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Where are all the real leading men?

Our leading men look like boys; for men you may need to look abroad. By Tara Ariano.
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

For discerning adult women (and adult gay men) who enjoy developing pointless yet very serious crushes on good-looking celebrities, today’s wussy American pretty-boys just don’t get the job done.

Kieran Culkin? Maybe we’ll be interested when his voice changes. Chad Michael Murray? He should probably finish high school before we pay any attention to him. Even Keanu Reeves — who we realize is almost forty years old — tried to convince us in “The Matrix Reloaded” that he was a grown-up man, getting down with a grown-up lady, but he was so smooth and hairless that he barely evinced any secondary sex characteristics.

In the U.S., such a premium is placed on youth — and so many media products are targeted at the once-again suddenly hot ’tween market — that grown-up ladies tend to have to look overseas for unattainable new objects of lust. Fortunately, other countries are busily exporting plenty of rugged, masculine beefcake to fill the vacuum, and to fill existing niches with burlier alternatives.

1. Comic-book superhero (Marvel Comics):
Tobey Maguire vs. Hugh Jackman
Admittedly, Spider-Man is not the most butch hero in the comic-book pantheon; he’s slight and sensitive — he’s a photographer! His powers run toward acrobatic moves that rely more on his whippet-like build than on sheer strength. Still, playing the title role in last year’s blockbuster “Spider-Man,” Tobey Maguire was very, very boyish — so boyish, in fact, that he didn’t even look like he would ever needed to shave even the least hint of peach fuzz off his cheeks. (Maybe his Spidey mask was lined with some kind of depilatory?)

At the other end of the Marvel spectrum is Australian Hugh Jackman, who plays Wolverine in the “X-Men” movies — he of the gigantic muttonchops, pointy hairdo, and foot-long metal claws. Jackman has wisely put together a résumé guaranteed to attract a huge female following: soppy romantic comedies (“Kate & Leopold,” “Someone Like You”) and girl-friendly actioners that require him to wear a lot of tank tops, tight jeans, and hair (the aforementioned “X-Men”). All this, and he sings (in Broadway’s “The Boy From Oz”). Tobey Maguire is still a little slip of a Wonder Boy, whereas Hugh Jackman is all man…and has the remarkable body hair to prove it.

2. Comic-book superhero (DC Comics):
Tom Welling vs. Christian Bale
Since 2001, Tom Welling has played Clark Kent (a.k.a. Kal-El of Krypton, a.k.a. Superman) in The WB teen drama “Smallville.” As with Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man, we meet this superhero when he’s still in his adolescence, trying out his disturbing new powers in a way we are meant to think of as analogous to those that every pubescent boy discovers…if you catch my drift. So, fine, Clark is still in high school; he is a boy. But Tom Welling — a former model — is beyond boyish. His skin is so golden and his lips so pouty that he’s practically a girl.

On the other hand, we have Christian Bale, recently announced as the newest big-screen Batman. The danger some child stars — as Bale once was — face as grown-ups is that the audience won’t be able to forget what they looked like as kids. Bale wisely anticipated this possibility, and utterly obliterated it with 2000’s “American Psycho,” which required him to be naked a lot…and boyfriend was ripped. This commentator has never felt quite so attracted to a chainsaw-wielding maniac. Bale will surely do as memorable a job filling out Batman’s cowl. And rubber nipples.

3. Young man tempting older woman:
Jake Gyllenhaal vs. Olivier Martinez
The summer of 2002 was, it would seem, all about attractive younger men seducing older, bored, married women. Or, maybe that was only happening at the movies. Regardless, it was hot. One young American man in particular had his hands full of pretty thirtysomethings: Jake Gyllenhaal. He got his freak on with Jennifer Aniston in “The Good Girl,” and got his freak partway on with Catherine Keener in “Lovely & Amazing.” In both films, Gyllenhaal plays every older woman’s fantasy of a younger lover: cute, eager, and a little bit dumb. Oh — and, of course, so boyish-looking that you would be forgiven for wondering if he has all his permanent teeth yet.

Earlier in the summer, audiences were electrified by “Unfaithful,” in which Diane Lane meets a hot French guy who makes her forget all about her husband, Richard Gere. Martinez’s Paul may be younger than Lane — it’s part of his appeal — but that doesn’t mean he’s a downy-cheeked kid. Martinez is so deliciously scruffy that he makes you think, “Yeah, what’s the big deal about marriage vows anyway?”

4. Period-piece star:
Leonardo DiCaprio vs. Russell Crowe
This is the only matchup where the American star is really gaining on the import, because, seriously: What the hell happened to Russell Crowe? Has the strain of hating everyone he works with prematurely aged him? Or is he just packing on sympathy pounds now that his wife is pregnant? Whatever the reason, the guy who was so macho and sexy in “L.A. Confidential” now looks like a blond Meat Loaf. Between his Rubenesque new physique and the critical mass of press he’s received for being a thoroughly unpleasant person in real life…well, he’s just not as crush-worthy as he used to be. (Unless you like really snarky people who make boring movies, and Vin Diesel is too cut for your tastes.)

But now, take a second look at Leonardo DiCaprio. Yes, in “Catch Me If You Can,” we had a hard time believing the twenty-eight-year-old, playing a sixteen-year-old, could convince anyone he was…well, twenty-eight. But he looked perfectly delightful in his skinny ’60s-era suits and pilot’s uniforms, and promises to acquit himself as well in “The Aviator,” in which he plays Howard Hughes. In fact, as long as he stays away from unconvincing facial hair and stage-fighting — both of which were embarrassing on him in “Gangs Of New York” — he’ll have nothing to fear from Russell Crowe.

Tara Ariano co-created and co-edits Fametracker.com and TelevisionWithoutPity.com.