14 Dec 2016

Superheroes & Six Packs

This is more of a curious observation more than anything else, but there is an interesting trend I’ve noticed with regards to men in acting.

When I was about 8, I made the conscious decision watching Terminator 2, just as Arnie commits the ultimate sacrifice for mankind and lowers himself into the liquid steel, that I wanted to be an actor. Actually, more than anything I wanted to be Ah-nuld, but my distinct lack of Austrianness and my puny, 8 year-old body made a mockery of that particular pipedream, so an actor was the next best thing. And at that stage (the golden, glory days of late 1991, early 1992), if you were a young boy in my primary school, then you had one hero. And that could be a choice of one, and only one, of Arnie, Stallone or Van Damme – even back then, we all saw Segal for the fraudulent, inevitable Channel 5 botherer that he was.

You could only like one – much like CBBC or CITV, Neighbours or Home and Away (who’d have thought I grew up in a sectarian city?!) and once you committed to that choice, that was it. My tastes were action movies, and Arnie was the biggest action star on the planet. Terminator, Predator, T2, Commando, Running Man, Conan, Total Recall, Red Heat, Raw Deal; I owned them, loved them (even Red Sonja and Cactus Jack), and was word perfect in them all. I respected my best friends who championed Rocky or the Universal Soldier. Even though they chose poorly. But the one observation that we recognised and openly talked about was that these weren’t men. They were gods. Supermen who made Christopher Reeve look puny. I mean, think back to Predator, when Arnie meets Carl Weather’s Dillon. They actually have a bicep-off, with a mid-air arm wrestle. The screen is literally dripping in sweat and testosterone. One of Arnie’s crew, Mac, is so manly that he shaves without shaving foam. Or water. And doesn’t get a rash afterwards! No one questioned why he had disposable razors on a rescue mission in the jungle, he just did. And that was manly. In fact, these were an entirely different breed of man, and I remember looking at my arms daily, flexing and getting excited about spotting any protruding veins or any sign of definition (these days, such things make me feel queasy and unusual).

…And then we learnt that it was a trick. That these supermen were constructed. Sculpted with steroids (compare Sly in Rocky and Rocky IV and the difference is insane), and no longer the heroes we deserved or wanted. The bubble, ripped as it was, had burst and we were no longer interested.

At the same time, a new breed of hero was emerging. Men who could still kill you with their bare hands, but who were emotionally and physically vulnerable. And they could make you laugh. You weren’t sure if they were going to make it to the end credits, and they made you care. Men like John McClane, (Die Hard – the first one, not the rubbish that followed) Martin Riggs, (Lethal Weapon) Snake Plissken / Jack Burton / Any Kurt Russell character – (I know that Escape from NY came out in 1981, but anyone who says they watched it back then or through the late 80s/ early 90s is a revisionist, hipster liar whose pants are on fire).

These men gave rise to Kevin Costner, Patrick Swayze, Keanu Reeves. The Everyman, built like ordinary men, but who found themselves in extraordinary situations. We needed ordinary looking heroes who could step up and here they were. In fact, the biggest action star at that time was also the smallest, and physically couldn’t be further removed from the muscles of Arnie and chums. Topless beach-volleyball aside, Maverick was a charmer who proved that you could be tone deaf and still take someone’s breath away. Who would have ever guessed that the diminutive Scientologist’s greatest nemesis would prove to be a couch on Oprah…

This then led to a trend away from action altogether. The biggest stars in the world at the end of the 90s were lovers first, fighters second. More often than not a Byronesque, poet and lover type, noble but wounded and aesthetically pleasing – I’m talking about 90s DiCaprio or Depp, brainy, floppy haired and in so much pain they could barely speak. Even Maximus, the alpha male figure of the year 2000 was motivated by love first, and reluctantly fought to be a gladiator; and when he did it was a means to be with his wife and child again.

