Here are two objective and related truths about the new Baywatch movie: (1) It is bad; and (2) Zac Efron is too swole.
I’ll leave it to New York’s David Edelstein to tackle the first statement in his review, but as for the second, I feel qualified enough to tell you that as Olympic gold medalist swimmer turned lifeguard Matt Brody, Zac Efron’s body displays a muscularity I can only describe as “deeply uncomfortable.” The actor told Men’s Fitness that he wanted to “drop the last bit of body fat” for Baywatch and he seems to have meant that literally. There’s a scene where Efron does an American Ninja Warrior–style course and you see muscles you never knew existed. (How doing a salmon ladder is a requirement for becoming a lifeguard, I do not know.) His muscles look like they have bred with each other and given birth to little baby muscles. He has those ridges underneath his ribs that look like fine pebbled leather, and gutters so deep they could channel a major waterway. His 23 different abs give new meaning to the phrase “between a rock and a hard place.”
This is to say, in part, that Zac Efron does not look like a swimmer. His action-figure physique is much bulkier than you’d see at an Olympic pool, where the musclemen look sleek—like beautiful dolphins. To further strain credulity, his character does plenty of things that someone with Efron’s body would literally never do, like eat junk food and guzzle liquor with abandon. (Those of us who have read Joe Manganiello’s book know that alcohol is “the destroyer.”)
This is not Zac Efron’s fault: The past few years have seen our male stars’ physiques inflate at a level unmatched by anything but college tuition. (Though in Efron’s case, I suspect that there’s an inner demon driving him more than exacting industry standards.) It’s hard to pinpoint when exactly this started, but my mind jumps to the early 2000s, when Tobey Maguire flashed a blink-and-you-miss-them set of abs in Spider-Man, and Will Smith’s chest looked appropriately puffy in Ali. Later, we watched in awe as Gerard Butler screamed “Sparta!” with abs that inspired Dionysian glee, and Taylor Lautner blew up his body in the manner of a figurative (but sadly, not literal) Stretch Armstrong. But what began as a charming summertime diversion has become a full-blown epidemic in the new decade, as superhero franchises engage in a literal arms race, with actors pushing their bodies beyond their natural proportions.
Muscles have become a requirement to lead a movie franchise, and more than ever there’s an entire cottage industry of physical trainers and nutritionists (as well as supplements, steroids, and hormones) designed to help actors and their body doubles “get into superhero shape.” We noted the trend back in the summer of 2014, when Chris Pratt unveiled his very un-Andy Dwyer body in Guardians of the Galaxy, but the significant moment came almost two years prior, when Pratt snapped an underwear selfie of his new body after shooting Zero Dark Thirty. The actor had lost out on roles for films like G.I. Joe because he was “out of shape,” but after getting superhero swole, Pratt was able to vault onto the A-list, joining Chris Hemsworth and Chris Evans in the elite group of famous men who have fantastical bodies and also all happen to be named Chris. (The fourth and arguably best Chris, Pine, has embraced a more realistically athletic look for his own shirtless scenes.) The Chrises stood proudly alongside Henry Cavill in Man of Steel and Hugh Jackman in X-Men Days of Future Past, who evolved from the fit and furry Wolverine into a veined and leathery one over a decade later. Now there’s an “anyone can do it” quality to getting swole, with Michael B. Jordan bulking up for Creed, John Krasinski reinventing himself for 13 Hours, and Paul Rudd getting cut for Ant-Man. In the only instance of an effective trickle-down economy, muscles today are ubiquitous to the point of pointlessness: Why does Ben Stiller have abs? Does Kevin Hart need to be so jacked? Does the depressed, alcoholic small-town police chief on The Leftovers need an eight-pack?
It’s hard to see this trend slowing down in the immediate future, not with more superhero movies on the assembly line and already talk of another Baywatch sequel. Besides, the contemporary rush toward onscreen swollness is only mirroring what’s happening in the real world, where a number of very American preoccupations—the idea that “more is better,” the fetishization of self-reliance, the ascendance of social media—have come together to create a generation of protein-chugging fitness buffs. Hot male bodies proliferate across Twitter in ways their female counterparts can’t, and they act as avatars for all sorts of feelings the internet loves, like pride, humor, political solidarity, and horniness. For people of color, there’s another valence, an aspect of empowerment that says, We can do it, too. It feels simpler, easier, and less problematic to ogle a GIF of Michael B. Jordan or a photo of Aziz Ansari’s formerly chubby cousin Harris instead of a woman. It’s as though the lesson we learned from feminism was to apply similarly rigorous body standards to men instead of examining why we applied them to women in the first place. Everybody loses!
In 2011’s Crazy Stupid Love, Emma Stone’s character said that Ryan Gosling’s body looked like it had been “photoshopped.” The joke seems practically quaint now; Gosling’s toned and tan body looks like just another Instagram thirst trap. Stars like Zac Efron and Hugh Jackman have simply been forced to go even further to separate themselves from the pack, to the point where their bodies look truly unreal. We’ve entered a reverse uncanny valley where the real looks unreal: Flesh and blood human celebrities now sport the vein-popping, skintight muscles comic-book artists could once only conjure in their imaginations. It’s as though the moment you thought that you could do it too, Hollywood moved the goalpost further away. Trying to keep up with the superheroes and the Chrises who play them is like running for the horizon: You can always do a little bit extra, be better than the next guy. But where does it end? Does the muscle bubble pop? I’m worried about the effect Hugh Jackman’s vascularity has on the Scruff community. I’m worried that the Hollywood Chrises are just one scoop of protein powder away from total renal failure. But most of all, I’m worried about Zac Efron, you guys.