Trigger Warning: The following references disordered eating and body dysmorphia.

The Big Picture

  • The body standards placed on male actors in the Marvel franchise are no different from those placed on women throughout history, raising concerns about unrealistic expectations.
  • The intense workout regimens and extreme diets that actors undergo to achieve superhero physiques are not only physically demanding but also potentially harmful to their mental health.
  • Marvel’s emphasis on muscularity and unrealistic body ideals sets unrealistic expectations for young men and perpetuates harmful body image standards in popular culture. Other studios have also contributed to this problem.

It’s no secret that the MCU has practically taken over Hollywood. With 32 films released in the span of 15 years (and plenty more projects in the pipeline), they’ve racked up a superstar cast and a net worth of over 50 billion dollars. There are Easter eggs, ComicCons, and even a Disneyland Avengers Campus in the works. It’s safe to say that the public is highly invested in the franchise’s success. It’s no surprise, then, to hear of an upcoming book focused on just that topic: Joanna Robinson, Dave Gonzales, and Gavin Edwards’ MCU: The Reign of Marvel Studios. The authors interviewed directors, actors, casting managers, and dietitians – members of every part of the Marvel family to paint an accurate, behind-the-scenes picture of how the mega-franchise operates. While the book is clearly geared towards fans aching to get any ounce of inside information, something more sinister can be found on its pages.

In an excerpt recently published in Vanity Fair, trainers, nutritionists, and many of the actors themselves detailed the ways in which Marvel’s superheroes achieved their movie-ready bodies. To us, what was possibly intended as aspirational or impressive actually served the opposite purpose. Rather, these stories clarify that the body standards placed on the men of the Marvel franchise are no different from the ones that have been placed on women, well, throughout history. With a very specific body type in mind (read: extraordinarily strong) that requires a totalitarian, questionable approach to maintain, it seems it might be time to reevaluate Marvel’s approach to the superhero physique.

How Do MCU Actors Train for Their Superhero Roles?

Chris Hemsworth as Thor trying to pick up his hammer from the mud in 'Thor'
Image via Marvel Studios

Reading through the article with this lens feels a bit dystopian. For his role in Thor, Chris Hemsworth put on 20 pounds of muscle in eight months, lifting heavy weights several times a day. Chris Evans described a similar workout to achieve his Captain America body, but also detailed the high caloric intake necessary, and how uncomfortable it felt to be consistently full of bland chicken and rice. Chris Pratt additionally had to drink an ounce of water a day for every pound he weighed to prepare for his role in the fan-favorite film Guardians of the Galaxy. (The Mayo Clinic recommends 125 ounces of water a day – it’s safe to assume Pratt was drinking significantly more than that, which is not healthy.) But it’s not just the leading men who undergo dramatic transformations, and the studio isn’t necessarily directly ordering them to do so. Rather, the culture of these incredibly fit, muscular men does it for them. Sebastian Stan, who plays Bucky Barnes in the franchise, talks of feeling “so insecure being around these massive [f-in] guys” that he too started lifting weights and eating to bulk up. Robert Downey Jr. (Iron Man) did the same, as did Paul Rudd (Ant-Man), who notably speaks only positively about his transformation, crediting it to his newfound awareness of fitness and diet. Also notably, he wasn’t required to bulk up in nearly the same way as these other stars were.

The casting directors insist that they do not hire their actors based on their willingness to complete these extreme body transformations, but it is so entrenched in the Marvel culture that, for anyone in the casting process, it seems to be a given. Sarah Halley Finn, the lead casting director for the franchise, describes it as a “willingness to submit to the kind of intense rigors that [the role] requires of you.” Duffy Gaver, Hemsworth’s personal trainer, calls them “dedicated and disciplined.” But the message is clear – this is part of the job.

MCU: The Reign of Marvel tries to spin this positively. It states that Marvel has “created a world in which the male form is as malleable as the female form,” and just as equally an “object of fantasy.” It compares the Marvel process to Dr. Abraham Erskine’s Super Soldier serum, and goes as far as calling the uber-fit Marvel men “superior specimens of humanity.” (Ick!) It does this, somehow, while still making note of the impossible ideals that women have been held to, and how they have had to starve or surgically alter themselves to conform to them. And, according to their own book, the men’s transformations are equally unattainable. Experts estimated that more than 50% of Marvel’s stars used performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) to achieve their movie-ready bodies. They say that PEDs are the “worst kept secret in Hollywood,” as common and accepted as Botox, but make sure to go into depth as to how they are perfectly healthy if used only for short periods of time, and are not addictive at all.

Marvel Films Set Unrealistic Expectations for Young Men

chris-evans-captain-america copy (1)
Image via Marvel Studios

What is definitely unhealthy, however, is the impact that these idealized bodies have both on the actors required to achieve them and on the kids growing up watching. The effect that women’s portrayal in the media has had on eating disorders and body dysmorphia is well documented, and, in the past decade, many efforts have been made to increase body diversity and body positivity on our screens. It’s a problem that is in no way solved, but at least pop culture is on some form of corrective path. How, then, with this conversation happening, has the new standard for men gone unnoticed?

With Marvel championing a body type that requires rigorous training and extreme diets, one that many of these actors also need performance-enhancing drugs to achieve, how are we not concerned at the body standards being set for young men everywhere? It seems pretty clear that the average Joe will not be able to achieve these results while living a normal, balanced life – setting up the next generation with a seriously warped view of how they’re supposed to look. The Marvel universe is one of fantasy – of superpowers and alien creatures. That their superheroes need to be visibly muscular is, as the book says, “an incredibly literal choice,” and one that they truly didn’t need to stick to. It’s safe to say that Thor didn’t get his god-like strength from pumping iron – why does he need rippling abs?

RELATED: Marvel, We Miss Your Mid-Budget Projects!

Unrealistic Body Expectations Aren’t Only a Marvel Problem

Zac Efron as Matt Brody in Baywatch
Image via Paramount Pictures

It’s important to note that Marvel isn’t the only studio championing these unrealistic bodies. Zac Efron has frequently spoken out about the negative effects that training for 2017’s Baywatch had on his mental health, telling Men’s Health that the process left him with severe insomnia and depression. “Something about that experience burned me out,” he said, “I had a really hard time recentering.” Taylor Lautner has talked about the effects that his legendary role as Jacob in Twilight had on his body image as well, detailing that it took multiple daily workouts to maintain his physique, and the immense pressure he felt to keep it even after the franchise ended. Jacob Elordi has gone on record with how much he struggled with viewers’ fixations on his body in The Kissing Booth, intentionally slimming down for The Kissing Booth 2 as a result (he also discussed how much he disliked his twice-a-day, everyday workouts). It seems we simply haven’t been paying attention to the body image expectations we’ve been setting for men, at least not the way we have for women. With more and more actors coming forward (and conversations still happening that glorify their transformations), it might be time to start.

MCU: The Reign of Marvel Studios is marketing itself as a full-access, behind-the-scenes look at a franchise that remains so significant in our current culture. From Vanity Fair‘s excerpt, it seems the writers succeeded in their mission, but they may have also reignited a very important discourse – one about body image, diet culture, and, of course, the things we expect our greatest actors to go through for our entertainment. In their Amazon summary, the book is described as “an essential, effervescent account of American mass culture.” It’s true! Marvel represents our consumerism, our idealism, and our creativity. Unfortunately, it also represents our unrealistic standards and our lack of awareness of their harm. Will we continue to sweep these more negative attributes under the rug, or finally start having the tough conversations? It seems only time will tell.

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