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From American Psycho to Vice, the History of Christian Bale's Drastic Movie Transformations

Oscar winner Christian Bale is known for physically disappearing into his roles and has gained and lost roughly 300 pounds over the course of his career—here's how he did it

By Natalie Finn 14 Apr, 2020 4:00 PMTags
Related: Christian Bale's Best Transformations Throughout The Years

Christian Bale doesn't always transform for a role.

But when he does, he's unrecognizable.

The 46-year-old Welsh actor has lost and gained hundreds of pounds over the years, not even including whatever he's done for roles that have called for a touch less meat on his frame or a tad more muscle.

Or a lot more muscle, as was the case when he played homicidal yuppie Patrick Bateman in American Psycho, which hit theaters 25 years ago.

"I'm English. I had never gone to a gym in my life," Bale recalled in a recent oral history about the social satire-meets-slasher film for MovieMaker. "You lose that quicker than you gain it."

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Biggest Oscars Transformations of All Time

The tonally hard-to-pin-down film, based on Bret Easton Ellis' polarizing novel, was a modest success, making $34 million worldwide on a reported $7 million budget, but it's become a cult classic—thanks in no small part to Bale's balls-nail-gunned-to-the-wall performance, from the aspirational moneyed accent that Bale spoke in the entire time on set to the 12-pack abs Bale/Bateman achieved thanks to his obsessive workouts.

"I also remember that after every day he would go work out for hours and hours and hours to get into that incredible shape," Matt Ross, who played Luis Carruthers, recalled to MovieMaker. "I remember [director Mary Harron] and I talking about just what an incredible work ethic he had."

Lionsgate Films

Bale said that, when he was making American Pyscho, he envisioned Patrick Bateman aspiring to be like two '80s-era icons in particular: slick movie star Tom Cruise and New York real estate tycoon Donald Trump.

"I mean, look, if someone had landed at that time and he was looking around for cultural alpha males, business-world alpha males, et cetera, than Tom Cruise certainly would have been one of those that he would have looked at and aspired to be and attempted to emulate," Bale explained. "...And certainly that megawatt smile with the perfect teeth.

"Likewise, Donald Trump would have been somebody he would have looked at and said, 'Ah, right. I need to have a little bit of that as well.'...If Bateman were around today he'd probably be inspired to run for president."

Lionsgate

On the flip side, the only shape Bale thought of when playing former Vice President of the United States Dick Cheney was round.

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Christian Bale: Movie Star!

"I've got to stop doing it. I suspect it's going to take longer to get this off," Bale told The Guardian in 2017, referring to the belly he acquired for his jovially sinister portrayal of the portly, balding, white-haired politician from Nebraska, who was 59 when he became VP—and who by some accounts pulled the most consequential strings in the Bush 43 White House—in Adam McKay's Vice.

And though it was Satan who Bale cheekily thanked when he won a Golden Globe, his second, in 2019 for his uncanny portrayal of Cheney, he may have wanted to give a shout-out to devil's food.

"I've just been eating a lot of pies," he joked to Variety when it became obvious he was letting himself go for a part. 

He's had many a hairpiece and prosthetic added to his visage over the years, but Bale doesn't do fat suits, preferring to pack on actual pounds to aid in the acting process.

"It's helpful not to look like yourself," said the veteran actor, whose breakout role came at 10 in Steven Spielberg's Empire of the Sun. "If I look in the mirror and go, 'Ah, that doesn't look like me'—that's helpful."

Paramount Classics

Bale has given his average, everyday weight as around 185 pounds, and he's been all over the scale during the course of his long career, from a disturbingly emaciated 122 pounds for The Machinist in 2004 to a soft 225 to play Cheney, with every form of musculature in between.

Here's how he really does it:

Velvet Goldmine

In the 1998 film Bale is a music journalist who in looking into the retreat of singer Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) from public life, remembers his own coming of age as a closeted gay man who found himself amid the freedom and passion epitomized by Britain's '70s-era, Bowie-inspired glam rock scene.

The makeup and shag haircut played key supporting roles, but the character of Arthur Stuart did call for extra lankiness.

"I don't find it difficult to not eat, so you know," Bale told E! News back in 1998, "so I eat just soup. Well...actually, I started off and I was going running a lot, and then my mum came to stay with me for one night in the apartment that I had in London. And I was getting up at like 6 in the morning and going running, and she was like, 'Christian, what are you doing?'

