There’s a lot of questionable entertainment journalism out there these days, but I’m not sure I’ve seen a piece more filled with ridiculous statements than the Los Angeles Times’ Sunday Calendar cover about this summer’s onslaught of heavily muscled heroes.
Normally, I wouldn’t waste the time to dissect such a thing, but occasionally pointing out the tricks of the trade can be instructive.
So let’s tackle a few key passages, just to show how it works:
These massive men of summer are a shift from seasons past, when slight actors such as Tobey Maguire and Orlando Bloom populated the franchise movies and walking mountains like Johnson were encouraged to winnow their physiques to get parts. Some of this muscling up of summer’s heroes is driven by comic-book aesthetics and some, academics say, by cyclical notions of masculinity: In times when men are losing financial or societal power, biceps the circumference of tree trunks are proof of virility.
In this paragraph alone, you have to do the following:
A) Ignore that all comic-book movies tend to feature muscular heroes, except perhaps “Iron Man.”
B) Forget that Tobey Maguire conspicuously bulked up to play Spider-Man.
C) Ignore that movies take years to greenlight and get made, so the notion that this summer’s movies reflect a current referendum on masculinity doesn’t take into account that they were put into development and production years ago.
Still, if your premise is weak, there’s only one thing to do: Find an academic to buttress it:
Just what it means to be a real man in the world today is changing — and that’s part of what’s making muscles a growth industry in Hollywood, according to Emily Fox-Kales, author of “Body Shots: Hollywood and the Culture of Eating Disorders” and clinical instructor in psychiatry at Harvard University.
“As men have lost more economic power, more social power, they’ve wanted to look more pumped up,” Fox-Kales said, pointing to the recent recession that disproportionately hit male-dominated jobs like construction and manufacturing. “Muscles have become an accessory, like pickup trucks.”
This isn’t the first time social forces have coincided with changing movie star aesthetics — the preponderance of bodybuilder action heroes such as Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone in the 1980s, for instance, came just as a generation of American women were marching off to work in record numbers.
Now, I’m not sure how one reconciles that contention about the ’80s with the outbreak of muscle-men movies in the late 1950s and ’60s — Steve Reeves as “Hercules,” for example — unless Don Draper and other denizens of the “Mad Men” era were panicking in a way not hitherto understood. But why let history get in the way of a great-sounding sociological link between movie theaters and society at large?
If you want to know why there are a lot of men in tight costumes this summer, one need only look back at “Batman Begins” and “The Dark Knight,” and the two “Iron Man” movies. Marvel embarked on a course years ago to bring its characters to the screen, long before the economy tanked, just as Warner Bros. made a commitment — realizing that Harry Potter is coming to an end — to mine the outer reaches of the DC Comics universe.
The motivation is money, in other words, not muscles.
What’s most inane about the Times piece is that it dredges up the old saw about psychoanalyzing interest in comics or fantasy. Yes, a lot of people who enjoy those genres like the escapist elements inherent in them, but it’s a bit of a stretch at this stage of the game to link feelings of impotence with wanting to see “Thor,” isn’t it?
Finally, there’s this paragraph, which is pretty hilarious, inasmuch as it’s hard to see exactly what it has to do with anything else in the article:
Most American men would do well to exercise more and improve their diets, but a small number —possibly as few as 100,000, according to Phillips’ book — suffer from a condition psychiatrists call bigorexia, or muscle dysmorphia, in which they feel crippling shame and embarrassment about their perceived smallness.
Um, unless those 100,000 men are the first in line for “Conan the Barbarian,” so what?
Let’s give the Times the benefit of the doubt and say they did it for the artwork, not the copy. Although in this case, to paraphrase “Sunset Blvd.,” the pictures are big; it’s just the journalism that got smaller.