I was introduced to Marvel when I was a toddler and, a few years later, my fanaticism reached a point (for better or for worse) where I was able to sound off issue numbers like Rain Man. In fact, I can still miraculously tell you my favourite Spidey suit (The Black Symbiote) first appeared in The Amazing Spider-Man #252.
Admittedly, reading comics wasn’t just a pastime, it became a necessity that helped me allay through bullying. It’s comforting to know that Peter Parker, though a fictional character, encountered similar torment as a shy gawky nerd.
Then the first crop of movies debuted. I am not ashamed to admit I teared up when I first saw Wolverine in the X-Men (2001) and when Spider-Man and Doc Ock duked it out (2004). It was truly AWE-some.
The company’s latest success – the Marvel Cinematic Universe or MCU – is not something to ignore. It’s an unprecedented, divergent yet tightly linked universe with diverse, dazzling, deep characters and story arcs that unravel into a controlled combustible, grand cosmos of the human imagination.
The MCU’s influence is extraordinary. The fact my Indian immigrant mother asks about Captain America signifies the brand’s cultural supremacy; Marvel is now the ultimate entertainment Juggernaut – not bad for a company that almost went bankrupt.
However, the MCU’s success has a dark side. There is a negative phenomenon that needs to be unpacked.
I can’t speak for all men, but at least for me, Marvel’s recent commercial success has dramatically altered my existential self. I need to look like a superhero.
Body image woes are not new, all genders face incredible pressure regarding their respective demeanor and appearances. Although I never truly felt pressured to adhere to male stereotypes …
… OK, fine, I confess. Sometimes I aspire to be a burly bearded mountain man with a manbun, lumbering along with an anvil sharpened axe, followed by a dog named Pongo, and gingerly applying tea tree oil on my beard, in a musty, darkened dew drop covered cabin in the Pacific Northwest.
Such aspirations are comedic figments of my imagination, nothing I internalized for my modus operandi.
Scouring through the literature, it was unsurprisingly scant for men. It often lacked depth and primarily focused on extreme bodybuilders and steroid abuse. So I proceeded to focus on the problem directly through my own introspection.
Chris Hemsworth (Thor), Chris Pratt (Star-Lord), Chadwick Boseman (Black Panther), Ryan Reynolds (Deadpool) and Hugh Jackman (Wolverine) represent the best of Marvel character portrayal; they are also the individuals who I studied intimately. Why? Because I hated myself for not having their six pack stone-eroded abs, mushroom-rounded deltoids and quads that look like sequoia redwoods.
It’s easy to forget that an actor’s job is to portray the character.
Marvel actors dedicate large swaths of time to achieve the required physique. Their workouts are facilitated by renowned trainers with meals managed by keen health conscious chefs. What many don’t realize, Marvel actors only need to maintain their physique for a small period of time.
Jackman routinely dehydrated his body, close to hospitalization, in order to appear more ripped in promotion photos. His meals were prepared. Pratt’s workout was near Olympic level and included supersets of swimming, running, cycling and strength conditioning in the same day. All for one shirtless scene. Guess what, his meals were also prepared.
It’s ludicrous to expect similar results given I am not exercising up to five hours a day. The time to cook and prepare adequate portions is tedious and laborious. Not to mention I can’t access a worldclass trainer, thus have to learn exercises on my own, which brings its own risks and challenges. I didn’t even dabble into the financial costs of attempting to even look like Marvel actors. Then what about family commitments?
So it goes…
The irony is that you almost never see the MCU characters exercise. So now I am imbued with a pornographic-like expectation that instant muscles are possible. Such thoughts can be incredibly discouraging when I have a bad day at the gym. My superhero Under Armor doesn’t help either.
Why am I so perturbed by the MCU characters’ bodies? Why wasn’t I affected by the comics or the mountain man fantasy?
The only conclusion was that seeing actors on film made things more real, much more consumable and therefore tangible that drawings and dreams never were able to penetrate before. It felt attainable despite the constraints of life that an average everyday Joe has to deal with. It was a form of self-deception and in turn, self-bullying.
I don’t blame Marvel. It’s fundamentally my responsibility as a consumer on how I navigate and internalize the medium and message. Growing up, Marvel was my sanctum, but now it’s mainstream and glorified which fuels the pressure I never faced before.
But such feelings shouldn’t control personal health and wellness, no one should feel stigma to be healthy. I often forget to remind myself that health is not about having a superhero body. It’s simply about making an effort. It’s perfectly OK not to have Asgardian pectorals and biceps. Anyone can work out with a simple and healthy diet to reap, literally, a lifetime of benefits.
Most importantly, my self-examination reminded me how ignorant and blind I am to the real heroes, the ones we take for granted. They pick up the trash without a spotlight. They are the single mothers who work three jobs in order to catapult their children to the NBA. They are the ones who go to the gym at 4 a.m., despite having a physical disability. They are the immigrant parents who watch the MCU because they want to relate with their children.
Heroes are never tied to their physique, it’s rather their overlooked subtleties. As much as I fantasize about having Spider-Man’s body and abilities, I much rather remind myself of the resilience, testament and grit of everyday, unassuming heroes which is what Marvel has always been about to me.
Bhavin Prajapati, BSc’11, BA’12, MHIS’16, is a former member of the University Senate (2013-14).