Invasion of the Bodybuilders

Article excerpt

Byline: Chris Lee

Macho men are back with a vengeance--and they're making the U.S.A. feel good again.

It's easy to mistake this summer's behemoth leading men for overactive gym rats. Actor-model Jason Momoa packed on 30 pounds to his runway-ready frame to revive Conan the Barbarian. Chris Evans endured months of nausea-inducing workouts to bulk up for Captain America: The First Avenger. Even Ryan Reynolds got into the game, undergoing a radical pectoral transformation for The Green Lantern.

They're hardly alone in favoring bench presses over Brechtian technique for their close-ups. The multiplex exploded in April with the arrival of Fast Five, a shoot-'em-up heist film that showcases the musculature of Vin Diesel and Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson during their rampage across Rio de Janeiro. The following week, the comic-book adaptation Thor featured Chris Hemsworth as the Asgardian god of thunder with biceps the size of canned hams.

But even while guys chugging Muscle Milk seem to have the cultural zeit-geist in a headlock, a war is brewing between the he-men and action moviedom's 98-pound weaklings. A new crop of machismo-challenged heroes--call them the "emo" super-dudes--is headed for screens next year. Spider-Man's franchise reboot rests on the shoulders of waifish actor Andrew Garfield, best known as a nerd in The Social Network. Brooding British thespian Henry Cavill (famous to Showtime fans of The Tudors) is on tap as the new Superman. And Hollywood's reigning Sensitive Male, Mark Ruffalo, will portray none other than the Incredible Hulk in Marvel's The Avengers. What could his Hulk possibly smash?

Every generation gets the idol it deserves, as the conventional wisdom goes, with marquee actors often standing in as avatars for the collective imagination. Thanks to his Charles Atlas physique and Brylcreemed hair, Adventures of Superman star George Reeves became the television embod-iment of Cold War-era American idealism. At the other end of the spectrum, surging with steroids and excess testosterone, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone became touchstones of excess in the '80s. (The Governator recently became a symbol of excess again for reasons unrelated to the size of his quads.)

It wasn't long ago that superheroes were swathed in Prada suits in sizes much smaller than XXXL. Tobey Maguire and Robert Downey Jr. weren't initially known as action stars, and still managed to translate their brooding shtick into box-office gold.

But in 2011, at a time of global economic uncertainty and with the U. …