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Namor’s bulge was never the key to his sex appeal

Marvel movies are obsessed with muscles and shirtless displays, but hotness isn’t just skin-deep

two pictures of tenoch huerta as namor in black panther: Wakanda forever in little polaroid frames, all surrounded by various doodle hearts; the background is notebook paper, like this is the page of someone’s diary
The inside of my mind right now
Graphic: Petrana Radulovic/Polygon | Source images: Marvel

When Tenoch Huerta took on the role of popular Marvel antihero Namor, he probably didn’t think his nether regions would become a topic of hot scrutiny online. But shortly after the release of Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, a viral photo of the actor behind the scenes suggested a discrepancy between how tightly his swimsuit bottoms fit over his groin in real life, and how he looked in the movie. Huerta eventually clarified that the on-set photo was edited to give him a more generous bulge. But that didn’t stop people online from buzzing about how some higher powers at Marvel decided to nerf Namor’s sex appeal by editing out his package.

Bulge or no bulge, though, Namor had already slid his way to the top of my own MCU Male Crush List — and it has absolutely nothing to do with what he’s packing in his swimsuit. Personally, I think the Marvel Cinematic Universe is so chock-full of shirtless, shredded men that one prime pecker more or less doesn’t really make a difference. Marvel studio execs seem to think being buff is a necessary trait for a leading man, even though plenty of MCU heroes have power sets that don’t solely rely on physical strength. At this point, the similarity between MCU hero looks is just boring! I don’t want another muscular white man named Chris who punches things; I want something more. And the version of Namor in Wakanda Forever is exactly what I didn’t know I needed.

namor underwater in black panther: wakanda forever, wearing traditional garb while illuminated by a glowing artificial sun Image: Marvel Studios

It’s been a long time since a new MCU character became an instant crush for me. Metaphorically, I’m writing his name with a glittery gel pen while giggling and twirling my hair. He’s a refreshing splash of water, finally quenching the unfulfilled thirst brought on by the deluge of handsome yet totally bland Marvel men. But what is it about Namor that’s got me in a tizzy? It’s not just that he’s handsome, because at this point, it’s basically a prerequisite that MCU superheroes have to be incredibly hot. Even so, they don’t all make it onto my moodboard of beautiful men.

The MCU is packed with shirtless scenes showing off the leading men, with their chiseled abs and pecs. At first, seeing Peggy Carter get flustered when she gazes upon Steve Rogers’ newly transformed, well-oiled body in Captain America: The First Avenger felt validating. After all, comic book women have notoriously warped body proportions, and they parade around in revealing outfits. Women in older action and sci-fi flicks didn’t usually fare any better. So when Marvel started throwing in shirtless scenes, they felt exciting at first, like the studio heads had finally recognized the value of catering to my demographic. But the novelty wore off. All those identical bodies weren’t really doing anything for me. Turns out that feeling included isn’t the same as feeling attracted.

I’m not a prude. I love a good shirtless scene as much as the next person attracted to men. But somewhere along the line, it seems like the Marvel studio heads decided that showing a male character without a shirt was the key to proving he wasn’t just the hero, but the romantic hero. Almost every male lead got a shirtless scene, whether or not it made sense in a given story. Sure, maybe it highlighted Peter Quill’s fuckboy personality when one of the first trailer shots of him in the original Guardians of the Galaxy movie had him wet and shirtless. But as the MCU movies piled up, it became clear that the mandate was for every man to have a body to match their exaggerated comicbook counterparts. The MCU’s Ant-Man has abs! Why does Ant-Man need abs? His whole thing is shrinking his body to impossibly small sizes.

Tom Hiddleston as Loki displays his bound wrists to Chris Hemsworth as Thor in Thor: The Dark World
Which one do you think is more popular?
Image: Marvel Studios

Abs aren’t the sole mark of what makes a hero attractive. I place Steve Rogers over Peter Quill in my ranking of MCU crushes — not because I prefer Chris Evans’ shirtless body over Chris Pratt’s, necessarily, but because Captain America is loyal, dependable, and will go to the ends of the Earth for the people he loves. Similarly, even though Chris Hemsworth is a conventionally attractive human being, Thor never really resonated with fans until Thor: Ragnarok came around and he became a goofy himbo instead of a brooding hunk. He still ranks below his brother Loki, who’s dominated fan crush lists since 2012’s Avengers. And for me, Loki is still below Bucky Barnes, who is below — well, I won’t get into my whole ranking, but just know that Namor has swum nearly all the way to the top.