"And I said, 'I've got to lose weight for it.' And she said, 'well hold a bit, you're doing a film about sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. Why don't you do it the way they did it? They weren't out running, they just weren't out eating. They didn't eat but they drank a hell of a lot and lived very unhealthily. So I went, 'yes, cheers, mom, alright' and took that to heart and it works."

American Psycho

To play jacked serial killer Patrick Bateman in the enduring 2000 satire, Bale had his teeth capped and trained like... well, a madman. 

"I liked my old teeth," he reminisced to The Guardian. "I have a molding of them on a shelf. But with Patrick Bateman, his physicality is much more important than with most characters. He deals totally in the superficial, and he's incredibly narcissistic. I looked at myself in the mirror and it just wasn't right. I was warned that if I got caps I could get a lisp, and you might still be able to tell in close-up. So I thought, I like my teeth, but I'm not so attached to them that I'm going to ruin this whole movie because I refuse to get them done."

"Working out took over my life," he admitted. "I became fascinated with talking about the body, and diet, and the gym. It made me very judgmental of other people's bodies as well."

As for the food, Bale said his American Psycho diet was the "most restrictive" of all the times he's set out to reshape his body. "There were no cheat meals," he told Train magazine in 2017. "It was all lean protein. No sugars, good fats and low carbs."

Meanwhile, he had the role, then lost it to Leonardo DiCaprio when the studio thought casting Leo would make the idea of an adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis' gruesome novel more palatable, but then Leo dropped out to make The Beach. Then it was offered to Ewan McGregor, but Bale convinced McGregor, who was also in Velvet Goldmine, that he was the man for the job.

"If you want something you have to say you want it," Bale told Esquire in 2014. "That was a situation where I had been preparing for six months, even longer and… 'What just happened?' You know? So many people see showing your passion for something as a weakness. Because then they've got leverage on you...So a lot of people play the game of only so much [interest]. I'm no good at that. I've got the worst poker face...I'm not a businessman. I want this to be about feelings. That's how it should be."

Enough back-and-forth to drive anybody crazy, but it turned out to be an iconic role for Bale.

The Machinist

"If you were any thinner, you wouldn't exist."

The most infamous of Bale's transformations, the one that qualifies as truly grotesque, was to play Trevor Reznik, an unstable, insomniac factory worker who loses his mind when he's fired after a workplace accident in this 2004 thriller. Nothing says commitment like Bale's 63-pound weight loss—a third of his body weight—that left his ribs protruding, his eyes sunken and his emotions dulled.

No fancy tricks here, other than starving himself with a diet of black coffee and an apple and one can of tuna a day, plus vitamins and mineral supplements.

"It just didn't enter my head that it could be done any other way, really," he told the BBC. "I just realized, 'Okay, I have to lose weight.' I just had no idea how much I would have to lose in order to get the look that I was searching for.

"I had a photograph of [country singer] Hank Williams when he was only 29, but he was looking like he was coming on 50, I guess just from abuse. It was a photograph of him getting released from jail just a few months before he died. He's shirtless and he looks a wreck, absolutely emaciated. So I stuck that on the front of the script to be kind of my image of what Trevor should be, and then just kept going and going and trying to reach that."

He ended up at 121 pounds, while the lowest healthy weight advised by a nutritionist was 145. (Also, writer Scott Kosar used his own height as a benchmark for proportional thinness and hadn't yet adjusted the target weight before Bale, who's about 6 inches taller, got the script—which described Trevor as "a walking skeleton"—and took that number as a challenge.)

"It's an amazing experience doing that," Bale recalled to The Guardian in 2018. "When you're so skinny that you can hardly walk up a flight of stairs...you're, like, this being of pure thought. It's like you've abandoned your body. That's the most Zen-like state I've ever been in my life. Two hours sleep, reading a book for 10 hours straight without stopping...unbelievable. You couldn't rile me up. No roller coaster of emotions."

Probably because he didn't have the energy to feel any emotions.

"As soon as you start putting the food back in your stomach, the roller coaster comes back," he added. After they shot the most skeletal scene, when Bale mock-preens in front of Jennifer Jason Leigh, he started gaining weight.