To be fair, Maximus didn’t sport a six-pack, he was just handy with a sword/ spear/ horse/ flaming sword/ flaming spear/ flying tiger/ clunky latinate dialogue. But he was still the anomaly of that period though, and the post-Trainspotting, heroin-chic look pervaded through most of the 2000s.

And then came Bale. And Craig. The re-booters. Resetting flabby, rudderless franchises takes muscle, apparently. Lots of muscle. So, in a fitting reversal, Batman’s pecs, nipples and six-pack was moved from outside to inside the suit, while 007 became so ripped that he dragged his knuckles, could punch through toilet cubicles and run through walls.

And so the cycle began again. Back to men on screen being huge. Almost otherworldly. Possibly unobtainable physical perfection. Just watch 300 with Gerard Butler who was. SO. MANLY. HIS. BEARD. COULD. BEAT. YOU. TO. DEATH. AND. WAS. PROBABLY. CONCEALING. ANOTHER. FIST!!! Chuck Norris became (admittedly a jokey) by-phrase for manliness, but remains so popular in the cultural lexicon that in the Expendables 2, Chuck Norris rocks up purely to tell a joke about himself.

Sly: I heard you got bitten by a King Cobra?
Chuck: Yeah. And after 5 days of agonising pain, the Cobra died…”

This emphasis on ‘manliness’ and muscles set a trend amongst castings. I remember a friend at drama school, who is naturally slim and tall, being told that unless he put on 2 stones of muscle, he wouldn’t work. He has sadly, since given up acting. More worryingly, the so-called educator who gave him that daft instruction is still teaching…

It also set a trend across the board. With the success of Batman came the challenge from Marvel. And with every hero more ripped and Arnie-like than ever before. Captain America. Thor. Even Ant Man (listen to the name. Ant. He’s supposed to be small!) has the obligatory six-pack reveal. By nature of the name, Henry Cavill as Superman has to be the biggest of them all, otherwise the character is meaningless.

You can chart the cultural shift towards this pursuit of physical perfection through Hugh Jackman’s career as Wolverine. Admittedly, Hugh Jackman only had 6 weeks to train ahead of his first X Men outing, but I don’t remember hurling my popcorn at the screen in a rage because he wasn’t muscly enough; he nailed the character, and that’s what mattered. With every successive film he got bigger and bigger, to the extent that he’s hanging up his claws because he can’t put his body through the training any more.

I’m not being (too) critical of this trend – I’d be a massive hypocrite if I were, as I spend a lot of time doing fitness myself. I’D ALSO BE BETRAYING MY 8 YEAR OLD SELF – I have no idea why I shouted that – must have hit caps lock by accident, or my laptop’s an angry Spartan – I suppose my question is, is this trend that we’re seeing in the cinema a reflection of how we are in society?

Amidst all the cries about obesity, gyms are full of guys and girls doing weights and cardio classes, looking for abs, arms and quads. In fact, gyms are arguably this generation’s equivalent of the coffee shop that Friend’s / Starbucks made such a cultural phenomenon. Are screen abs a reflection of what we’re seeing in gyms and on the high street, with art emulating real life, tapping into aspirations of a fitness-conscious society? Or is the gym and the rise of personal trainers / a fitness conscious public informed by what we see on screen?

Most curiously, why is it that masculinity is so frequently equated with muscle? Even in the Avengers, the most ‘normal’ frame is sported by Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner. But as the Hulk, possibly the ultimate expression of unbridled masculinity, he proves the Avengers saviour and back-up weapon when hope is lost.

Only time will tell if this masculine archetype is here to stay or a part of a spinning wheel. With the themes of mortality and poignancy of Logan, will we see a move towards a more cerebral superhero film? Will Bond reboot as the sniper he always was in the books, the man who drank and smoke and who swam to get fit, but who rarely used his fists to kill (and when he did, he was sickened by it – unless it was a fair fight)

Anyway, I’m late for the gym…

In the words of Ah-nuld, “Ah’ll bhee bheck.’



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