Research Prososal

The Influence of Superhero Movies’ Protagonists on Male Body Image

Tran Cao, St. Norbert College


Most of the popular superheroes, like Superman and Captain America, are portrayed as the extreme of the male body: muscular, well-defined, and tall, which are unattainable for most men. This research attempt to look for the causal relationship between exposure to unrealistic superhero body on the media and men’s negative body image via studying the participants’ level of body satisfaction, body esteem, and self-esteem. Another factor that we want to discover is the moderation effect of social comparison by measuring the perceived physical similarity between the participants and the superhero in the text. The participants for this experiment is 90 male college students with diverse background and randomly selected from three experimental groups to watch three videos of non-muscular, muscular, and control (non-) appearance superhero protagonist. This is a current and important topic that is needed to discover and understand.

Keywords: Body image, body esteem, body satisfaction, self-esteem, superheroes  


One of the signature features of the American cinematic experience is superhero movies. Blockbuster superhero movies, such as Iron Man 3 and Marvel’s The Avengers, have dominated the box office and won over moviegoers. According to the current worldwide box office, more than twenty superhero movies are in the list of highest grossing movies all time, including Marvel’s The Avengers (rank 5) and Age of Ultron (rank 7) (“All Time Worldwide Box Office Grosses,” 2017). The huge financial success of superhero cinematic genre has inspired film-makers and studios to produce more movies and even build a whole cinematic empire behind these superheroes. There are more and more superhero movies being released every year including those of the popular Marvel cinematic universe, which has three movies a year and a five-year agenda for the entire business of film-making. Understanding the influence of superhero movies on men is an important and urgent topic, especially at the peak of superhero era, as these men can be negatively affected by the unrealistic body images displayed on the screen that can potentially cause physical, psychological, and behavioral damages.

Review of Literature

Unrealistic physical representation is one of the most controversial topics in mass media studies. Bartlett et al.’s meta-analyses (2008) suggests negative effects on male body image, such as lower self-esteem, body satisfaction, and body-esteem, through exposure to the hyper-idealized body images on the mass media (Barlett, Vowels, & Saucier). My research discusses and analyzes the influences of the rise of superhero protagonists’ body image on young males. In the literature review, we will look at the ideal male body, trends in superhero movies, previous research about similar topics, and scholarly framework that examines the reason for detrimental body images.

The Ideal Male Body

Even though most of the research about body image and the influence of the media has been about women, there has been an increasing interest in the problem with male body dysphoria. The portrayal of an ideal male body in the media has been increasingly muscular and lean (Pope, Phillips, & Olivardia, 2000; Pope, Olivardia, Gruber, & Borowiecki, 1999). They need to be slim, mesomorphic, and handsome along with an ideal height, well-defined muscles, and a classic V-shaped torso- wide shoulders and back, but narrow waist and hips (Fawkner, & Mcmurray, 2002). This is the popular portrayal of ideal male physique across American media. One of the best evidence is shirtless muscular male models in well-known magazines like Men’s Health magazines. Sometimes, there are movie characters written solely for the sex appeal using a similar shirtless theme, such as Taylor Lautner in The Twilight Saga. These hyper-idealized standards are almost impossible to accomplish for the majority of men and worsen the problem of media representations and male body image: increase in muscularity leads to a negative self-image. Superhero movies are presenting the similar trends and standards of men’s appearances like on other media.

Superhero Movies Protagonists

For decades, superhuman comics, TV series, and movies with inspiring characters like Thor, Captain America, and Superman have been in the hearts of youth around the world. The rise of superheroes movies in 2008 opened a whole new era that excites the fan-boys and girls of comic-book movies, but also new unfamiliar viewers (Roblou, 2012). In addition, the movies introduce and reinforces the popular ideal male images like Chris Hemsworth in Thor and Chris Evans in Captain America. The ideal superhero resonates with benevolence, masculinity, and strength, which are mostly conveyed by visualization of their bodies.

