In honor of 'Magic Mike XXL,' a brief history of men's abs in the movies

In honor of 'Magic Mike XXL,' a brief history of men's abs in the movies
The abs of "Magic Mike XXL." (Warner Bros. Pictures)

Cary Grant wasn't known for his shredded six-pack. Neither were Marlon Brando, John Wayne or Clint Eastwood, fit though they were during their reigning days as paragons of American masculinity.

Somewhere along the way, however, chiseled abs became all but a requirement for modern male movie stars, whether they're playing spandex-clad superheroes, ancient Greek warriors, petty criminals or Victorian detectives.


As the trend reaches its apotheosis (or ab-potheosis, perhaps) via the male-stripper sequel "Magic Mike XXL" — which flaunts its washboard stomachs with irrepressible, even refreshing glee — here's a look back at some key moments in the rise of the cinematic six-pack.

Brad Pitt in "Thelma & Louise" (1991)

Now a global star, Pitt landed his breakout film role playing a charming thief opposite Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon in Ridley Scott's feminist road movie. He made quite an impression on moviegoers with a shirtless scene that found him wearing jeans and a cowboy hat and wielding a hair dryer.

Twenty years after the film's release, Davis recalled to Vanity Fair how Scott "personally sprayed Evian on Brad's abs" for the pivotal moment. Talk about attention to detail.

("Thelma & Louise" wasn't the last time Pitt would go shirtless on screen — honorable mentions include "Fight Club," "Snatch" and "Troy.")

Christian Bale in "American Psycho" (2000)

As the homicidal yuppie Patrick Bateman, Bale demonstrates what it takes to get an, er, killer bod in several scenes of Mary Harron's pitch-black comedy based on the Breat Easton Ellis novel. His workout routine involves stretching, skipping rope and doing 1,000 crunches at a time, among other exercises. That's admirable, to be sure, but we can't say the same for his other hobbies.

The Spartans in "300" (2006)

What do you get when you multiply a six-pack by 300? Zack Snyder gave us the answer in his big-screen adaptation of Frank Miller's stark graphic novel dramatizing the Battle of Thermopylae, during which a small group of Greek soldiers held off scores of Persian invaders.

The odds-defying feat is all the more impressive because the musclebound Spartans — led by Gerard Butler's King Leonidas — are outfitted with little more than loincloths, capes, shields and spears. Not coincidentally, after "300" hit theaters, Google Trends showed a threefold increase in searches for "six-pack abs."

Robert Downey Jr. in "Sherlock Holmes" (2009)

Forgoing the deerstalker cap was one sign that Downey and director Guy Ritchie were looking to shake up the stuffy image of Arthur Conan Doyle's famous fictional detective, but that was just the beginning. Their version of Holmes was nothing less than a ripped action hero beneath his rumpled frock, capable of solving most problems with his head but more than willing to use his fists if necessary.

Ryan Gosling in "Crazy, Stupid Love" (2011)

Presumably no CGI was used to enhance Gosling's big shirtless scene as a strapping, smooth-talking lothario in Glenn Ficarra and John Requa's romantic comedy — it just looks that way.

In the film, after impulsively joining Jacob (Gosling) for a nightcap, Emma Stone's tipsy love interest Hannah asks him to remove his V-neck. When he finally obliges, she gasps, "Seriously? It's like you're Photoshopped!" (That sound you hear is a thousand Gosling fans making screen captures.)

Chris Pratt in "Guardians of the Galaxy" (2014)

Though he first made his mark as an amiable overweight goofball on TV's "Parks and Recreation," Pratt got into Navy Seal-shape to play a member of the black-ops team that killed Osama Bin Laden in 2012's "Zero Dark Thirty." Since then he's become a bona fide action star, one whose six-pack now gets loving close-ups in summer blockbusters like Marvel's "Guardians of the Galaxy."

Channing Tatum and company in "Magic Mike XXL" (2015)

Granted, Tatum and his co-stars previously strutted their stuff in 2012's original "Magic Mike," but that film's gyrating was underscored by a fair amount of existential angst and soul-searching. The extroverted sequel isn't quite so brooding, and it truly revels in biceps, deltoids and, of course, abs. "It's a beautiful thing, man," one character says of the restorative powers of their flexing. "We're like healers, or something."

Even the posters for "XXL's" expertly executed marketing campaign are stripped-down to the essentials, with nothing but text, blank backgrounds and its shirtless stars. It's enough to make one wonder if we've reached peak abs — and if so, what comes next.

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