Invasion of the Bodybuilders

Reynolds, the Rock, and other bulked-up stars are dominating theaters this summer, but the box-office war is far from over. Photo Illustration by Jimmy Turrell. Source photos: Courtesy of Warner Bros-(c)DC Comics (Green Lantern), Columbia Pictures-Photofest (Spider-man), Rodrigo Palma-Sony Pictures (Garfield), Larry Busacca-Tribeca film festival-Getty Images (Cavill), Matt Say

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 zeitgeist 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 embodiment 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.S. embroiled in three wars, the pendulum has swung the other way. Today's alpha males are signaling a cultural shift: a "might equals right" moment. "There is a huge vogue for these heroes at the moment,"says movie historian David Thomson, author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film. "The country is very insecure about an awful lot of things. And wanting to watch guys with buffed-up egos and bodies, the toughest guys in the world—it could be a response to that."

As Captain America screenwriter Stephen McFeely sees it, "There's little tolerance for guys in fake-muscle suits—people know the difference. We want to know our actors might be able to kick our asses."

Movie studios didn't magically decide that size matters. To hear it from Fast Five producer Neal Moritz, the current crop of musclebound stars surfaced only after the number of actors who could actually act while, say, firing a machine gun and running through a jungle had dwindled dramatically. "Holly-wood has always looked for macho guys to be in big action films," said Moritz. "The problem is they aren't the ones who spend time studying drama and becoming great actors. But now we do have actors like Vin Diesel and The Rock, guys who have incredible charisma and can run and jump and fight—and as an audience, we're going to believe the things they're doing."

Acclaimed Irish actor Michael Fassbender can speak to both sides of the divide. He bulked up to portray a Spartan warrior in the 2007 action epic 300—a seminal work in the macho-cinema canon—and slimmed down to play Magneto, a super-mutant whose mind in his real weapon, in this summer's X-Men: First Class.

Fassbender explained that onscreen assets are never flaunted without merit. "It's whatever goes for the character," he said. "In 300, these guys are carrying copper shields and doing battle for, like, eight hours. Magneto's thing is manipulating metal. He doesn't need those muscles."

Still, other heroes bank on their chiseled masculinity. Director Kenneth Branagh saw hundreds of potential Thors before hiring Hemsworth, who packed on so much mass for the role that he initially couldn't fit into his costume. Discussing what he looked for in his leading man, Branagh could be describing the trend that has given macho men a temporary leg up on emo boys.

"We wanted an old-fashioned leading man," the director said. "A good-looking lad you're happy to watch think. An oak-tree presence. Someone who really occupies the space."