How muscular does a movie star need to be? For the past few years, leading men have engaged in a literal arms race where bicep size has begun to outstrip believability. The Rock personifies this bigger-is-better era, but he’s hardly alone when it comes to sneaking in two-a-days between takes. Vin Diesel and Henry Cavill are so yoked that maintaining their physiques may feel like a full-time job, comic actors like Chris Pratt and Paul Rudd have seen their fortunes soar since putting on muscle mass, and Mark Wahlberg, Charlie Hunnam, and Zac Efron are regarded less as Method actors and more like Men’s Health covers. In a world where top-lining your own superhero franchise is the most significant thing an actor can aspire to, it’s no surprise that size matters.
Let’s hear it, then, for a crop of young men in movies who have resisted the clarion call of Crossfit, who have done their thing on the big screen this year with no apparent insecurities about their relative string-beaniness. Call it the revenge of the twink: By daring to seize the spotlight from their swole colleagues, they’re offering an alternative image of the male movie star, the likes of which we haven’t seen since Leonardo DiCaprio’s age and waist size were on the other side of 30. Boasting yoga bodies instead of power-lifter physiques, these five actors likely consume less in one week than Dwayne Johnson eats for breakfast.
The slimmed-down trend was inaugurated in January by Timothée Chalamet, whose performance in Call Me by Your Name was the talk of the Sundance Film Festival. As a teenager experiencing his first love, rising star Chalamet is slender and spindly but more than holds his own opposite romantic partner Armie Hammer, who physically dwarfs Chalamet in every way. Just as compelling onscreen is Ashton Sanders, who anchors the middle portion of Moonlight as high-school-aged Chiron. It’s essential to the narrative of the film that skinny, bullied Chiron will encase himself in protective muscle when we meet him later in the guise of actor Trevante Rhodes, but when the male stars of Moonlight stripped down to their underwear for a Calvin Klein campaign in February, I was struck by how Sanders commanded the lens with just as much authority as his muscular co-stars Rhodes and Mahershala Ali. A budding fashion muse, Sanders posed shirtless for last month’s issue of Paper magazine, confident and carefree about his slim physique.
The past month brought us two action movies led by slender stars, though fittingly, they’re a little more toned than the rest of the lean trendsetters. Baby Driver plays up the relative boyishness of Ansel Elgort, who is cast opposite solidly built co-stars like Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx, and Jon Bernthal. It’s a good thing that Elgort’s Baby is strong behind the wheel, because in a fist fight with any of those formidable foes, you’d put your money on the bigger guy. In Spider-Man: Homecoming, Tom Holland gets two gratuitous scenes to show off his six-pack, but he’s not nearly as big as Tobey Maguire was in the original Spider-Man’s shirtless scene, and compared to the rest of the current Avengers, he’s notably more svelte. Elgort and Holland are no strangers to a gym, but they’re hardly built like a Hemsworth brother: In costume, they look skinny, not swole.
The boldest casting of a string-bean star in an action role will come this weekend, though, when director Luc Besson releases his megabudget space epic Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. In the comic books that the film is based on, Valerian is a square-jawed classic hero who can boast sexual conquests from all over the galaxy. For the big-screen version, Besson has cast Kill Your Darlings star Dane DeHaan, an actor whose vibe is more “murder twink” than “space-hopping Don Draper.” Hollywood has no shortage of handsome musclemen who could prove a more filled-out fit for Valerian’s spacesuit, but DeHaan will bring the character to cinematic life as a boyish adventurer whose hands have likely never touched a kettlebell.
You’ve got to admire Besson’s ballsiness. DeHaan is introduced shirtless, which may be a shock to the system for moviegoers who expect to see huge biceps and visible abs when their big-screen adventurers strip down. Eventually, he’ll don a half-buttoned shirt and a giant set of space armor — even in clothes, DeHaan is costumed as though the crew expected a bigger actor to show up — but before that, he romantically tussles with his co-star, the very fit model-turned-actress Cara Delevingne, and brags about all the space-ladies he’s had sex with. It’s the most outrageous pairing of a fey twink and a supermodel since Stephanie Seymour canoodled with her own son, and it tests the outer boundaries of what an action audience is used to: Will you nod along as the spindly Dane DeHaan details his sexual exploits to Cara Delevingne, an actress who has almost certainly slept with more women than Dane DeHaan?
Even if moviegoers reject DeHaan and Valerian this weekend, it will be in favor of Dunkirk, a World War II movie that Christopher Nolan has cast with skinny soldiers who look more like Saving Private Ryan’s Jeremy Davies than that film’s better-built Vin Diesel and Matt Damon. Is the pendulum starting to swing, then, from athletic perfectionism toward a more casual presentation of what a male lead can look like? At the very least, actors like Chalamet and Sanders offer a more accurate look at young manhood than the bulked-up high-schoolers that populate most CW shows. Perhaps it’s that feeling of authenticity that has spurred a surge in skinny actors: In an era where we prize naturalism in our screen stars, we can’t expect their bodies to keep retaining such unnatural proportions.
Or maybe, fittingly, this moment in time is just a slim window. Comic-book movies still rule the roost, after all, and while Holland offers us a lean take on Peter Parker, the other comic-book movies coming out over the next 12 months draw from the same old super-stacked brigade of stars. We’ll have to see if Holland, Chalamet, Elgort, Sanders, and DeHaan can continue wresting our attention from the buff actors who traditionally hog the spotlight as though it were the pectoral fly at your gym, but at least this year, they’ll prove that muscles aren’t mandatory.