Saturday, April 8, 2017

Body Worship in the Age of Superheroes

This isn't a new development in the world of movies, especially with the advent of superhero films, but body perfection in movie stars and heroes is becoming more and more of a troubling necessity. In an age devoted to the shaming of body-shamers, there's still no end to the amount of scrutiny that goes into the physical state of any actor with the misfortune of being cast as one of our heroes.

Including, but not limited to, armpit airbrushing scandals...

But that's too broad a topic to tackle and it's not news to anybody that it's happening. What I really want to focus on is an odd bit I noticed during my obsessive investigation of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. One of the standout items that made the movie not work for me was the fixation on portraying Batman and Superman not as men of heroic character, but as unrepentant badasses. This is comically embodied in a scene where Batman is dragging tires around the Batcave in preparation for a fist fight with Superman.

The scene goes on for a really long time during what is supposed to be an emotionally resonant sequence for Batman. So why does Zack Snyder think he's expressing Batman's mental state by showing him drag stuff around and beat a tractor tire with a sledge hammer? I just figured "so, Zack Snyder's a crossfit buff or something, I guess, right?" I don't know anything about crossfit or workout fads or, to be honest, exercise in general, but the details of Batman's training regimen were so oddly specific that they seemed like they must be part of some sort of extreme workout plan.

Then I saw this promotional picture of Zack Snyder and Henry Cavill...

"Wait a second..." I said out loud to myself for no reason. "Does that shirt say 'GYM JONES'? What the hell is a GYM JONES?!"

GYM JONES sounds like a suicide cult for fitness freaks, but I thought surely the obvious reference had to be inadvertent. So I checked out the GYM JONES web site to see what it was all about. This exploration did not make it any less weird."We call you to join our movement," their web site says, offering two levels of membership: Monk and Disciple. The site uses religious terminology throughout, encouraging prospective members to adopt a "daily ritual" to find a "path to salvation". But, more germane to my purpose here, the site boasts that it offers "TRAINING FOR SUPERHEROS [sic] AND EVERYDAY HEROS [sic]".

And that's the part that brings me to the point of this article. If you follow Zack Snyder's promotion of his films, it becomes apparent that he's a pretty big fan.

You can find pictures of Snyder in his GYM JONES T shirt on so many occasions that it's practically his superhero uniform. From a promotional panel at Comic Con (so you know he's not wearing it for the purpose of product placement), to a promotional picture for BvS, and even on the set of BvS. This last time he's even completing the outfit with some kind of Under Armor arm brace. My vision of Zack Snyder is that, at any given moment, he could cast off whatever clothes he's wearing and be prepared to engage in an impromptu workout. You know, just in case someone randomly accuses him of not being able to do a thousand one-handed push-ups.

Zack Snyder's not just a fan of GYM JONES. He's also a client. A pretty big client, it would seem, because he has brought GYM JONES co-founder Mark Twight in as the personal trainer for the stars of Batman v Superman, Man of Steel, and 300. Twight is renowned for whipping stars into shape to become literal supermen for their roles. And he does an amazing job of it.

So what's wrong with that? Don't we expect to see superheroes bursting with muscles in these movies?

Yes, but we also accepted Michael Keaton as Batman because of his performance. He didn't actually have to physically become the paragon of physical stature that Batman is in order to convincingly play the role. His preparation was more mental than physical.

In "The Cult of Physicality" a 2011 NY Times article by Brooks Barnes, Mark Twight admits that the GYM JONES name is an overt reference to the infamous Jonestown cult leader who orchestrated the deaths of over 900 of his followers. Since they knew they were going to be likened to a cult, he and his wife decided to "own the joke". That's a hell of a joke to stick your flag in, if you ask me. No matter how zealous your program is, a tongue-in-cheek homage to a mass murderer is, to say the least, in poor taste. But I guess the measure of good taste depends on who's pouring the Kool-Aid and who's drinking it.

If it were me, I probably would have gone with Scientologym. But that's just me.

GYM JONES' entire mission seems to be to forge humans into superhumans. Even their logo depicts the same graduation to physical perfection that Bruce Wayne originally attained to become Batman:

Of course, the one-handed lift isn't good enough for GYM JONES. 
If you really want that defined muscle tone, you've got to counter-ball it too.