Diving back to the classic comic superheroes, their bodies and external delineation have always been the signifier for strength and masculinity. Not only for male but also for female superheroes, muscles and well-built physiques are the norms because they are the vehicles that are always ready to carry out their superhero’s missions (Roblou, 2012). Hence, superhero’s bodies and other external factors become a significant part of their unique identities.

In the current superheroes landscape, a “super body” is a required qualification for greatness. If a man is not physically appealing, he cannot be “super”. For instance, Robert Bruce Banner becomes a superhero when he transforms into a giant, muscular, and invulnerable Hulk (Hurd, 2008). Steve Rogers in Captain America was humiliated because of his skinny physique until he was ejected with the serum enhancing his human ability as well as the level of muscularity (Feige, 2011). Their physiques are also similar to the “perfect man” with the renown V-shape, no-fat, and well-defined muscles.

Like mentioned above, these features are almost unattainable for regular men, unless they are professional body-builders, models, or actors. It takes an enormous amount of time and commitments. According to Hugh Jackman from Wolverine, it takes hours of training every day and strict diet to stay in shape to play the role of a superhero, and starting from scratch is extremely difficult (Fell, 2014).  

Most of us are familiar with the image of muscular and well-defined superheroes throughout the years. They are associated with strength, power, and masculinity. Yet the desirable and almost unachievable standards can negatively affect the male viewers when they compare themselves to the images.

Social Comparison Theory

Social comparison theory is a possible explanation for the negative self-image effect of idealized male representation on the media. In 1954, Leon Festinger set down the first stone for social comparison theory by his observation of people’s behaviors and self-evaluation relative to other’s achievements (Festinger, 1954). Social comparison theory states that humans engage in the cognitive process of individuals’ self-assessment, evaluating their opinions, beliefs, and capacities (Wood, 1996) in order to assess their true evaluation and self-enhancement (Suls, & Ladd, 2012). While the upward comparison is when individuals compare themselves with someone perceived as better than them, a downward comparison is when individuals compare themselves with someone perceived as worse than them. Moreover, the effect needs to consider the perceived similarity or difference between the individuals and the affluent figures. For instance, if they do an upward comparison and see the similarity between them and the affluent figure, they will be inspired to become better. Albeit, if there is an upward comparison with contrastive features, the individual can experience negative moods like envy, depression, and anxiety. This is going to be the effect that we expect to examine in this study observing and analyzing men’s thoughts and emotions after being exposed to the idealized images.

The theory is often used in studying the media’s effects and body image issues. Hargreaves and Tiggemann (2009) found that the more muscular appearance of male actors on tv commercials was, the greater upward comparison men make between them and the representations (Hargreaves, & Tiggemann, 2009). Additionally, there is an inverse proportional relationship between social comparison amount and adolescent’s self-esteem and body image (Morison, Kalin, & Morrison, 2004).

Negative Self-Image

Researchers suggest self-image is the way a person feels and thinks about their body which influences their body-esteem (how people feel about their bodies), self-esteem (how individuals evaluate themselves as a whole), and body satisfaction (how they think about their bodies) (Bartlett, Harris, Smith, & Bonds-Raacke, 2005). Evaluating the effects of the ideal male image, we have found that exposure to the popular images on magazines and commercials can increase body dissatisfaction (Hargreaves, & Tiggemann, 2009), and relates to the significant decrease in individual’s body esteem (Bartlett et. al, 2005).

In addition, negative self-image and body dissatisfaction can lead to severe physical, psychological, and behavioral responses. For instance, body dissatisfaction caused by the idealized body is indirectly responsible for muscle dysmorphia (Leit, Gray, & Pope, 2002), increases in depression and negative moods (Agliata, & Tantleff-Dunn, 2004; Hargreaves, & Tiggemann, 2009), and steroid and prescription abuse (Baker, Graham, & Davies, 2006) among men. According to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, there is an increase of 28% in male patients in all cosmetic surgery procedure from 2000 to 2016 including the increase of 567% in buttock lift and 363% in lower body lift procedure (American Society of Plastic Surgeons, 2016) to achieve a toner and trimmer idealized body type. The relationship between men’s negative self-image and the media’s representation are also summarized by Bartlett et. al’s meta-analyses with strong evidence from both correlational and experimental research (Bartlett et. al, 2008).

