In the past, superhero films often chose the biggest, buffest guy possible to play the hero — think Shaquille O’Neal as “Steel.” Today’s films choose a great actor first — think Robert Downey Jr. as “Iron Man” — and then get him in incredible shape.
That has led to many older onscreen heroes, since an actor may be in his 40s before he has the star power to be a convincing icon. And the maturity that comes with age has helped forge a new perceived physical ideal.
“I think that the type of training has changed dramatically from bodybuilding to a more athletic build focusing more on health and longevity,” said trainer Jason Walsh, owner of L.A.’s Rise Nation, who helped Bradley Cooper add 40 pounds for “American Sniper” and helped Matt Damon shape up for “Jason Bourne.”
“There’s better science and better methodologies, which leads to better/different mindsets and ultimately better bodies,” Walsh told TheWrap.
The twenty-plus inch biceps of past movie stars have given way to leaner, ripped and toned bodies — a look people in the fitness world refer to as aesthetic.
The word “aesthetic” is defined as being concerned with beauty or the appreciation of beauty. In the fitness world, the word describes a physique with six-pack abs, round developed shoulders, strong quads and glutes — all in perfect symmetry and proportion. (It’s a concept well-explained on sites like aestheticworld.com.)
“The recent influx of superhero movies has brought about a need to help the actors create a ‘larger than life’ impression on film. Many have succeeded, regardless of age,” said Walter Norton Jr., the owner of Institute of Performance & Fitness, who trained Ben Affleck for ‘Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.”
“Remarkably, at our gym, we see many top performers in the 45 to 52 age group,” he added. “They have years of training under their belt, they have improved their habits regarding nutrition and recovery, and they are organized. The last part may be the key, as no one, regardless of age, genetics, etc., is successful without structure. Being organized and having your life together goes a long way into being able to train three to five times per week and still maintain balance with family, work, relationships, etc.”
Ask any fitness enthusiast who is the most aesthetic actor in superhero movies today, and the answer is almost always Hugh Jackman. The 47-year-old will return next year to playing Wolverine onscreen.
“Hugh Jackman, in particular, has been in-shape, on-screen, more than anyone in recent memory. His dedication, preparation, and continual re-imaging of his body — from big to leaner and more vascular — has set the new standard for comic book movies,” said Norton.
Ben Affleck, aged 44, was determined to live up to that standard — and bring not just aesthetics but also size to his “Batman.”
“Ben was asked to be the biggest Batman yet, and at 6’4″, 228 pounds, he met the challenge,” Norton said. “What you saw on-screen was the culmination of over 21 months of workouts, diet, sleep, and organization. [Nutritionist] Rehan Jalali and I crafted his plan, and he followed it with incredible enthusiasm and consistency for almost two years. That is really the key to health and fitness success: staying focused over time with great effort and consistency.”
Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, also 44, is also known for combining aesthetics and size. But it doesn’t come easy.
“I start working out pretty early, around 4 a.m. When I’m filming, I do cardio and I lift before going to set. I train about six days a week, and even when I’m not filming I get up between 3 and 5 a.m. just to train. I love training when the sun is coming up because it allows me to put on my headphones and step off the crazy treadmill that is everyone’s life,” the actor told bodybuilding.com
Downey was 42 when he first took on the role of Tony Stark in the first “Iron Man” film. The actor packed on 25 pounds of lean muscle mass to a skinny 150-pound frame, and looked terrific in a tanktop during scenes when Stark built the Mark One armor inside the cave.
Matt Damon was 44 when he returned to his signature role as rogue spy “Jason Bourne.” Producer Frank Marshall tweeted a pic of a shirtless Damon in incredible condition from the first day of shooting. “First day of principal photography complete and happy to report, BOURNE is back! #Bourne2016,” he captioned the photo.
But getting an aesthetic physique, especially in your forties, is no easy feat.
“For my clients, we focus on building a great foundation with movement and strength so that we can clean up any possible issues that may lead to dysfunction and pain. From there, the aesthetics are usually a byproduct. We can fine-tune before the camera rolls,” said Walsh.
The aesthetic look has caught on with the wider population, thanks to the success and influence of superhero films. And today’s actors were likely inspired by the muscleman actors of the past.
“I love that people can draw inspiration — as I do — from Affleck’s transformation, Jackman’s dedication, Cruise’s commitment, and Damon’s Bourne re-emerging leaner than ever. Most of those guys probably had an Arnold poster or picture on their walls when they were kids at some point. Now, they are spawning the same behavior with their efforts on film. The more physical role models, the better,” says Norton.