From all comics I have read, characters from the Marvel and DC universes are shown to have a generic muscular build. Usually male characters have similar muscular structures, only to vary in size. By generic build, I mean male characters have broad shoulders, a pumped-up chest and biceps, ripped abs and so on. Also female characters have a generic physique with a slender torso, slim hands and so on.

I know there are many main characters who don't fall under this category, characters like, Quicksilver, Blob, Kingpin and so on. Some characters don't have buffed up physique because of a certain disability or condition (Charles Xavier). They all have an exceptional reason for this however.

I mean in reality, if soldiers or sports personalities are to be considered, they are strong and hyper active. But many of them don't have the same bodybuilder-perfect physique.

For example, Cyclops could use his superpowers and still be of normal physique, as he can rely on shooting eye-beams to defeat enemies. Wolverine, on the other hand needs a good physique as he has to fight using raw strength even while using claws, but not the bodybuilder-perfect physique we often see him with such as below:

wolverine looking buff

Cyclops looking buff


6 Answers 6


First, because comics are essentially wish fulfillment media, for the creator and for the audience. Starting with Superman, who was the model of wish fulfillment for Jewish boys at a dark time to be Jewish, every main character superhero is the "ideal", strong, smart, gets the girl. The ideal look changes over the decades (the EXTREME 90's and their super steroid look for example). It is escapism fantasy for their target audience.

Second, a muscular physique as most comics show, is for looks, and not for strength. Compare Mr. Universe, the body building competition (on the right), to Strongman, a strength competition (on the left):
a Strongman competitor and a bodybuilder shown side by side

A good description of the two is in this image by Kelly Turnbull of Manly Guys Doing Manly Things (see "Tutorial Thingies"):

transcription below

Form vs Function

Consider the body type you see on a Mr. Universe contestant:
These competitions stress definition more than usefulness. In fact, when you see these guys in competition, they're at their weakest. That saran wrap skin look comes from starving and dehydrating themselves. This look stresses upper body bulk and a trim waist. In short, this is body sculpture for the sake of show, not real power.

Versus the body type you see at a strongman competition:
These guys are legitimately strong. They are all about actual function and do not care about sculptured fat-free bodies. In fact, if a person puts on a lot of muscle bulk without fat in a short time, it suggests steroid use. They have very thick waists because all of the core muscles right through the torso are developed to prevent spinal damage and herniating organs during heavy lifting. This is the body of a guy who fights bears on a mountain.

Fit men generally have triangular or rectangular physiques.

What it implies:
Bulky chest + lats, narrow midriff. Classical "gym rat" look, reminds people of So-Cal bodybuilders.
Reference: Schwarzenegger, Charles Atlas, Steve Reeves.

What it implies:
Uniform development through torso, suggests powerful core. Looks more natural, like they got the body from a hard life, not a gym.
Reference: Jason Statham, Clint Eastwood, Iggy Pop.

So the typical comic book physique is not realistic either, the only thing that it is, is wish fulfillment. "Hey boys, muscles are cool, and all the cool heroes have muscles."

Of particular note, Kingpin, who has a fat bulky look, is physically stronger than even many meta-humans. Stronger than Spiderman, Dare Devil, The Punisher, even Wolverine. He fits the Realistic Strongman type.

  • 6
    BTW, the source for the Form vs. Function image is: thepunchlineismachismo.com/archives/553
    – jamesdlin
    Commented Feb 17, 2015 at 20:45
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    Specifically the Musculature one. Which has some added information on body types too. thepunchlineismachismo.com/images/abref.jpg Thanks @jamesdlin I've just seen this cropped one a million different times without a good source.
    – user16696
    Commented Feb 17, 2015 at 20:52
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    I love that artist, but that art reference is chock-full of broscience. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who is the epitome of bodybuilder is legitimately strong. Great as an art reference for drawing with regards to peoples perceptions.
    – user20155
    Commented Feb 17, 2015 at 23:43
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    @LegoStormtroopr Any bodybuilder will be legitimately strong; you can't get muscles that big without developing strength too. But it doesn't change the fact that bodybuilders train primarily to acquire 1) large muscles, 2) a specific body shape, and 3) extremely low body fat (particularly right before competitions; they can't maintain it.) That size and shape doesn't come naturally, and someone wanting to get extreme strength will probably have above-average body fat -- they need to eat more calories than they burn and they don't need to worry about cardio performance like athletes.
    – Doval
    Commented Feb 18, 2015 at 0:00
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    I doubt Kingpin is stronger than Spidey; this answer elaborates on Spidey's strength. Commented Mar 3, 2017 at 18:45

Short answer, because historically, in media, Heroes have muscles. It dates back to concepts of physical perfection being evidence of essential goodness and it goes as far back as ancient statues from Greece and up to our current comic and action stars.