What about Namor makes him extremely sexy? Sure, he’s handsome, strong, and sculpted, admittedly less dehydrated-looking than some Marvel heroes. (Fitting, considering his whole power-from-water thing.) But what really makes him compelling is his passion. It’s his dedication to his people and his cause. It’s the surprisingly gentle way that he gives Wakandan princess Shuri (Letitia Wright) a bracelet that belonged to his mother and takes her on a tour of his kingdom, like they’re in some magical underwater version of “A Whole New World.”

It’s the two of them on their own blazing paths of righteousness and vengeance, two sides of the same coin. It’s the two of them facing off in battle, bloody and beaten, until Shuri stands over Namor, a spear pointed to his throat, demanding he surrender. (Which reminds me of the killer moment in Princess Mononoke when San holds a knife to Ashitaka’s throat, threatening to kill him, and he calls her beautiful.) Later, Namor draws their portraits in his underwater palace, which just seals the deal for me. The man is so smitten, even in the face of defeat, that he’s waxing poetic. What a guy!

ashitaka on his back in princess mononoke with a knife at his throat Image: Studio Ghibli

Look, Marvel. The specific character traits your fans find desirable in fictional characters obviously vary from person to person. And it’s usually not just one singular character trait, but a whole mosaic of who the character is — how they interact with other people, what kind of impact they have on the world. But what does end up sealing the deal more times than not is their romantic potential.

Unfortunately, the MCU is full of men who look like Ken dolls, and most of the time, it feels like the filmmakers treat them like interchangeable, rigid plastic dolls, smashing their plastic faces against the Barbies, in hopes that the audiences will find that compelling. But I have higher standards when it comes to romantic connection — especially because I like to imagine my crushes in various smooching scenarios. I’m not alone; there’s a whole community out there who loves to write about their favorite characters holding hands and exchanging longing gazes.

And while some fans can certainly create deep emotion and drama out of a few quippy MCU-movie one-liners, I require a little more substance in order to believe that these Ken dolls have something going under those pretty faces. I crave pining! Yearning! Devotion! Literally any chemistry! If a male character has an actual spark with his designated romantic interest — hell, if he has a spark with anyone — then he’ll immediately zoom to the top of my crush list.

That’s why Druig and Gilgamesh in the much-maligned Eternals completely stole my heart, too. In spite of its flaws, that movie was a standout for the romance-focused MCU fans on Tumblr. Neither of these characters is the traditionally hunky hero in their lineup, but both of them eclipsed the fandom for the more stereotypically smoldering Ikaris (Richard Madden), because their relationships with their teammates are so compelling. Druig (Barry Keoghan) broods about the destructive nature of humanity, but is unfailingly devoted to the charming Makkari (Lauren Ridloff). Steadfast Gilgamesh (Ma Dong-seok) chooses to take care of fearsome, damaged warrior Thena (Angelina Jolie), even though staying with her puts him at risk.

gilgamesh, a burly asian man, holds a hand out to the ethereal thena, a blonde woman in all white
Screaming, crying, shaking, sobbing
Image: Marvel Studios

But even though Richard Madden is very pretty, the only moment in Eternals where he actually shows some convincing romantic feelings comes toward the end of the movie, when he can’t bring himself to kill his old lover, Sersi (Gemma Chan), and instead abandons his obsession with his mission and flies right into the sun. That kind of noble sacrifice and devotion is hot, pun intended.

I love my fictional crushes. (This isn’t surprising; I grew up with Tumblr.) I love my Marvel crushes. But I’ve also become very picky about MCU crushes in particular, because more often than not, those nearly identical rippling pectorals and chiseled abs on virtually every male character don’t have anything interesting beneath them. We need a hero, and he’s got to be more than strong, fast, and fresh from the fight! With Namor, Marvel finally gave me — and other like-minded fans out there — a leading man with a beating, passionate heart beneath that perfect physique. What makes a good MCU crush aren’t the crotch bulges, the wide shoulders, or the smoldering eyes — it’s a depth of romantic character that we can believe in.

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