Around the time the sequel to the growly Spartan epic 300 was released earlier this year — disappointingly, it was not called 600 but 300: Rise of an Empire — a study was published in the medical journal JAMA Pediatrics indicating that a surprisingly large number of boys and young men feel the sort of body-image pressure heretofore associated with more with ladies. But while girls and women overwhelmingly desire thinness, the study found that boys and young men largely desire increased muscularity. According to the study, “9.2 percent of males report[ed] high concerns with muscularity, compared with 2.5 percent concerned about thinness and 6.3 percent concerned with both aspects of appearance.” They wanted, in short, to look like Spartans.

There was a lot of body dysmorphia hysteria and fear-mongering in media reports about this study. But the fact is that though 9.2% of the respondents “reported high concerns with muscularity,” they also exhibited no bulimic behaviors. It isn’t very clear whether a “high concern” meant a deep insecurity about one’s body or, after a dozen donut holes from Dunkin’ Donuts, thinking, ‘Fuuuuuck man. I wish I was more ripped.” The point of the study wasn’t “Gee-whillikers, boys are just as body conscious as girls!” That’s not even a little bit true. What the researchers found was that boys who wanted to be skinny, not ripped, were more likely to be depressed; boys who wanted to be both skinny and ripped were more likely than their peers to do drugs, and boys who wanted to be ripped and who used supplements to get ripped would probably both binge drink and do drugs. You could have learned the same thing watching Fast Times at Ridgemont High or going out with a bunch of CrossFit guys after a workout.

The Spartans yell a lot, have imposing beards, abdominals that look like a library card catalogue and pecs that resemble overstuffed armchairs.

Regardless, 300: The Rise of An Empire, an adaptation of a graphic novel by Frank Miller (itself an adaptation of an old Thucydides account) got a lot of heat. Time magazine ran a piece entitled, 300: Rise of An Empire Has Men Feeling Body Image Pressure.” And it is true, for 102 overweening blood-soaked minutes,  men scamper around killing things while wearing little red underwear, crimson paludamenta and little else. They yell a lot, have imposing beards, abdominals that look like a library card catalogue and pecs that resemble overstuffed armchairs. With an onslaught of post-production visual effects, each frame is like a hyper-violent Jacques-Louis David painting: giant creaky set pieces of men slaughtering other men as blood explodes out of the poor Persian soldier being offed in beautiful abstract shapes. (There was an entire post-production team devoted to blood splattering.) In this way, 300 feels like series of tableaux vivant. This isn’t surprising considering the film is a shot-by-shot adaptation of Miller’s comic book.

Though the timing of the study coincided with the release of the sequel, I’m more interested in the first installment of the movie, which came out in 2007. Not only was it a much, much better film (60% v. 41% on Rotten Tomatoes) but, since the much-ballyhooed study spanned the years 1999 to 2010, there might even have been a direct effect of the film on the study’s participants. Of this, however, I am leery. The study’s sampled 5,527 males between the ages of 11 to 18. Presumably, only the eldest saw 300, which was rated R and involved many nipples, both female and male, and much blood, mostly men’s. Much more likely it was video games like Call of Duty and God of War that affect their hobbledehoy psyches.

But it is clear that neither the muscled grunts of 300 nor general media portrayals of men have helped what Professor Harrison G. Pope calls the “Adonis complex.” But is that really new? Isn’t a body as riven with muscles as Gerard Butler’s as King Leonidas old—even ancient—news? One need only visit Florence’s Accademia to see Michelangelo’s David (or even more jacked, the body of Day nearby at the Tomb of Lorenzo di Medici) or just visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Greek wing to see hard-bodied bros have always been there. The media has always portrayed its heroes as muscle-bound. The only difference is that now contemporary media isn’t marble. It’s pixels projected on huge screens.

Michael Fassbender in 300
Michael Fassbender and friends in the original 300

Nevertheless, there is something interesting to be said about the legions of 300 and something interesting they say about us. After all, the first film grossed more than $211 million and the second, more than $330 million. That’s a lot of eyeballs, and that has got to have some effect. As far as whether or not this is correlated, or causally linked, with increased body issues among men, who really knows? Media reports at the time argued that the findings indicated that more men than previously thought suffer body-image issues. But if no one ever thought to ask men if they were dissatisfied with their bodies, that’s not surprising, is it? And, by the way, since the 1980s, men have become increasingly displeased with their bodies, mostly due to buff men replacing nudie women in many advertisements.

But movies like 300 are more powerful tools and fundamentally different than sculptures or paintings or even advertisements. Apart from the notable exception of Pygmalion, marble has never turned to flesh. Besides the unfortunate Medusa gawkers, flesh has never turned to stone. Back in the 1500’s, when Florentines were feuding with Rome and burning Savonorola, one thing the men of the city-state didn’t have to worry about was that Michelangelo’s sculpture was meant as anything but an ideal, and not even a particularly achievable one. Sure, he was chiseled—he was literally chiseled out of a block of stone from Carrara. Or even Leonidas himself, as captured by Jacques-Louis David in 1814’s Leonidas at Thermopylae, that guy was just oil on canvas. As for advertisements, even in the 1980s, these models more fit the mold of paintings than persons.