Superhero’s Effects

In the Golden Age of comic superheroes, they are created as a powerful masculine inspiration for boys and men in the mid-20th century in the midst of the Great Depression (Roblou, 2012). Superman and Captain America are the most famous ones that still live at the present in current superhero eras. They are the most iconic superheroes for embodying all the characteristics of a perfect superhuman mentioned above. Also, they both are depicted with the superhuman strength and incredible super bodies.

Masculinity and the ideal male body is socially constructed and influenced heavily by the media (Boni, 2002). Moreover, adolescents and young men tend to be influenced by media images more easily (Peixotolabre, 2002). Superhero movies target young men and adolescents, so many boys are growing up watching superheroes. Hence, superheroes portrayals in the current cinematic landscape can be the current ideal representations of how to be a man for the man-to-be.

Additionally, Young and Hollar found that the more muscular a superhero is, the lower self-esteem the viewer has, regardless of parasocial relationship status, by measuring the participants’ moods, thoughts, and strength after exposing to the non-muscular or muscular images (2013). Taking the increasing muscularity trend of the media’s representation of men (Pope, Olivardia, Gruber, & Borowiecki, 1999) into account, it can contribute and magnify the effect of men’s body image problem.

Hypotheses and Research Questions

The current study will focus on the negative body image effects that superhero movie can impose on the average men such as testing body satisfaction, body-esteem, and self-esteem. According to Bartlett, the meta-analyses suggest a stronger effect on college-aged men than adolescents (2008). Our target participants will be randomly selected college-aged men with diverse backgrounds to increase internal reliability and the ability of generalization. There are three hypotheses and one research question that we hope to answer in this study.

The idealized image is predicted to cause the men think about their bodies as worse comparing to the figure and lower their satisfaction about how they look.

H1: Exposure to the idealized superhero figure decreases men’s body satisfaction.

This will be examined by how men feel about their body after exposure to the ideal images; for instance, they might become insecure about their body.

H2: Exposure to the idealized superhero figure decreases men’s body-esteem.

Different from hypothesis 2, the third one will be about how men evaluate themselves as a whole after the exposure. We predicted that the idealized image will cause a decrease in self-esteem like experiencing depression or anxious about themselves.

H3: Exposure to the idealized superhero figure decreases men’s self-esteem.

Lastly, as a part of social comparison theory, the theory will examine perceived similarity of the participants and the representations to find out if this is a confounding factor that can moderate the overall influence.

RQ: Does perceived similarity to the superhero moderate the overall effects?


In order to carry on my research and establish a causal relationship, an experiment is the best way to collect the data and observe the effects. This result will be inside a psychology laboratory with computers and/or television that can be used to watch movies and answer questionnaires. This setting will give the researcher more control over other unwanted interferences and maintain the reliability of the causal results.


Thanks to the findings from previous studies, I believe that college-aged men are more likely to be affected by the exposure to attractive images (Bartlett et. al, 2008). My sample will be 90 male students at the age of 18 – 25  from a large college campus selected with purposive sampling method including male individuals from different races and fields of study to increase the generalization ability of this research. By choosing such specific group in the population, I hope to rule out other confounding variables like ages and genders. Participants will also receive a five-dollar bill as the incentive for participating and completing this experiment. The small amount of cash will not skew the results or encourage other unwanted behaviors like deceiving the researcher and participate in the incentive only.

Design and Procedure

This study is a factual experiment study with a 1 x 3 (non-muscular, muscular, control) design. We divide the total sample of 90 into three smaller groups, which are non-muscular, muscular, and control experiment groups, of 30 participants of randomly selected individuals. This randomization process will help increase our internal reliability. Then, the participants will watch a non-muscular, muscular, or non-appearance (control) video of a famous superhero movie. We will release some basic pretest demographic survey along with a physical attractiveness test. Participants will first rank their physical attractiveness on a Likert scale from 1 (not attractive at all) to 10 (astronomically attractive). Next, they will be shown ten randomly distributed photos of men and women with various physical looks, including one picture of Steve Rogers before Captain America and one picture of him after becoming Captain America like in appendix 1, and asked to rank them on the same physical attractiveness scale above.