"Meet the Trainer Building Hollywood’s Most Fit Superheroes", a 2016 Vanity Fair article by Michael Joseph Gross, outlines the arduous training of Zack Snyder's superheroes, but more importantly it explores the history of his relationship with Mark Twight. Before either of them had risen to their current stature in their respective careers, they worked together on commercial shoots that Snyder was directing. They found such a kinship in their mutual devotion to physical fitness that they have worked on numerous projects (most significantly, Snyder's films) since 2001. According to Twight, Snyder even inspired the GYM JONES name by joking that Twight could get people to "drink poison in the jungle".

This over-emphasis on body-building gives us some insight into how BvS was such a festival of greased-up man-wrestling that it could have been directed by Mac from It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia. You think I'm overreacting? Look at Ray Fisher preparing for the role of Cyborg in the upcoming Justice League film:

For more details on Fisher's workout regimen, you can check out an article from Men's Fitness called, and I'm not at all kidding: "Damn, Ray Fisher Is Getting Unbelievably Jacked to Play Cyborg in ‘Justice League’" (written by Matthew Jussim).

This isn't so weird, since Fisher is preparing to play a member of the Justice League, until you think about who he's playing. In the movie, Cyborg looks like this:

"I was just nuts and bolts before I started hitting the weights."

Notice anything different about Cyborg? Yeah, he's 90 % CGI in the movie. Fisher's whole face isn't even showing, but he has to get so jacked up that even Men's Fitness is taken aback by it? Seriously, for the amount of the actor that is actually used on screen, Peter Dinklage could play Cyborg, so what makes this physical transformation necessary?

You may be thinking (hypothetical devil's advocate that you are): So what's the big deal? Zack Snyder is a fitness buff who believes in literally transforming actors into their comic book counterparts. If that means making everybody look like they just got back from a sabbatical in Eternia, that's just the price of making a movie that is a real life comic book, right?

That's where I think it's interesting to note the character who didn't have to go to He-Man boot camp: Lex Luthor. Like most comic book characters, regardless of their origin or purpose, Lex spent a lot of time parading through the comics in a spandex jumpsuit that required a certain amount of muscle (and self confidence) to wear.

Both of which apparently allowed him to survive getting punched in the face by Superman.
There have been a lot of versions of Lex throughout the years, but he's usually portrayed as being physically fit for a human being.

Even in the old Super Friends cartoon, Lex is a muscleman in purple spandex who just happens to be the evil genius inventor of... whatever the hell this thing is:

"Pay no attention to that thing back in the corner. In fact, let's just forget you ever saw that, okay?"

But not Zack Snyder's Luthor. His Luthor is the least muscular incarnation of the character ever. Jesse Eisenberg is a great pick to play Lex Luthor, if you're not trying to literally transcribe the look of the characters from the comics to the screen. But isn't that exactly what Snyder is trying to accomplish? Isn't that why he saw Henry Cavill as shown below and thought he needed a lot more work if he were going to be believable as Superman?

Sure, he's handsome and all, but he could stand to work out a little...
In a production where Snyder felt we needed an Aquaman who could beat up the Hulk and a Batman trained by a guy who trains actual Navy SEALs, he clearly went the other way when it came to the main villain. Suddenly it's ridiculous to transfer the comic book character physique to the screen, but what's the difference? Why is it necessary that everyone on the right side of the argument has to look like this...

... while the only villain in the movie who isn't a henchman or a cartoon cave troll should look like this?

In his defense, he's more of a cardio guy than a weightlifter

The difference is where it all breaks down, I think, based on a few basic assumptions I'm making that aren't overtly stated by anybody. Luthor is the bad guy. Eisenberg doesn't need the spiritual awakening of excruciating exercise that Snyder thinks is a necessary rite of passage for his heroes. Luthor can't be a model of physical perfection because that model is held as sacrosanct in its embodiment of everything heroic. So instead of GYM JONESing into a transliteration of his comic book counterpart, Jesse Eisenberg's Luthor is a whiny little nerd whose main mission is to make life miserable for the world's finest superjocks.