Batman Begins

After The Machinist wrapped, Bale had six weeks to not look like a beanpole for the Batman Begins screen test.

"My metabolism had to get back up to speed, because my heart had got used to a whole different way of living for some time," he told the BBC.

Bale returned to his regular weight by eating high-calorie foods and then packed 35 pounds of muscle on top of it.

"I overdid it because I also was just enjoying gorging," he said in October 2004, per Radio Free Entertainment. "I was ignoring all advice about 'you should take it slowly, your stomach has shrunk, just go with soups.' I was straight into pizza and ice cream and everything, and just eating five meals in a sitting. My stomach, it just expanded really quickly." In turn, "I got pretty sick during that time! But I enjoyed getting sick, I didn't mind it at all. So In that short amount of time I did actually go from 121 right back up to 180, which is way too fast obviously. And that resulted in some doctors visits to get things sorted out."

Once his weight was back up to a healthy level, he resumed running—which he enjoys more than lifting weights, though of course he also lifted weights.

"I would do three sets of 10 to eight, depending on what I was working on," Bale told Train. "Usually, the last set was a little lower rep-wise because I'd want to be struggling, you know? Then I'd always shock my body with drop-sets and super-sets." His diet was mainly "proteins, carbs and good, healthy fats."

"He walked in and looked like a linebacker," The Machinist co-star Michael Ironside remembered in a Reddit AMA seeing Bale at Sundance six months after they finished shooting.

"Actually, I gained too much weight in the run-up to Batman Begins," Bale told Train. "I wasn't the size that [director] Christopher Nolan wanted, so I had to cut down 20 pounds or so just before shooting—I was a lot beefier at first. That cutting down was achieved by going on a calorie deficit and running more and for longer. I cut a lot of the carbs out of my diet for those few weeks as well."

Rescue Dawn

A decade before DiCaprio was eating bison liver for The Revenant, Bale was stomaching maggots to play real-life P.O.W. Dieter Dengler, who weighed 98 pounds when he was finally rescued, in Werner Herzog's Vietnam War survival epic, which he shot toward the end of 2005 but its release was delayed until July 2007.

Off went all the Batman weight, as well as a bunch of regular-Bale weight.

"I had the most astonishing experiences with him where he lost 65 pounds for a role he accepted," Herzog told Esquire UK in 2014. (The New Yorker reported 55 pounds in 2006.) "The amount of sacrifice. He's the most diligent, professional human you can ever need."

He shot the film's later scenes, where Bale is skinniest, first, which gave Bale more time to get back into shape for his next movie because he was able to put on weight through the course of the 44-day shoot in Thailand.

As for those maggots, Herzog, who lost almost 30 pounds in solidarity with Bale, told Rotten Tomatoes in 2007, "I've seen people in other countries eat maggots, and they're very rich in protein. So there's nothing really wrong about it. In our own cultural context we're not accustomed to eating maggots, but Christian Bale always knew I would essentially offer to do things I asked from the actors. For example, when we were in the rapids, I spent all day with them in the water. I offered to eat a couple of spoonfuls of maggots, but in this case Christian said, 'Oh for God's sake, just turn on the camera and let me get on with it.'"

The Prestige

No zygotes were split in the making of this drama, which also starred Hugh Jackman as a rival magician to Bale's mindbogglingly talented illusionist.

"I remember Christian was worried because he was meeting to play a superhero," Christopher Nolan told The New York Times in 2010, recalling how shockingly thin the actor was when he first met him before they started shooting Batman Begins. "But I came away from it feeling I'd never seen such focus and dedication from an actor."

Right after the first leg of the Dark Knight trilogy, Bale shot Terrence Malick's The New World, then spent 24 days shooting David Ayer's indie drama Harsh Times, then dropped 55 pounds for Rescue Dawn, then reunited with Nolan for the early 2006 shoot.

When he read the script for The Prestige, he told Film Monthly in October 2006, "There were so many mysteries surrounding this one character that he was immediately the one I wanted to play."

