We all know that certain things come along with having superpowers. No, we're not talking about responsibility, justice, or even the American way (or whatever is their Evil Counterpart, for the morally villainous). We're talking about a great bod.
Wherever spandex and capes are found, so too are sculpted chests, broad shoulders, narrow waists and washboard abs. Wherever there are chainmail bikinis, there are large breasts, curvy hips, and shapely legs. It could almost be called a secondary power in itself - the ability to have a perfect physique.
This is true even for heroic men whose powers do not include physical strength, such as psychics, speedsters, and super-scientists. For example, you wouldn't expect someone with an Imagination-Based Superpower to have a bodybuilder's physique just from concentrating on things really hard, but it is so. It's just become a convention of the genre, and many comic book artists don't know how to draw in any other way. Even ordinary civilians will often be implausibly muscular.
Some parts of this may be Justified, since many superheroes/supervillains seem to spend a great deal of their off time training religiously. Although one should note that, for females at least, reducing body fat tends to make a figure a lot less lush than that of the typical superheroine/supervillainess. And forget about Stout Strength.
Note that in classical sculpture, the term "heroic proportion" refers to characters with healthy figures who stand eight or more heads high (i.e. their head is an eighth or less of their total height) this imposing figure was used for statues of Greek gods and later biblical figures (Michaelangelo's David, for instance). It is a given that almost all western superheroes and supervillains are eight-and-a-half heads tall or more, and most fashion designers sketch their ideas onto outlines of over eight heads. However, in early Marvel comics, as well as a few from other houses, this rule was subverted: heavily built figures were often drawn with huge heads in proportion to their height so that they looked squat and burly despite being over six foot (see early versions of the Thing, Hulk or the Kingpin).
Sub-Trope of Beauty Equals Goodness.
Super Trope to Most Common Superpower.
Compare Hollywood Homely, Sculpted Physique, Lantern Jaw of Justice, Top-Heavy Guy, Amazonian Beauty, Muscles Are Meaningless, Muscles Are Meaningful.
Please limit examples to exceptions, justifications, and exaggerations.
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Some cultures did not have the same standards for heroic proportions as those of the West. For example, medieval Japan favored stocky builds with barrel chests, believing that strength originates from a person's core. For this reason, samurai were often depicted with big bellies, in contrast to the heroic V-shaped torso.
Anime & Manga
In Tiger & Bunny, Mr. Legend wasn't just an old, fat superhero — he was an old, fat superhero that just happened to be the best damned superhero of his time, and possibly the first superhero. You know, when he wasn't beating his wife.
In Yowamushi Pedal, Tadokoro Jin is one such member of Sakamichi Onoda's team. Sure he may be a big eater and may come off as a fat cyclist. But he tends to get more better. Which leads to his buff stature.
In Toriko, The main protagonist after the name of the series, is a heavy eater. But yet never gets fat. Yet when it comes to hunting for food, he has a Bruiser with a Soft Center attitude of for others even Komatsu, as if he was his very own brother or son.
The Juggernaut is often depicted often almost as broad as he is tall, with fists bigger than his head. This insane physique comes from the Crimson Gem of Cyttorak, which makes him unstoppable (and makes him resemble the Cyttorak himself). When he's not using the gem's power to its fullest, his physique remains big, though the proportions are considerably less impressive.
Static notably doesn't have this because he is first of all, a normal, somewhat skinny teenager, and also because his powers have nothing to do with his body, physically.
Nightcrawler is usually depicted with either a gymnast's or a swimmer's body (or sometimes just out-and-out scrawny). When he is drawn especially muscular it's usually his legs rather than torso that are overdeveloped.
X-Men leader Cyclops was initially quite a scrawny lad, hence his nickname "Slim." However, he has long since filled out.
Justified with Archangel, since zero body fat and peak human musculature to support his wings are explicitly part of his mutation.
Ben Grimm, aka "The Thing" from Fantastic Four, is a mishmash. In the comic books, as Ben Grimm, he's fairly muscular; as The Thing, he's pretty much rectangular with no definition at all. In the movies, Michael Chiklis as Ben is less sculpted, but Thing has distinct abs, biceps and triceps.