In terms of in-world justification, most of these heroes keep in pretty constant action, whether it's actually physically fighting or it's just trying to make sure you can get from point A to point B without blacking out. Cyclops can shoot beams of optic force from his head without physical exertion, but getting to where he can make the shot, and avoiding attacks from his enemies, is going to require strength and cardio, so he no doubt trains to keep in shape in much the same way that a drone operator in the military maintains PT because they never know when they're going to have to sprint across the control center to avoid an incoming missile strike or to throw a breaker to get their device back up and running (there's also a strong element of exercise as a means of camaraderie and breaking down the individual, but that's a bit of a digression). And, as per CDE's comment, Cyclops, as team leader and possessor of an extreme Type A personality (and a huge stick up his butt), would likely be pushing himself even harder in the gym to ensure that he's not the weak link.

There is also a degree of shorthand in that a fit individual is not necessarily a toned individual (bodybuilders and action stars train in specific ways to look muscular but actual muscle can look like anything from defined tone to just looking bulky), but it's hard to convey that on the page since, really, a fit person tends to look like everyone else, so instead, you get exaggerated physiques.

  • 1
    +1. And not just heroes, fighters. The characters who don't fight (like Oracle or Xavier) often aren't muscular. But a professional crime-fighter is going to generally be muscular, not only because it's necessary but also simply as a side-effect of how they spend their time.
    – Nerrolken
    Commented Feb 17, 2015 at 18:51
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    The thing is, though, I've noticed that it's not just that heroes are muscular, but they also tend to have heroic builds (broad chest, narrow waist), while muscular supervillains have the body shape of pro-wrestlers or strongmen (broad and square with powerful core muscles). Case in point; compare Batman's physique to that of Bane's, or Daredevil's to Kingpin (the latter basically looks like Mariusz Pudzianowski with a few extra pounds). This has the cunning effect of making the hero look powerful, yet giving him the image of an underdog against an immense foe (think David vs. Goliath).
    – Flanneur
    Commented Feb 17, 2015 at 18:59
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    Huh. Good point. Kind of makes you wonder if there's some sort of a classist bias when "villains" were the commoners, who'd probably be built for bulk and efficiency compared to the upperclass who have the leisure to be able to tone their bodies.
    – FuzzyBoots
    Commented Feb 17, 2015 at 19:25
  • @Flanneur good point, but some mediums reverse that too. Look at Batman vs Joker, joker being a twig in comparison, but often able to trade punches without flinching. as a counterpoint, real strength looks menacing. Fake strength looks heroic.
    – user16696
    Commented Feb 17, 2015 at 19:50
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    A specific response to OP's question, Cyclops as an Xmen member, trains a hell of a lot to be prepared (i.e. danger room), more so than all the other xmen due to captain status.
    – user16696
    Commented Feb 17, 2015 at 21:00

There can be no answer as to why "most" comic book characters have muscular physiques; it comes down to why these characters individually do. For examples:

Spider-Man got his slim, yet muscular, build, not from exercising, but from his radioactive bite. His metabolism allows him to not have to make any effort to keep it, but even if he had to, his constant swinging and fighting would most likely keep him in that superhuman shape.

Captain America was foremost a soldier. In some cases, he is written as very muscular when he joins the war, but in others (like the Marvel Cinematic Universe), he is very slim and eager:

"In 1942, Steve Rogers is deemed physically unfit to enlist in the U.S. Army and fight the Nazis in World War II. Recruited for a secret military operation, he is physically transformed into a super-soldier..." - brief origin of MCU's Captain America from Wikipedia

So, his physique comes from (in some iterations) training as a soldier, but mostly from the super-soldier serum that turned him into the invulnerable weapon we know today.

Batman, as all Batfans should know, had extensive training since childhood under his butler and friend, Alfred, rather than through other means like a serum or radioactive bite.

There are also comic book characters that are usually, if not always, written and drawn without buff builds. In addition to the few you listed, Tony Stark is sometimes depicted with an "average" build, since, although he works out occasionally, his suit pretty much fights for him.

Despite all this, it was once common for heroes and their villains to be the larger-than-life muscular characters we know them as today. Writers wanted kids (their foremost target audience) to look up to their creations, and kids tend to see characters with muscular builds as bold and fearless, while also strong and fearsome.

So, to get to the point of the answer: Because during the time comic books were rising to creation, it was common for the titular characters and their adversaries to look as strong and fearless as possible. However, there are numerous, canonical reasons for these characters to look the way they do.

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    Tony Stark having an average build wouldn't make much sense to me. He'd have to at least be up to the same standards of fitness that fighter pilots have to be able to maneuver without passing out when flying the suit. Plus he's certainly wealthy enough to be able to take the downtime to hit the gym.
    – Slade
    Commented Feb 17, 2015 at 19:48

The reason why nearly every comic book character in existence, especially in the past, seemed to follow the same basic body (and facial - seriously, give it a look sometime) templates was because comic book artists were under tight deadlines and needed to cut corners wherever possible. To this end, everyone had the same basic build (as noted) and, more importantly, one of the reasons they all wore spandex; all you had to do was sketch a basic nude figure and add some accents (and a cape). I'd imagine this is less the case nowadays because computers, but after forty or fifty years it's pretty much tradition.