In a way, Bale got to transform back into himself, an inscrutable fellow with an accent. And once again, he was the one who wore his acting heart on his sleeve, telling Nolan he wanted the role of Alfred Borden. Ultimately, Bale also enjoyed the tight shoot, the polar opposite of the seven months it took to make Batman Begins

"Chris was a shape shifter in the way he went to very different styles of directing from Batman to this," Bale described the experience to CinemaBlend in 2006. "He really wanted to be able to move very quickly, spin on a dime, and have us all ready to approach different scenes in different ways. Maybe we are going to do this scene today, maybe we're going to do this one instead."

Alas, Bale didn't transform into a magician. He told Collider in 2017 that he vividly remembered "learning absolutely no magic from it whatsoever."

I'm Not There

Bale reunited with Velvet Goldmine director Todd Haynes to play two of six interpretations of Bob Dylan in the 2007 musical drama. (Interestingly, Haynes said Adrien Brody  was his first choice for Bale's part, but "he was sort of hemming and hawing." Bale does not hem and haw if he wants to do a part.) 

If you've ever seen Newsies, you know there's a song and dance man lurking within Bale, but of course playing popular music's greatest bard wasn't just about the music.

"Two men on a real quest for truth," was how the actor described the '60s- and '80s-era Dylans he embodied.  

At one point in the movie his Dylan is "given an award for being the mouthpiece of his generation—and he stands up there and says a big f--k-you, very poetically," Bale told New York magazine. "Since I was a kid, I've always had this image of Jimi Hendrix playing his guitar so much that his fingers are bleeding—and there's probably no truth to it, but it doesn't matter. I just remember thinking what a great image, somebody loving something so much they don't even feel the pain."

Sounds familiar.

Terminator Salvation

Bale infamously turned himself into a diva for a few hot minutes on the set of the 2009 sci-fi action thriller.

"I was out of order beyond belief," Bale said on KROQ-FM's The Kevin & Bean Show, apologizing a few days after a profanity-laced tirade against the movie's director of photography, Shane Hurlbut, from July 2008 made it to TMZ in February 2009. "I acted like a punk. There is nobody who heard the tape who is hit harder than me. I make no excuses for it. It is inexcusable."

There was a bit of method in that madness, but he acknowledged he went too far.

"I was trying to show a little of [John Connor's world's-fate-on-his-shoulders intensity] in the blood craziness," explained Bale, who incidentally also got into top-notch shape and underwent weapons training to play a believable defender of humankind. "It went very wrong...I made it ugly. That was awful of me. I took it way too far. I mixed up fact and fiction. I'm half John Connor there. I'm half Christian there."

Bale concluded, "Please, I want to make it clear. I am embarrassed by it. I regret it. I ask everybody to sit down and ask themselves if they have ever had a bad day and lost their temper and really regretted it immensely."

"We all know how intense and focused Christian is," Terminator Salvation director McG told the Los Angeles Times. "What happened, it was a catalyst for some steam being blown off. We felt safe and controlled. In very short order, people were hugging and we had moved on. Shane finished the picture. I'm not trying to spin it. I can happily report that Christian doesn't feel good about this. He's given thought to the adjustments he wants to give to his life. Christian is a good man. He's not a fundamentally mean guy. To [Hurlbut], he has made amends and apologized clearly and plainly. In that respect, that has been handled."

The Fighter

Bale won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar (and all the other awards) for his role as Dicky Eklund, a once-promising boxer turned drug addict turned ex-con trainer trying to make amends to his still-promising half-brother Micky Ward in David O. Russell's 2010 film, based on a true story.

"I have no goal of seeing if I can become invisible one day, eat so little that I disappear," Bale assured MTV News at the time regarding his 30-pound weight loss." He continued, "I didn't take this job because I went, 'Oh, there's a physical transformation needed.' I always go, 'Damn! There's a physical transformation needed!'

"Again, I just didn't recognize that. I just liked the character and then realized, 'Oh, crap, he's a welterweight.'"

In boxing, a welterweight is between 140 and 147 pounds.

"I can't lose that much weight, because I wouldn't be able to box and train and everything," Bale said. "I didn't look at numbers, I didn't look at scale, I just went down to what looked like might be the right body type for Dicky and the way that he fights as well."

He achieved his gaunt frame "just running like crazy," he told Latino Review. "I could just run for hours on end and I felt really healthy."

Also to MTV, Bale said, "I couldn't go too far. Because if I went too far, I'd be able to play the crackhead side, but then after jail, he got clean mentally and physically, and he's always wiry, he's always lean, but I had to be able to show that. So we needed makeup to help me out a great deal with that."