Also on John Byrne's run on Fantastic Four he drew both Reed Richards and Johnny Storm skinnier and less buff as they looked when they first appeared in 1961.
Dr. Banner of The Incredible Hulk is not particularly muscular or defined as himself (Bill Bixby, who played Banner in the TV show, was widely regarded as having the proper physique); how sculpted he becomes when he Hulks out depends on the artist.
Subverted by Herbie The Fat Fury. Superficially he is a fat, rotund, bespectacled loser with a Moe Howard haircut, with a costume consisting of red longjohns and a toilet plunger on his head. But armed with his magic lollipops, he has enough powers and abilities to take on anyone like bank robbers, alien invaders, and Satan.
Roxanne Spaulding (aka Freefall) of Gen13 is usually drawn as having relatively small breasts and moderate curves, at least compared to her teammates Fairchild and Rainmaker. (Emphasis on 'relatively'.)
Peter Parker in Ultimate Spider-Man retains his scrawny teenage physique even though he has super-human level strength.
Even in the regular Marvel comics, Spidey's physique was sometimes closer to a jogger than a bodybuilder, Depending on the Artist. On the other hand, it's also not unusual for characters to be surprised by those firm biceps that uber-nerd Peter Parker is hiding under his baggy shirt.
Some will even draw him very thin. You will often hear artists say that Spider-Man has a gymnast's body. While female gymnasts tend to be very small and thin, male gymnasts are actually quite muscular, if slim.
Nightwing was an acrobat and usually portrayed as such. A tad muscular for that, but only occasionally did someone draw him as a full-on bodybuilder.
Likewise, in Batman comics, Tim Drake is usually drawn as leaner than Nightwing. While they can both end up more muscled, Depending on the Artist, they are usually shown on the leaner side in comparison to Bruce and Jason.
Also Damian Wayne, justified as he's only about 10-11 years old. When people do draw him with a full out heroic build, it nears Uncanny Valley.
Top 10 plays this straight only with a few characters: Smax, Peregrine, and King Peacock. Other than that, the cast ranges from scrawny (Shock-Headed Peter, Toybox) to paunchy (Spaceman, Irma Geddon, the Word) to simply average (Synaesthesia, Jack Phantom, Dust Devil). Of course, given the setting - a city where everyone is a science hero - this only makes sense.
Justified by Power & Glory, as A-Pex is the product of a government-sponsored project to create a patriotic superheroic ideal. Too bad he has a crippling fear of disease that leaves him incapable of fighting anyone...
An interesting example in Warbreaker, the returned have the appearance that is, to their individual taste, perfect, along with the fitness that comes with it. However, they are useless in a fight, because their pampered lifestyle leaves them unprepared for pain and they have no combat training unless they had it when they died.
In Wearing the Cape, Atlas, the setting's Superman character, wears a sculpted muscle-suit that mimics a Mister Atlas body. Elsewhere, Hope notes that not all superheroes can get away with spandex, and the Hollywood Knights are chosen not just for their powers but also for their physiques (often the result of personal trainers and plastic surgeons).
Live Action TV
While Power Rangers toys and merchandising range from "realistically muscled" to "standard buff superhero" to "ridiculously overexaggerated", the show itself averts this as the Ranger suits show no definition at all. Well, with two exceptions, justified as powerups: Andros' Battlized form and Xander's Mystic Muscles spell.
The Adam West version of Batman was rather lumpy in comparison to most other incarnations of Batman.
A fair number of Heroes don't fit into this trope, including but not limited to Hiro Nakamura and Matt Parkman.
While most super heroines in Grrl Power are incredibility photogenic and highly muscled, the main character Sydney Scoville is not. Harem is also fairly average looking compared to the others.
While some of the characters in the Global Guardians PBEM Universe had heroic builds, you'd just as likely find a superhero who was skinny, or slightly overweight. Mostly, this happened with the Badass Normals, who justifiably worked out to keep their physiques.