In the same way that advances in digital technology in the 1990s gave rise to a slew of volcano movies, technology has pushed our heroes to be ever more muscular.

The point is, before the digital era, these muscley men were clearly made of stuff other than us. They were, broadly termed, fiction. If characters can be fictional, so too can physiques, and these were. They were filed under fantasy, next to Jesus, as a body to aspire to but, ultimately, to come up short against. And that was fine. No one felt weird about it.

But contrast this with 300, whose heroes are a dude named Gerard who was born in Paisley, Scotland in 1969, and another guy named Michael from Heidelberg, Germany, born in 1977. These are men born of women, flesh of our flesh, with first names and middle names and last names; who, like us, probably wake up  in the morning with a hard-on and bad breath; who, like we do, Google ex-girlfriends; who probably sometimes spill Indian food on their pants and might even have athlete’s foot. Prick them and they bleed, just like us. So, if they are just like us in so many ways . . . we could be like those guys, right? They are made of our stuff, flesh and blood and muscle.

They are, that is to say, realistic. Though of course, they are actors, their bodies are theirs. Read nearly any of the coverage about 300—or, really, Thor, Thor II, or Man of Steel, any of the modern superhero blockbusters. Alongside reports of smashing box-office success will be long, breathless articles on how grueling the training regime the actor had to endure. In 300, Gerard Butler’s body did, pretty much, look like that. “We did some shading,” said Chris Watts, who was in charge of visual effects in the first film “but it was minimal.”

Though visual-effects technology did little to alter the appearances of Gerry and Mikey and the rest of the Spartans-next-door, that’s not to say technology doesn’t play a huge, and hugely overlooked, part in why our comic-book-movie heroes today are so damn muscled. At this point it might be instructive to note that 2007’s 300 was not the first filmed version of Thucydides’ tale. In fact, Frank Miller, the comic book artist who wrote it, was inspired by an earlier film, 1962’s The 300 Spartans, starring Richard Egan as King Leonidas and Barry Coe as Phylon.

300 Spartans
The 300 Spartans

In their days, Coe and Egan were considered primo beefcakes. (Coe later went on to be Mr. Goodwrench.) But if you take a look at them with their shirts off—which you’ll have to find elsewhere than The 300 Spartans, in which they wear primitive modest undershirts—they look like regular guys. Here’s Coe, from 1959’s steamy But Not For Me. The guy has less definition than a campaign promise. His torso is completely achievable by inertia. Then there’s Egan, a devout Roman Catholic whose son founded, incidentally, Vagrant Records. Egan is certainly edging towards Steve Reeves territory, but still, a few pushups a day and avoiding Girl Scout cookies would give you the Egan look.

So in the 1960s, sure, men and boys might have been just as vulnerable as they are now to media portrayals of masculinity, but it didn’t matter all that much, since the delta between a beefcake and a regular shlemiel was relatively small. So where have all our normal heroes gone? One way to answer the question is to compare battle scenes in the old 300 and the new.

Here is the trailer of the original The 300 Spartans.

It’s actually not too hard to imagine yourself among these legions. Though the cinematography isn’t total crap, it’s pretty much in the school of, “Get a lot of guys in a field yelling, and roll sound.” The most special of the special effects one sees in the entire film is fire. The movie was filmed on location in Perachora, a small community near the Gulf of Corinth. In the climactic battle scene, there’s a lot of clattering and shuffling around, as if battle was more like a trip to Fairway on Saturday morning than mortal combat.

But by the time 300 emerged in 2006, visual effects technology had come a long way. Zach Snyder, the director of the first film and producer of the second, is a big fan, in particular, of two types of visual effects: slo-mo and speed-ramp. Take a look at Leonidas fucking shit up below:

Now imagine that scene but with the relatively normal-looking Egan in his Fruit of the Looms. It would not be a pretty sight. Or believable, really.

According to Mark Gallagher, author of Action Figures: Men, Action Films, and Contemporary Adventure Narratives, in the same way that advances in digital technology in the 1990s gave rise to a slew of volcano movies and in the 2000s advances in water rendering gave way to flood films, technology has pushed our heroes to be ever more muscular. The more realistic the superhuman actions become, the more the actors must appear superhuman. Or to put it another way, the higher the definition gets, in video games or in movies, the more defined the characters must become. And—I suppose this is the source of the consternation about 300—the more well-defined they become, the more they, in turn, define what boys and young men should look like.

I would argue the most unsettling effect of movies like 300 and 300: Rise of An Empire isn’t that it makes boys want to be more muscular or skinnier —a third of children are overweight or obese so that would probably be a good idea—but what it tells boys to do with their muscle. Did you know men with sick bodies like those of King Leonidas or Themistokles don’t have to pillage, murder and rape? They could read George Saunders, do laundry, take walks in parks and listen to Erik Satie. They could fight against violence, not perpetrate it. Just as movies like 300 needn’t let visual effects drive what their characters must look like, neither should boys let their bodies drive what their characters must do.

That is the true strength.