Source: The Complete History of Marvel Comics by Les Daniels.


its worth pointing out (along with other answers/ angles) that evolutionary psychology has some basic explanation for what is considered attractive by both sexes and this shows up across all mass media, including comics, and the nuances of this are under active research in psychology (while it can be dated somewhat to Freud, evopsych is very modern, not a very old scientific field). research in the area has now identified effects that muscular men have on female mate (aka in human realm "dating") preferences. more masculine men (along with beautiful women) have different mating tendencies/ patterns. wrt evopysch theory, muscular men are simply the opposite side of beautiful women. notice of course that many female comic characters are also muscular but it is typically more pronounced in the male characters. in short muscularity is a sign of health/ evolutionary fitness that is part of human preference and translates into media and stories.

see eg

Lift More Weights, Get More Mates: Resesarch Shows Muscular Men Have More Flings, Partners, Affairs / PhysOrg

  • 1
    Time/Culture dependent. While Slim/Fit/Tan is the preferred look today, Victorian England it was Fat/Pale, reflecting the rich who could hide from the sun and stuff their faces, while the poor had to work in the fields/sun, and eat bread. I doubt this study would apply outside of mainstream america.
    – user16696
    Commented Feb 18, 2015 at 0:41
  • Also note that male comic book characters are (and especially were) primarily drawn to interest male readers, not female ones. It's entirely possible that men have the same standards of attractiveness in other men, that women have in men, but it's also entirely possible they don't, so considering attractiveness to women seems needlessly indirect. I'd also note that the article linked appears to show that muscular men are more promiscuous, which may or may not be because they're more attractive to women (and therefore have more opportunities). The women wanted "toned", not "brawny" ;-) Commented Feb 18, 2015 at 16:57

Rather than target this from a sociological or art perspective, I'll tackle this from a science fiction angle.

Fact 1. Heroes are strong.

Acts of heroism usually require strength, be it lifting a bus to free children or punching a super-villain into the sun. All this requires strength of some sort. Leaving aside super-natural sources of strength (magic, physics), acts of strength required and build muscle. Steve Rogers and Peter Parker are superheroes because they received augmentations that build their muscles to allow them to be heroes.

Fact 2. Heroes have huge metabolisms

Muscle requires a lot of calories to maintain, acts of strength require calories to perform. Heroes rarely get a lot of downtime, and are frequently called upon to act. This means eating massive amounts when and where they can.

To a certain extent science fiction is fiction, but energy comes from somewhere. Brain power is one of the largest drains on human energy, so physics or mental heroes, including Professor X, Magneto or Storm are all actively thinking at levels far beyond human people - which requires chemical energy, food, to perform. This is backed up in canon by Amadeus Cho who is explictly stated as need to eat lots after his superhuman calculations.

Lastly, Wolverine is constantly carrying many kilograms of metal on his bones, every action for him is weightbearing. His immense healing factor requires an intense metabolism.

Heroes bodies have to adapt to prioritise repair over storage.

Fact 3. Heroes hang out with other heroes.

Cyclops's power comes from his eyes, but he is hanging with people like Wolverine and Quicksilver. He can never be as strong or as fast as them, but he still needs to hold his own. Also, these are para-military groups working with little support, if team members go down, which frequently happens, they need to be able to get them out. Physical training is a requirement of the job.

In the movie XMen: Days of Future Past Mystique was shown working out, not for her looks (she can look how she wants) but so she was trained and able to keep up with the abilities of the rest of the team.

Fact 4: Superheroes are human after all

Lets also not forget that heroes are human with all the same flaws. If you are Tony Stark standing next to Steve Rogers in the Avengers showers after a big day of fighting, you are going to feel a little diminutive, so you might work a little harder to prove even without the suit you can hold your own.

  • Cho is an outlier, no other telepath or telekinetic has been stated to have a large metabolism, which is a basic stated status of every Speedster.
    – user16696
    Commented Feb 18, 2015 at 0:50
  • @cde I referenced Cho as an example. But its a physical fact that brainpower requires energy, so its stands to reason that the brainpower required to read the minds of everyone in a room in not negligible.
    – user20155
    Commented Feb 18, 2015 at 2:47
  • Negligible enough that only one superhuman in a century of writing has been shown to have that weakness.
    – user16696
    Commented Feb 18, 2015 at 3:01
  • Makes me think of non-Marvel/DC comic characters like Son Goku and Obelix, who are frequently shown to eat A LOT.
    – kutschkem
    Commented Feb 18, 2015 at 13:09
  • As for the point on injury repair, we actually have a question over on Worldbuilding dealing specifically with the impact of that: If accelerated natural healing were to occur, what would happen to the human body?
    – user
    Commented Feb 18, 2015 at 17:52

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