Venom (when he was first introduced, rather than the Huge Dude he became later), in contrast to Spider-Man, was enormous. This was because Eddie Brock was a nigh-obsessive bodybuilder.
Flash Thompson was in the military for a few and before that was heavily into sports so it makes sense that he'd be muscular. However he is still kind of smaller in comparison to Eddie.
Mr. Incredible of The Incredibles is a Justified example, as he is indeed shown to lose shape with age until he started training again. Note that he doesn't go all the way back to his youthful heroic build, either.
Kristoff of Frozen due to being both an ice harvester and adopted by trolls, who are really heavy rocklike beings who often climb on him.
Anime & Manga
The commercialized nature of superheroics in Tiger & Bunny makes appearance just as important as actual heroics (especially for heroes marketed on their sex appeal, such as Blue Rose and Barnaby Brooks Jr.). Thus, HeroTV's provided the heroes with training facilities, which they use quite frequently in their down time.
The soldiers of Attack on Titan are all shown to be in incredible shape, with washboard abs and lean, muscular physiques. It's entirely justified, as their equipment and standard method of fighting requires them to be able to perform on the level of an Olympic gymnast or professional acrobat. A strong core and powerful leg muscles are noted to be absolutely vital to using the 3-dimensional Maneuver Gear safely. Since the artist uses professional Mixed Martial Artists as models and references, their builds tend to accurately reflect how different body types build up muscle.
Chris Redfield from Resident Evil got his Heroic Build and enormous strength after a decade of extensive workouts so he could stand a better chance against various Bio-Organic Weapons (read: huge mutants) and especially his Lightning BruiserArch-Enemy Albert Wesker. It generally worked. Notably, in 6, after spending half a year as drunken amnesiac, Chris is in noticeably worse shape than in 5, though his strength didn't suffer much.
However, even those with the Exemplar trait don't always possess this, since the power literally shapes the person according to their idealized version of themselves. A heroic build is merely the most common result of this.
Also, since the Exemplar power works at least in part on the mutant's self-perception, it can go to exaggerated degrees as well, such as Bravo's absurdly-sized Lantern Jaw of Justice or Attributes' Gag Boobs. Of course, this being the series it is, at least one other possible side effect can occur as well...
Attempts to duplicate the Exemplar trait by Devisors and Wizards are frequent, and almost invariably fail. The closest successes to date were Compiler (who gained a Barbie-doll like figure by means of nanotechnology, but now cannot control her super-strength or super-speed), Spark and Reach (who did it by accident), Delta Spike (who entrusted her life to a Mad Scientist and was nearly brainwashed into total subservience in the process), and Jobe's Drow (who were completely transformed into dark elves by the serum) note For those counting, that makes a total of ten partial successes out of literally hundreds of attempts. For the majority, such as Migraine (who became trapped in an immobile exoskeleton and went insane), it didn't work out at all.
In Worm, Triumph's powers specifically aid in forming such a physique.
In Brennus the Adonis expression of the Physique power reshapes the body according to their perception of attractiveness, much as in the Whateley Universe. Among Western men, it often results in this.
The adult Superman is one of the earliest and most blatant examples, since in the comics and cartoons he is nearly always shown to have a bodybuilder's physique, despite the fact that his powers come from the sun and not his muscles.
Actually, originally his powers came from his species being highly evolved. Later this was changed to sunlight AND Krypton having a higher gravity which would justify this a bit more.
It's also somewhat justified in that Clark, even without powers, worked his father's farm his entire life, which will get you buff, was an All-American athlete in high school, and even now does his best to keep in major shape.
Also consider that Superman tries to continue fighting crime even when depowered, and has even had training from Batman in combat. Odds are he finds a way to work out so his physical abilities are superior to most normal people's even if he finds himself in a depowered state.
In Superman's earliest appearances, he was fairly lean. Later interpretations generally gave him a bodybuilder physique, or at-least a fairly buff one.
Kryptonians still get stronger by increasing muscle mass. That's why Power Girl works out so much.
His original designs were based on the circus strongmen of the time.