They also have to complete a post-test questionnaire about their experience including comparing themselves and the superhero image and assessing their self-image. The questions will be surrounding the topic of the participants’ body-image, body-esteem, and self-esteem after watching the video clips.


In my experiment, we choose to show videos of the movie Captain America: The First Avenger as our non-muscular and muscular videos. The movie is about the journey of Steve Rogers, who was a patriotic, benevolent, but unattractive and skinny young man. Despite his weak physicality, he volunteered to fight for his country, America, against the Nazis in the midst of World War II. He was selected to participate in an experiment for the super soldier serum, which gives him his superhuman strength and muscular body. Along with his signature red, white, and blue costume and shield, he becomes the symbol of America’s troops and the promise of a free world. He has the transformation from the extreme skinny body to extreme muscular figure that is similar to the dominant idealized male body in the media at the present with all the features that were mentioned above such as a V-shaped torso. Captain America is one of the most iconic comic book superheroes in American popular culture so most people will be familiar with him. I decided to choose one superhero movie for both non-muscular (the first part of the movie, up to the transformation) and muscular (the second part of the movie, after the experiment) groups’ experiment materials. Using only one superhero text can help me rule out some other variables like parasocial relationships between the participants and the actor.

We will also administer a non-appearance (control) video with animals and trees from to one group of participants to measure the difference between the appearance videos’ effects and participant’s pre-existing notions about body image.  


The pretest physical attractiveness survey results will be the measurement of perceived similarity according to their group of participants. For instance, if they are in the muscular group, we will be comparing their physical attractiveness level (from 1 to 10) of themselves and the muscular Steve Rogers’ image. The other nine images are served as diversions to avoid hypothesis guessing and increase the reliability.

In order to evaluate the participants’ body image after watching the videos, we will answer three different groups of questions measuring their body satisfaction, body esteem, and self-esteem. Bartlett et. al (2005) suggest the use of Adjusted Body Shape Questionnaire (α = .94) (Cooper et. al, 1987),  Male Body Image Esteem Scale (α = .91) (Markunas et al., 2003), and Self-Esteem Scale (α = .75) (Rosenberg, 1965) to measure a the three factors of body image that we have mentioned in the hypotheses (Bartlett et. al, 2005). These scales have been tested over time and believed to have validity and reliability.


After collecting the data from the experiment above, we will be using one-way independent ANOVA to analyze the results from the post-test survey and find out the correlation between exposure to idealized superhero body and negative body image in men, and hopefully establish a causal relationship between them. In addition, our research question was wondering if perceived similarity moderate or change the effect. That is why we will use the moderation model to find the role of social comparison in this relationship by analyzing the perceived similarity in physical attractiveness of participants and the experiments’ protagonist and ending the negative body image level found at the end of the experiment.


Due to the rise of superhero movies, the influence of their portrayals of an ideal man is important to understand the current body trends and men’s physical, psychological, and behavioral response to them. As the main target of these movies is young men and adolescents, we need to incorporate the findings of this research into parenting, consulting, and education.

Limitations are unavoidable in any social research, and this research has some of the common limitations as well. Firstly, because this experiment’s setting is in a lab, the reaction can be a result of artificiality and cannot be generalized in natural settings. Moreover, the research measure short-term effects, so it would not accurately predict the long-term influence of superhero movies and body image issues. However, cognitive neo associative theory predicts that repeated exposure to a certain content, which has a short-term cognitive effect, can lead to the long-term effect of the result. So, it is possible that repeated exposure to superhero’s unattainable bodies can influence men’s notion of a perfect and attractive body. The third limitation can be a small effect even though the result findings have been proven statistically significant. Regardless of the limitation, we can potentially find important effects of this popular movie genre on men’s body image. This is still an important topic needed to explore.   


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