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How Evolution Has Shaped the Superhero Physique

New research suggests our fascination with these comic books and movies is based, in part, on the exaggerated sex appeal of their characters.
Chris Evans as Captain America

Superheroes like Captain America tend to have very muscular upper bodies.

Look! Up in the sky! It's a bird! It's a plane! It's a ... Dorito?

That was the impression of a lot of fans watching Chris Evans play Captain America in the recent Avengers film franchise. To them, the actor's shoulder-to-waist ratio (very wide shoulders, tiny waist) resembled one of the triangular snack chips.

That may have been a humorous exaggeration, but new research suggests it's not as far off the mark as you might think.

An examination of comic-book superheroes found males indeed have absurd shoulder-to-waist ratios. More troublingly, perhaps, their female counterparts are "uniformly thin and hyperfeminine, with waist-to-hip ratios smaller than the most sought-after porn actresses."

This gives them something in common with Disney princesses, who, according to a study released earlier this year, have "extremely small waist-to-hip ratios that are nearly impossible to achieve naturally."

Idea for crossover feature: Belle and Batgirl battle body image issues.

In the journal Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences, Rebecca Burch and Laura Johnsen look at the size and shape of superheroes through an evolutionary lens. Essentially, they argue that one source of these stories' enormous appeal is the fact that the heroes and heroines are visually portrayed in ways that intensify and exaggerate their sex appeal.

They analyzed the features and computed the body-mass index of 3,752 Marvel comic book characters, and found their figures "can be thought of as supernormal stimuli: Exaggerations of what humans have long found attractive."

Male superheroes were usually endowed with "extreme upper-body muscularity, with male shoulder-to-waist ratios far above human limits," they write. For these characters, on average, "[h]eight exceeded shoulder by less than an inch," they write. "Comic book men were almost as wide at the shoulders as they were tall."

"This is in stark contrast to low-weight female superhero bodies, (which have) far lower waist-to-hip ratio than average humans," the researchers add.

Another interesting factoid: They found a startling 90 percent of the female characters wore heels, which presumably would not be the optimum footwear for chasing villains.

"The irony of this is these are imaginary women, and can be drawn with accentuated hip and buttock curvature without wearing heels," the researchers note. "Still, artists draw them in this way."

They also note that there's more variety in male characters' body shapes, pointing out that there is only one unattractive female Marvel character who isn't a monster or alien: Callisto. (Interestingly, when she was given a more heroic storyline, "her depiction was more attractive," and her waist-to-hip ratio decreased.)

By necessity, these exaggerated figures are somewhat modified for the film versions of these characters, in which they are played by actual actors. While costuming and special effects are used to create faux muscles for men, the researchers note that actors like Christ Pratt, Tom Hiddleston, or Aaron Taylor "did not reach the minimum shoulder-to-waist ratio in the comic-book sample."

Nevertheless, these findings help explain the unconscious and unacknowledged appeal of these very popular characters, who represent exaggerated version of the male and female forms. Thanks to mating preferences that have evolved over millions of year, "readers are drawn to these depictions even when they are physically impossible."

Face it: What gets your heart racing isn't so much the Incredible Hulk as it is those incredible hunks.