What is it about superhero costumes that we find so universally compelling? No matter how you slice it, there’s something about the flamboyant clothes these colorful protectors wear that’s appealing across multiple boundaries.
Watching the evolution of the superhero costume on film has been really fascinating over the last decade and a half, because when 2000 brought us X-Men and the rebirth of comic book cinema itself, it also brought us a new way of translating classic superhero costumes to the screen. In pretty much every intervening year since, we’ve seen the fashion of superhero cinema evolve from muted, subtle hues on black leather, all the way to the color-popping, bombastic spectacle that we often see on the comic book page.
So, within this modern era of superhero cinema, what are the best costumes worn by these characters? Let’s try and answer that here.
10) Thor in Thor, The Avengers
An undoubtedly difficult look to try and translate to the silver screen, Alexandra Byrne’s design for the first Thor film did a wonderful job in getting the look of the God of Thunder just right. While across different eras and numerous creators Thor’s look has gotten… creative, Byrne instead focused her efforts on the sleeker, more timeless comic book design first seen in 2007’s Thor comic book series by J. Michael Straczynski and Olivier Coipel.
9) Judge Dredd in Dredd
If translated directly to the real world, this costume would make for a bulky and laughable design. But for Karl Ubran’s turn under the helmet, it was given a faithful yet more realistic redesign. Academy Award-winning costume designer Michael O’Connor went so far as to get approval from Judge Dredd publishers 2000AD before he actually constructed the final costume that Urban would wear in the film. The final result is a design that feels tactical and versatile, yet retains all of the most identifiable elements from Dredd’s comic book counterpart.
8) Walter Kovacs/Rorschach in Watchmen
While relatively straightforward on paper, the final costume for Rorschach in 2009’s Watchmen film is likely one of the most direct and effective translations of a comic book costume since Yvonne Blake’s work on 1978’s Superman. While designer Michael Wilkinson took it upon himself to add more modern flourishes to many of the other characters, for Rorschach he opted for what was exactly on the page of the book: Dave Gibbons’ renderings of a simple trenchcoat and an ever-evolving inkblot of a mask, all of which appear in the final design worn by Jackie Earle Haley in the film.
While some CGI wizardry had to be done to get the effect of Rorschach’s mask just right, the final design for the character in the film helps prove that if an original design is strong enough, it doesn’t need any proverbial bells or whistles to work on film.
7) Frank Castle/The Punisher in The Punisher
While the design worn by Thomas Jane isn’t the original costume for the character as he appeared in the 1970s, the design worn in 2004’s cinematic outing owes itself to the character’s 2000 miniseries by writer Garth Ennis and artist Steve Dillon. As a matter of fact, most of the 2004 film’s design, characters and structure seem to be derived from that 2000 miniseries. Gone were the stark white boots and gloves, and in their place was a harder edged, tactical vigilante. A man who uses his considerable military experience to dish out some serious punishment.
Costume designer Lisa Tomczeszyn effectively translated the look from that series into the 2004 film, and the added redesign of the iconic skull logo made the look of the character himself feel very true to what comics fans were getting on the page at the time.
6) The X-Men in X-Men, X2
While the design of the X-Men characters in the 2000 film was polarizing, the choices made by designer Louise Mingenbach were perfectly representative of the design philosophy of the time. What’s perhaps more astonishing, though, is that instead of the costumes from the film being adapted to the movies, the reverse happened.
When writer Grant Morrison took over the mutant marvels at the start of his run on New X-Men in 2001, it looked as though the new suits worn by the characters were inspired in no small way by the costumes that appeared in the film.
While the film itself took a reflexive jab at the comic book costumes, the look for the characters in X-Men represents a departure from the source material that actually managed to hit the mark pretty effectively, regardless of what some fans of the more hard-core variety may think.
5) Kal-El/Superman in Man of Steel
Costume designer Michael Wilkinson returned with director Zack Snyder to superhero fiction when he was tasked with redesigning what’s arguably the most iconic costume in the history of the superhero genre. Perhaps taking lessons from his time on Watchmen, Wilkinson crafted a suit that evoked the basic elements of the classic look, while also incorporating some modernizations into the overall look of Superman. The final result was a costume that effectively re-created the comic book character’s billowing silhouette, while also emphasizing that, in addition to being the Man of Steel, this Superman was also a man of power.
The years 2012-2013 represented a big shift in the design philosophies of superhero costumes on film, and the costume worn by Superman here seems to be a bridge between the gap of “real” costumes on one side and more truthful comic book costumes on the other. We’ll have to wait for a full-color, nonwashed-out shot of Superman’s new costume in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice to see if he firmly lands on one side or another going forward.
4) Steve Rogers/Captain America in Captain America: The First Avenger
Now, this one had to be a doozy. Captain America’s costume seemed to be one of those suits that people could point to and say, “That would only work on the page.” It had a helmet with protruding wings, a weird, feathery armor on the top of the chest, and was awash in primary colors that failed the 1990 Cap film pretty miserably.
Enter costume designer Anna Biedrzycka-Sheppard, who not only adapted the costume in a fashion befitting an active soldier of the 1940s, but in many ways also would help Marvel Comics itself refine Cap’s look in its 2012 comic book relaunch. The design of the suit in The First Avenger gives some much-needed realistic credence to a design that, in the past, has not been friendly in the real world.
Add to that a great revival of the suit (with some minor additions) in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and you have a solid design that effectively brings Steve Rogers to life in the Marvel cinematic universe.
3) Peter Parker/Spider-Man in Spider-Man 1-3
In the years of superhero film where black leather was the in-vogue style, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films starring Tobey Maguire dared to be different. Raimi’s early life as a massive fan of the character was no secret to the fans and the studio, so when the costume for the first film was revealed, there was little-to-no surprise concerning just how faithful it was to the original design by artist Steve Ditko.
Costume designer James Acheson worked with Raimi to devise a costume that would be immediately identifiable as the wall-crawling web-head, and although there are some minor tweaks to the overall look of the suit itself, it maintained and accentuated the definitive look of the character, and worked very well within the world of the films that Raimi established. The costume Spider-Man wore in his original film trilogy was, in many ways, ahead of its time, but such a classic and visually eye-popping design just can’t really be improved upon (hence the design change between the two Amazing Spider-Man films).
2) Bruce Wayne/Batman in Batman Begins
When Tim Burton’s Batman was released in 1989, the director said that one of the reasons he chose Michael Keaton to play the title character was because a smaller, more intense man like that would “need to dress up like a bat for effect.” The year 2005’s Batman Begins didn’t necessarily have that particular problem, since the six-foot Christian Bale could be imposing in his own right. Instead, the story gave the necessity of the suit proper service for the first time in a Batman film, and the final result is a costume that creates a foreboding and threatening silhouette, while also helping the audience understand exactly why Batman needs everything that’s on it. The mask, the ears, the belt, the gauntlets and the cape are all given in-story explanations as to why Batman needs them to wage his war on crime.
While the suit used in the two follow-up films was given a similar expository treatment, the one used in Batman Begins is just the slightest bit closer to what comic book fans have been seeing from the character on the page over the last 15 years. By showing why Batman needs his suit, along with designer Lindy Hemming’s faithful and practical application of one of the most defining superhero designs ever, the costume from Batman Begins easily earns one of the top spots here.
Chris Clow is a geek. He is a comic book expert and former retailer, and freelance contributor to GeekNation.com, The Huffington Post, and Batman-On-Film.com. You can find his weekly piece Comics on Film every Wednesday right here at Movies.com. Check out his blog, and follow along on Twitter @ChrisClow.
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