You might argue that Luthor has had many incarnations, not all of which were classic muscle men, just as you may argue that Luthor doesn't have to be physically strong because he is defined not by his strength but by his intellect.

To that I offer two points for your consideration. First, is the conflict between heroes and villains simply a contest of brains versus brawn? It may appear that way in Superman's case, but is that really the interpretation we want to land on in how we portray them? Superman is good and dumb while Luthor is smart and mean? Doesn't that decompose the concept into a presumption that intelligence is tantamount to wickedness? And in the case of Snyder's films, where the emphasis leans so heavily toward the physical aspect of the heroes, doesn't that suggest that those who are physically fit are also somehow morally superior? That's the ultimate expression of "might makes right".

My second point is that Luthor is not particularly smart in the film. He has a lot of convoluted plans that are supposedly smart but only work because Superman and Batman are too dumbfoundedly obsessed with each other to notice them. He doesn't really do or say anything smart in the movie; he's just a sniggering little sociopath with daddy issues so profound that they stand out even in a movie where everybody is twisted up in a state of emotional paralysis over parental loss.

It would be a fair argument to note that Lex Luthor has never been portrayed in the films as a muscled-up strongman. But that doesn't carry much weight considering the fact that Zack Snyder doesn't exhibit any desire to make his Superman movies anything like their predecessors. In fact, he seems baffled at the public's nostalgia for them. In a 2014 interview with Mark Hughes for Forbes, Snyder expressed how confusing it was to him that fans still clung to the Christopher Reeve interpretation of the character. He defended his portrayal of the character as being in a real world and illustrating real-world consequences to violence.

Such as, when you punch somebody through a building, the building explodes - that's just good science.

"If you really analyze the comic book version of Superman," Snyder said, "he's killed, he's done all the things...that we've shown him doing..." Snyder fully believed that audiences were offended because he made the character real and not because he chose to focus on all the darkest aspects of the comic books and call that real. In the end, Snyder's vision isn't any more realistic, it's just a lot more depressing.

But again, Snyder's concept of reality is largely based on how realistic the actors' muscles are in the film.

"How can you be depressed looking at these sick pecs, bro?"

In defense of Zack Snyder, I was and am a fan of Man of Steel. I didn't have a problem with the story, the portrayal of the character, or the violence of that film. But in BvS he cranked the "real" violence to 11 and broke off the knob when he had Superman getting nuked by the government while trying to punch Doomsday to the moon. So the argument that Snyder was shooting for realism in the action of that film is as valid as the belief that his portrayal of Lex Luthor was in any way rooted in reality either.

Snyder's cavalier attitude towards Lex is even more dramatically represented in his regard for the character he originally approached Jesse Eisenberg to play:

Bet I can guess what movie Superman is watching.

In "Batman v Superman: Jimmy Olsen appearance revealed", a 2016 article on, Anthony Breznica discusses Jimmy Olsen and Jesse Eisenberg with Zack Snyder. Snyder explains that originally he wanted to bring Jesse Eisenberg in to do a bait and switch cameo where he would come on, introduce himself as Jimmy Olsen, then get shot in the head. As Snyder put it: "...we don’t have room for Jimmy Olsen in our big pantheon of characters, but we can have fun with him, right?”

And what's more hilarious than shooting someone in the face? It really puts this comment in perspective when you realize it comes from someone who thought naming a gym after a mass murderer was a funny idea too.

After meeting with Eisenberg, Snyder was impressed with how crazy he was and decided to cast him as Lex instead. Inexplicably, he left the Jimmy Olsen sudden-death scene in the film, but cast Michael Cassidy, a talented but less prominent actor, in the role and shot him in the head instead. I guess they realized that having an actor who hadn't been part of the marketing push get killed in the first five minutes wouldn't have as much impact, except to confuse the audience, so while Cassidy still gets to get shot in the face, the introductory scene that establishes him as Jimmy Olsen was cut from the film. Even more inexplicably, it's restored in the hardcore R-rated Ultimate Cut, because failing to provide any other narrative purpose for the scene, Snyder was still bound and determined to murder Jimmy Olsen.