Superman's physique probably also reflects what's considered "impressive" during various time-eras. For example, Curt Swan's Superman looked in-shape, but not ridiculously muscular. Contrast his appearance by various modern artists, where he looks like he'd give Arnold Schwarzenegger's physique a run for its money.
Pre Crisis, the Fortress of Solitude was sometimes shown with specialized workout equipment (a robot sparring partner for boxing practice appeared in the first Fortress story, for instance). Ditto the Golden Age Superman; in his mountain retreat, had some specialized workout equipment. (Said equipment appeared again in a Bronze Age "Mr. and Mrs. Superman" story). As Clark, he worked during the Silver and Bronze Age at Ma and Pa Kent's general store (not a farm) for most of his childhood/teen years, and (to protect his identity) seldom participated in sports.
Rob Liefeld is immensely fond of drawing grossly exaggerated human physiques.
Strong Guy from X-Factor has an immensely exaggerated musculature. Also justified in that a childhood accident with his mutant powers permanently deformed him, and he's in constant pain because of it.
Tom Strong has the title character parody both this and Top-Heavy Guy. He's drawn with a physique that is just slightly exaggerated. He's got a huge torso and comparatively skinny legs- not to the point of cartoonishness, but more like he's very slightly deformed. Indeed, it's actually implied he is, being described by multiple characters as looking like an upside down triangle- which just happens to be his Chest Insignia.
Danny from John Byrne's Next Men is this and a bit of an inversion of Top-Heavy Guy. A kid speedster, from the waist up he is toned, but otherwise has the average proportions of a mid-teen. From the waist down, his thighs and calved are massively disproportionally muscular, (To be fair, his universe lacks a handwaved energy source that other speedsters derive their energy). On average, he seems to have a pro-bodybuilder's legs. Drawn it its most exaggerated, his legs are drawn even bigger, as in; just one leg is wider than an adult's torso, bigger!
The short-lived Malibu Comics superhero Prime had an extremely exaggeratedly muscular build - since his appearance was a young boy's idea of what a superhero should look like.
Exaggerated and subverted in Data East Pinball's Tales from the Crypt, which shows a bodybuilder with a toned, idealized muscular Heroic Build... and the wrinkling, balding head of an old man.
Immortal Souls kind of takes this to silly degrees in its comic book-style art, giving everyone who engages in combat an exaggerated bodybuilder physique. And by everyone, I mean the women (who have She-Hulk muscles to go with their Most Common Superpower), the Fat Bastard thugs, the ghosts, the zombies, the mutants, all of the animal monsters, and the human guys in form-fitting Power Armor. Everyone.
This was parodied in a Homestar Runner cartoon; Strong Bad discusses a hypothetical Strong Bad action figure, which looks remarkably like this. Strong Bad lampshades it by claiming it would look "just like him," specifically mentioning the relative sizes of his head and body. In an Easter Egg, Homestar, Strong Mad, Strong Sad, and Pom Pom get the same treatment; the action figures' physiques are Liefeldishly overmuscled, even Pom Pom and Strong Sad, who are literally spherical.
This trope being associated with WWE wrestlers is parodied in Hogan Vs Flair by the created wrestler TF British and his ludicriously muscular self.
On Max Steel, Steel becomes obsessed with comic books and alter the suit. One of the changes he makes is giving Max 20 abs. This is Lampshaded on by everyone else.
Bodybuilder physiques on action figures was a general trend in the 90's. While it (somewhat) made sense for characters like He-Man who's so muscled he shouldn't be able to move, it looked downright weird for, say, Luke Skywalker and Han Solo.
Many children's Halloween costumes have exaggerated chest and arm muscles, even if the character they are dressing up as is not so buff. The most obvious example is probably Spider-Man, who is toned but slim in most incarnations, but the costumes look like bodybuilders.
On The Red Green Show, Ranger Gord, who is slender and lanky, has a cartoon segment in which he is portrayed as having an astoundingly muscular physique, so much so that when he bends an arm or even a finger, there is a metallic squeaking sound.