bleh, it's too much,’” Hemsworth said in the same USA Today interview. “There are a lot of my male friends who are like, ‘Yeah!’ but a lot of female friends and family are like, ‘Yuck.’”
That’s probably a big reason why Hemsworth sounded like he was ready to chuck it all after trying to maintain his (body) mass appeal.
“Doing this, and then a 12-hour set day was something different,” he said. “It was horrible. I won't do it again. They can give me a fancy muscle-y costume next time. I'm done.”
But can he really be “done”? After all, his whole brand is his body, between the superhero fame and side hustles like his popular fitness program Centr.
What if there’s something more than muscle fatigue on the horizon?
As Richard Rushfield opined in a recent column, the MCU is showing more than a few cracks in Phase 4. If the genre is beginning to age, just like its leading men, that eventually means fewer movies — and fewer super-muscular, big-screen roles.
And we’re learning: streaming won’t necessarily take up the slack, as the town found out with the jaw-dropping cancellation of the already-shot Batgirl starring Leslie Grace, scrap-piled for a $90 million tax write-off for Warner Bros. in the new David Zaslav regime.
The public’s appetites are changing too, it seems, however gradually. In a recent article about Thor’s stumble, the Wall Street Journal reported that public-opinion research company Morning Consult “found a greater share of U.S. adults were more tired of those movies than in 2018, and that younger, Gen Z audiences were less interested overall in comic books, superheroes and the dress-up trend among super-fans known as cosplay.”
Obviously, it won’t be tomorrow, as it’s hard to think of a current male star that doesn’t have a connection to the MCU, and they keep on coming — Chris Evans, Oscar Isaac, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Simu Liu, Tom Holland, Jeremy Renner, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Mahershala Ali, Ryan Reynolds and on and on. And don’t forget DC’s own Jason Momoa (Aquaman), Dwayne Johnson (with Black Adam out in October), Henry Cavill (in a rumored Superman return) and Zachary Levi (Shazam), all of which, Zaslav declared on his company’s recent earnings call, will fall under a “10-year plan.”
But with the firehose of content from both big-screen releases and streaming looking a little shaky, and the recent uneven (relatively speaking) performance of the Marvel franchise, maybe some actors will eventually have to take a different route than muscling into success.