Seems there's no room in the "big pantheon" of heroes for anybody's sidekicks.

I'm not trying to tear the man down, really I'm not. There's nothing wrong with being a fitness buff, even if your devotion to it borders on maniacal. A person as obsessed with Superman as I am doesn't have any business casting stones at people who have a much more useful outlet for their obsession. And it's admirable that Snyder and his actors have this level of dedication to their craft. So I'm not in any way saying that being fanatical about working out is a bad thing or speaks in any way toward your character.

You have to separate the artist from the work, but I believe these attitudes speak to Snyder's state of mind as a storyteller. There's no place in the world for Jimmy Olsen in Snyder's "big pantheon of characters" because there's no place in his story for mere mortals who lack the commitment to develop a god-like physique. Every heroic aspect that Superman and Batman display in BvS is expressed through a feat of athleticism. Neither of them seem to have an ounce of emotional maturity or a clearly defined ethic. Even when they confront each other ideologically, the only thing they can think to do is have a fist fight.

And that's where I wonder if body image in general is the problem. Superman doesn't have to have muscles. He doesn't work out, his powers come from the solar radiation emanating from our yellow sun. He'd be exactly the same hero if he looked like this...

Although his power to get through doorways might be a bit compromised.

The superhero aesthetic is athletic perfection for men and sexual contortion for women. Some of the same fans who balked at Zack Snyder's approach to Superman were questioning if Gal Godot were voluptuous enough to play Wonder Woman. I have to admit that when I first heard that Zack Snyder wanted to give Superman a villain he could go toe-to-toe with in Man of Steel I was on board, because I was sick of seeing Superman get outwitted by Lex Luthor in real estate scams that required a horrific amount of mass destruction. I loved Watchmen and I think Zack Snyder is a great director, so maybe this GYM JONES business has just been building to a head until it just reached a critical mass in Batman v Superman. Maybe giving Snyder free rein to craft an entire superhero cinematic universe was overestimating his creative vision. Cinematic Universes are a relatively new idea and so far the only people getting them right are the folks at Disney. And believe me, there is no single creative force driving the Marvel Cinematic Universe or the ever-expanding STAR WARS franchise. It takes a lot of planning and collaboration to create something of that magnitude, and DC's just gotten off to a bad start.

I can't even blame Zack Snyder exclusively for BvS or the DCEU, because Warner Brothers isn't exactly giving its directors free rein. They've wanted to do a Batman vs. Superman movie since 2001, so if that's a terrible idea for a movie (which I think it is), it's not Zack Snyder's terrible idea. Warner Brothers doesn't have a creative mechanism in place to drive the effort required to build a cinematic universe, but they have no problem stepping in and re-imagining a director's work halfway through the production. In that environment, you can see how easy it would be for otherwise good ideas to get lost in translation.

Even so, a lot of the ideas that are constraining the DCEU into being a showcase for strongman competitions instead of the modern mythology that Zack Snyder thinks he's creating are coming directly from him.

This may sound harsh, especially because I think all the actors he's brought together for these movies are amazing, but Zack Snyder is becoming more concerned with how they fit into their costumes than how they fit into their roles. He's got a great eye for talent. Henry Cavill is a perfect Superman and you couldn't ask for a better Batman than Ben Affleck. Gal Gadot is awesome and Wonder Woman looks like it's going to be a much-needed breakthrough for the DCEU. From what I've seen of Ezra Miller's Flash, he's on point in that role. And as much as I cringe at the new Justice League teaser because it looks like a drab video game, I'm super excited to see Jason Mamoa as Aquaman.

But you have to give these guys something more to do. We see the posters, we get it, these guys are more shredded than Steve Buscemi going through a wood chipper. But what is their purpose? What are they trying to do? Extreme workouts may be a spiritual experience for Zack Snyder, but that doesn't mean all Ben Affleck needs to do is 9000 power-squats to wrap his head around the complexities of Batman's pathology. And just because everybody looks the part, that doesn't mean the movie's going to write itself.

Sculpting the cast into supermen without giving them a decent script or motivation is wasted energy. That's not a matter of the creative vision getting lost in translation. That's a failure to properly articulate it in the first place.