The Cost Of Becoming A Superhero

Why the 5,000-calorie diets and punishing workout routines actors go through to transform into a comic book hero could be more harmful than Kryptonite.

Hugh Jackman in  The Wolverine  Ben Rothstein / 20th Century Fox

Hugh Jackman in The Wolverine Ben Rothstein / 20th Century Fox

In the opening moments of The Wolverine, a shirtless Hugh Jackman as the title mutant hero saves the life of a Japanese solider just as the A-bomb is dropped over Nagasaki. Thick veins pop on Jackman’s massive arms and shoulders as he holds down the metal shield protecting the soldier underneath and his body withstands the terrible heat of the nuclear blast. When the solider finally emerges, he stands in horrified awe as the Wolverine’s super-crispy body slowly heals itself back into its perfect, imposing shape. You can almost see him thinking, “My god, who is this man? And how did he get such enormous shoulders?”

For decades, superheroes lived almost exclusively on the page, their bodies limited only by the imaginations of the artists drawing them. Today, however, a small stable of actors are working mightily to mold their bodies to live up to their respective characters’ superhero physiques. In turn, many fans have obsessivelydissected those actors’ grueling workout routines and absurd 5,000-calorie-or-more diets with a breathlessness rarely devoted to their actual performances on screen. We gape in awe not only at the fictional feats of Superman, Batman, and the Wolverine, but at the seemingly superhuman efforts to physically become those characters in the first place.

But rarely do we ask: at what cost?

As pedantic as it may seem to say, these actors aren’t superheroes. “When actors come to me,” says Los Angeles personal trainer Mark Wildman, “most are essentially theater nerds. They’re not athletes.” Wildman specializes in preparing actors so they can just begin the punishing week-long training regimens they may have to undergo if they’re cast in physically demanding roles. Because should an actor land the part of a muscular stud with ripped abs, sinewy tree-trunk legs, and arms the size of a small child, the process of getting that body is fraught with real risks to both that actor’s short- and long-term health.

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