A friend of mine recently discussed the new Green Lantern trailer. Sure he was enthused about the movie, the effects, the scope, but he was also enthused about Ryan Reynolds. The enthusiasm my friend felt for Ryan Reynolds was an admixture; he felt Reynolds was both charming and looked great in his underwear. My friend is not the only person to comment on a level of sex appeal in the Green Lantern Trailer, leaving me to the conclusions that this is both intentional and that Mr. Reynolds is someone who will make more of us feel inadequate in our underwear in the years to come.
Of Course Mr. Reynolds and his briefs aren't the only example of superhero filmdom having eye candy. Chris Helmsworth's Thor is straight out of a romance novel cover, with blond locks and bulging muscles and plenty of physicality. I think we're entering an age of sexed-up superheroes judging by two films that seem to be happily aiming at sex appeal for straight women and gay men (and of course bisexuals).
So it appears biceps, bulges, and backsides may be making more of an appearance in our comic-book/superhero movies. I'm sure if these films are successful, and I have no reason to think they won't, we'll see even more attempts to add attractive and appealing male characters and actors to the mix. In turn, I'm sure that will only produce controversy over the mix of sex and superheroes – accusations of pandering, or crass marketing, and so on.
It may well be get to that in the real of superhero films – fanservice of the male variety could take off among the gods and power rings and capes. However crass marketing or not, pandering or not, I believe sex appeal and superheroes mix. In fact, I think the inclusion of sex appeal for all preferences is entirely legitimate (if not necessary or always done tastefully) in superhero media, which I shall explore shortly.
If these areas are legitimate expressions of putting in sex appeal (let us not crudely call it pandering), then it's a legitimate concern for those of us in media professions. To understand what is appropriate and not, and what is marketable and not, helps us make and understand the relevant decisions in media careers. If we work or may work in comic properties, or want to understand them, then we need to understand how handsome and hero, sirens and super heroines, go together.
First off, lets be honest – sex sells. It's not illegitimate in any way to add some titillation to a media property, people have been doing it for years. Such actions do not make the property illegitimate at all; it may be a choice of an artist or an actor or a style that doesn't compromise the material. If you think sex doesn't sell, you haven't been in a bookstore lately.
Secondly, sex may sell, but this is also entirely understandable in the comics and superheroic genre. The comic/hero genre is rife with a attractive people in assorted exotic outfits and has been for some time. Standards of modesty have changed, but femme fatales and muscular men of actions have been in comics for decades. Historically, the use of attractive characters in comics is not illegitimate and has been quite common.
Third, the use of attractive people in comics and superheroic stories are part of the larger truth that comics are a visual medium. Blasts and beams, bedroom eyes and beefcake, speed lines and sound effects, all are part of the intense visual nature of comics. This visual nature extends, of course, to character design as noted. Visual media require visual stimuli, and that may involve getting people whose physical forms are also visually appealing.
Fourth and finally, though attractive and fascinating visuals have been part of comics, so has romance and sex itself. Superhero comics especially being combinations of all genres, have had romantic elements going back to when Lois Lane and Clark Kent made the first two-person love triangle. It's been part of Batman's disturbing chemistry with Catwoman, it was in the New Gods when Darkseid's heart softened for Suli and then hardened forever at her death. Romance and, yes, sexuality, are part of comics – even if in the past often done with taste and within code.
Sex appeal in superhero movies? That's just carrying on a comics tradition that also happens to get people into theaters. It can perhaps be overdone, but its existence itself isn't illegitimate at all.
Legitimate or not, this could get overdone – which is something I fear is possible. Much as comics themselves have had ridiculous fanservice at times, I can see superhero films learning the wrong message and overdoing "attractive casting." That, like any excess, kills the fun and makes the experience all about the marketing – as opposed to the legitimate if marketable elements.
Until then, let us enjoy the attractive in the superheroic. If the Ant-Man film ends up about an angsty emo entomologist who goes shirtless a lot, and Namor's film ends up with him in even tinier swim trunks, then we can panic. Until then, let's let Ryan Reyonolds have his underwear and Hemlsworth flex away – they're just carrying on a tradition.