Perfected Bodies: Superheroes and Gymnastics

The 2016 Rio Games are the first Summer Olympics since the Marvel Cinematic Universe took over the world: The Avengers was still in theaters during the London Olympics, and since then, we’ve had seven more movies and nine seasons of TV. The MCU has been joined by multiple DC universes, plus various Spider-men, X-Men, Deadpools, and yet another Fantastic Four. As never before, the superhero has been firmly lodged in our collective consciousness.

The Olympics offer a real-world counterpart to superheroes. Without radioactive spiders or super-soldier serums, Olympic athletes demonstrate impossible powers every four years. Each time a record is broken, the athlete exceeds the previous limit on human capabilities.

Neither happens in a vacuum—both superheroes and athletes complete narratives far greater than a list of records and abilities. They stand astride the existing fissures in society, especially regarding gender, which is particularly tied to the expectations placed on bodies. In many ways, they show us how far we have come and our hopes for the future, but of course, they reveal how far we still have to go.

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