He also wore false teeth, because Patrick Bateman's perfect pearly whites wouldn't do.

American Hustle

Bale's character in David O. Russell's 2013 dark comedy is a con artist, so fakery was built into the role, from the top of Irving Rosenfeld's obvious hair piece to the tips of his loafers. But the belly is all Bale.

"I think I'm certainly getting older," Bale told USA Today. "I thought I was going to lose the weight I gained for American Hustle. I said, two months, flat, that'll do it. I was 185 and I went up to 228 for it. And I'm still working that off! It's almost six months later. Now I know that when I was in my early 20s it would have been two months and that's it."

Added co-star Amy Adams, "The thing that really bothered me on this one is I was in all those small dresses and swimsuits so I was eating egg whites and avocado for breakfast and he would have these amazingly delicious bacon-egg-bagel concoctions."

And that was just breakfast. "I ate lots of doughnuts, a whole lot of cheeseburgers and whatever I could get my hands on," Bale told People. "I literally ate anything that came my way."

Bale later claimed that his wife didn't particularly mind when he gained weight for a role, but it wasn't ideal for father-daughter bonding.

"Because part of the thing I love is running around playing with my daughter: wrestling, climbing...And I couldn't do it. I felt horrible," he told Esquire in 2014 after losing the American Hustle weight. "You do appreciate it when you get back to a place where you can spend time on a trampoline and not feel like you're going to die."

Asked back in 2006 whether his real-life relationships ever suffered because of his film commitments, Bale scoffed at the notion, telling Film Monthly, "I enjoy that. I enjoy that obsession. Everybody around me, my family and my wife and little girl they get that. They understand it and they enjoy it too. They don't mind it."

Exodus: Gods and Kings

Who knew abs were essential in freeing the Israelites from bondage in Pharaoh's Egypt? Bale whipped himself back into shape to play Moses with your standard trim-and-fit-guy's diet and exercise routine, which included cardio and those dratted weights.

If there was a flaw in the actor's physique, it was barely noticeable.

"If you look closely, you can see my left arm is skinnier than my right. You really can," Bale told Esquire. "Because I hadn't been able to use it for a long time. I lost all my use. It was just a limp thing hanging."

He had been in a motorcycle crash at the end of 2012 that left him with major nerve damage.

"I couldn't move my fingers at all, so I just wasted away," he said. "My whole arm just became nothing. And then gradually I started to be able to get tiny movement. I still don't have the same mobility. So, I am definitely trying to favor my right arm through [Exodus]. I'm glad of those costumes. They could cover a bit of the American Hustle gut which I was desperately trying to get rid of. But—wooo—it's taking a long time."

The Big Short

Shapeless T-shirts, a bad haircut and a lot of sitting in front of computers made Bale into Michael Burry, the socially awkward neurologist turned hedge fund manager with a glass eye who figured out that mortgage-backed securities were about to crash in 2008 and take the U.S. economy down with them...and that there was a fortune to be made by shorting the market.

"I'm incredibly aware of the honor he gave me in allowing me into his incredible brain and psyche and emotions, and so I respect that immensely," Bale, who spent time getting to know Burry to prepare, told Screen Rant in 2015. "And I know that he trusts me to keep that to myself, other than what I show in the film."

Bale also worked on mastering one of Burry's favorite pastimes, drumming, in two weeks.

"It was a wonderful crash course, double kick drum," he called. "Pantera, 'By Demons Be Driven'—fantastic song to begin with. This is how Mike Burry unwound."

Vice

A noticeably heavy Bale, sporting a buzz cut, explained to CBS News in December 2017, "It wasn't just for fun I decided to shave my head, bleach my eyebrows and put on 40 pounds; I was playing Mr. Dick Cheney in a film which we wrapped last week. This is a canvas by which the superb makeup artists create Cheney."

Though in 2016 he reportedly exited a years-in-the-making Michael Mann project about iconic Italian automaker Enzo Ferrari due to concerns about another weight gain, apparently re-teaming with Adam McKay for a film about one of the most notoriously influential American politicians of all time was too appealing to pass up. Or...

