These days, it’s not even close. According to the search traffic, people are Googling ‘Henry Cavill workout plan’ something like 14,800 times a month – compared with a paltry 2,900 or so looking for similar phrasing around Brad Pitt. Stick the W-word next to ‘Man Of Steel’ and ‘Fight Club’ and it’s a similar story. When you get down to Superman vs Tyler Durden? Well, that’s not even a fair fight. Whatever you think about their relative cinematic merits, the evidence is in – more people want Kal-El’s abs than (spoilers!) a photogenic-but-imaginary anarchist’s. But what does this mean?
Dozens of cultural commentators think they can tell you. They think it means that the body standards that plague women have finally caught up with men, or that images of sportsmen are being hypersexualised by advertisers and the media. Mark Simpson, who’s presumably looking to recapture the brief it-commentator status he enjoyed when he came up with the word ‘metrosexual’, has decided to dub whatever’s happening as the much-less-catchy ‘spornosexuality’. Everyone else is moaning about pressures on young men, calling it vanity, thinking it’s about being jacked, or pumped, or whatever. And almost nobody is getting it.
Here’s the thing: you can’t compare Tyler Durden’s abs to Superman’s. Pitt, yes, looks pretty good in Fight Club – especially in that one shot you’re picturing right now, where he’s angled like a model with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth, abs glinting in the light – but he’d probably be the first to tell you that look isn’t sustainable. He’s supposed to be the aspirational embodiment of Jack’s confused fin-de-siecle masculinity – it’s not a coincidence that Norton sneers ‘is that what a man’s supposed to look like?’ at a Calvin Klein model that looks almost exactly the same as shirtless Durden. Because Pitt, at his ab-tastic best, probably weighed 160lbs at 5’11. Yes, his arms are big, but otherwise that’s near-malnourished. He probably trained quite a lot, and he certainly dieted hard, but – look at it again if you like – he’s not really in enviable physical shape.
You cannot say the same of Cavill as Superman. During training, he went from a 300lb deadlift to 435. He could push-press 245, and front squat 305 for four. Those are good numbers, but they’re not insane. That’s basically a big, strong dude who’s now more physically capable, less at risk of osteoperosis, Alzheimer’s, and a whole host of cardiovascular diseases. Maybe just as importantly, it’s also a man who knows what it’s like to feel superhuman.
Gym Jones founder Mark Twight, the man who trained Cavill, understands this better than almost anyone. ‘Fitness is strength and conditioning, but also strength of character,’ he notes in one interview. ‘Cheating and shortcuts produce visible insecurity. Genuine accomplishment looks and feels different. It cannot be faked. By doing physically difficult things, by changing his body of his own will, Henry changed his attitude and his bearing. He looked huge. He walked huge. His attitude broadcast his physical capability.’
This is not something you can say of every guy who does hundreds of flyes and curls and gets gym-jacked, without ever doing anything really hard – as hard, say, as grinding out 10 sets of 10 with a 225 front squat, or deadlifting so much you feel like your face might explode, or cranking on a rowing machine when you genuinely think you might faint. Just eating less for a few weeks isn’t going to give you the confidence or carriage you get from believing in your own physical capacity. When you look at it like this, Cavill has less in common with most gym-bros than with, say, Robert Mitchum – the one-time bare-knuckle boxer and railroad worker who always looks like he could throw you through a wall. This, though, is difficult to explain to online columnists who’ve never done a double-bodyweight deadlift.
So here’s the simple version: not all ‘transformations’ are created equal, just like not all of them are sustainable or healthy. It’s relatively easy to get in what passes for ‘shape’, but much harder to develop the physical capacity that will actually change your own ideas about what you’re capable of. And while some people are probably feeling the pressure of modern society, or trying to get jacked, being ‘spornolized’ (whatever the hell that means), it’s not really cool to lump them all together, because some people are just trying to get better. And Tyler Durden is cool, but he’s no Superman.