"No, I thought he was bats--t crazy," Bale told Collider in April 2017 when asked if he immediately said yes to playing Cheney, "but often a genius is, isn't it?...[McKay] has an ability that I haven't seen in another filmmaker to take a project that on the surface does not seem appropriate for a film whatsoever and make it one of the most compelling and entertaining films that I've seen in a long while, and that's with The Big Short, so he's one of the few people that I think can handle this other project."

So, he consulted experts right off the bat. No cheeseburger-and-ice-cream diet this time.

"I had never before gone to a doctor or a nutritionist about gaining or losing weight for my roles," Bale said on CBS This Morning."But eventually that caught up with me. So, finally...I decided that maybe somebody knows better than I do; so I went to somebody and they managed to get me up a good 40 pounds. It's never healthy to put on that amount of weight in a short amount of time, but I did it in the healthiest manner."

He stuck with the professional advice on his way down the scale too. "In the past for losing weight I went, 'Ah, I'll just smoke and drink whiskey and eat everything,' and it worked!" he said. "But I'm in my mid-40s now and I just thought, 'Probably just eating cream puffs nonstop is not gonna be so good for my ticker.'"

Ford v. Ferrari

While Bale passed on playing Ferrari himself, he opted to give him a run for his lira in James Mangold's Ford v. Ferrari, playing the lanky Ken Miles, the tempestuous, cocky racing engineer and driver who was instrumental in changing Ford's fortunes on the international racing circuit with his performances at the Sebring, Daytona and 24 Hours of Le Mans races in 1966.

And the role came at just the right time, because he needed to drop his Vice weight anyway. "But that was necessary so I didn't die," Bale told Yahoo! Entertainment in November 2019. "So it was killing two birds with one stone. So I got to lose the weight, and be able to fit into a GT40."

At 225 to play peak Cheney, he then lost 70 to play Miles.

"The first day on the set, I asked him: 'How did you do that?'" co-star Matt Damon recalled to Men's Journal. "I've lost weight and gained weight for parts, and there are lots of theories on how to do it. And he just looked at me and said: 'I didn't eat.' That guy is cut from a different cloth. He has a monk-like discipline that's just really impressive to see."

"I recognize a lot of people would just say, 'What was the point? It's just a movie.' Which I can't really disagree with," Bale mused to the Los Angeles Times in 2004, talking about his drastic undertaking for The Machinist

"A couple of times," he added, "I'd be lying asleep and wake up and [my wife would] be quickly withdrawing her hand from in front of my mouth. She'd be checking that my breath was still coming out."

Nutritionists and doctors alike have said that this pattern of gaining and losing large amounts can be detrimental to one's health, and the prolifically adventurous actor now seems to be taking that into consideration.

Merrick Morton/Twentieth Century Fox

"I worry about this becoming a regular conversation, because it isn't healthy for people to do that," Bale acknowledged to Yahoo! Entertainment in November. "And it becomes some kind of marker for commitment to your craft or whatever. I never viewed it as that. I just sort of went, 'Oh, I think I have to do this.'"

"I worry when it becomes a marker of, 'How committed are you to a role?' 'How much did you lose?' And eventually there will be some tragedy because of this. It should be an anomaly. You go for the essence of the character."

But it didn't hurt that Ken Miles in Ford vs. Ferrari was closer in size to Christian Bale (albeit reedier than the actor normally is) than some of those other characters.

"Everyone had told me it was career suicide, which really made me want to do it," Bale told MovieMaker about sinking his teeth into American Psycho. "And I guess I was a little bit disappointed that it didn't end up being career suicide. I kind of hoped that maybe that was it, and I'd have to find something else to go do… I'm perverse. They told me I shouldn't, so of course—that's human, isn't it?—you want to even more."

Lionsgate

His dedication has never waned, whether he's bulking up, slimming down or just plain old disappearing into a role, as the best actors tend to do.

Next up, he may be getting into Batman-caliber shape again to go toe to toe with Chris Hemsworth in Thor: Love and Thunder, though Bale's role is as cloaked in secrecy as the rest of the film's particulars. At least we know he's the guy to pull it off, whatever it is, and on whatever planet, in whichever universe, Marvel or otherwise.

(Originally published Jan. 2, 2019, at 3 a.m. PT; updated Dec. 3, 2019, at 9 a.m. PT)