The Art of Superhero Costumes for Movies and TV

Images of the costume design for the new Captain America: The First Avenger movie directed by Joe Johnston and starring Chris Evans hit the Internet yesterday and had fandom buzzing.  Read all about it at Ain't It Cool News, io9.com, CinematicalJoBlo.com (who had a sneak peak at the designs last week), and countless other blogs and Web sites.

Bringing a superhero to life on the big screen takes a lot of effort, but the trickiest component of the whole process is getting the costume right.  What might work on comic book paper does not always translate well in physical reality.  As filmmakers try to add some realism to their fantasy stories, they risk upsetting die-hard fans who become frustrated when any changes are made to the characters or storylines that they know so well. 

Examples abound, the greatest being the uproar over the X-Men costumes when director Brian Singer opted for the black-leather uniforms in his film adaptation versus the yellow suits of the original comics.  Nevertheless, the movie was a hit, both critically and financially, so the furor quickly subsided.

Batman has had his share of costume fiascos from Michael Keaton not being able to turn his head in Tim Burton's films because of the design of the molded cowl to the ludicrous butt-shots and rubber nipples on the Joel Schumacher sequels. But while the Adam West TV version was probably the closest to the comic book design at the time, I doubt anyone would hold up that costume as the ideal choice for future Dark Knight adaptations.

The Captain America costume design for the new movie seems modeled after the Ultimates comic book line, in which the costume was updated to give it a more realistic look.  Gone are the wings on the side of the head, gone is the chain-mail armor.  Instead we have a more militaristic body-armor design, much more suitable for a soldier who is also a propaganda tool during World War II.  I am still not sure why he needs a big letter "A" on his forehead -- the one thing I liked about Rob Liefeld's short-lived and otherwise horrible "Heroes Reborn" reboot of the character was the replacement of the "A" with an eagle logo.

Some superheroes are forever linked to their iconic costumes -- Superman and his red cape are a prime example of something that works and should not be tampered with too much.  For other heroes, though, a little updating for their movie spotlight is fine.  If they ever make a Submariner movie, for example, we do not need to see Prince Namor running around in a Speedo bathing suit for the entire film -- it might be okay to rethink his costume. 

But change for change's sake is never a good idea.  A television version of Captain America back in the era of Evel Knievel had him wearing a big, dumb motorcycle helmet and wielding what looked like a plexiglass shield.  Just because Batman looks great in black and the X-Men costumes turned out okay does not mean that every superhero should don dark garb.  Clark Kent's current trench-coated outfit on Smallville is more Matrix than Man of Steel.

Artists design their heroes to work in the four-color medium of printed comic books.  So the splashy colors and circus performer aesthetics of the superhero comics genre are fine for the printed page.  The exaggerated musculature is fine for the line-drawing artwork of print.  But if filmmakers were limited to those original designs, many superheroes would be stuck wearing leotards and tights, drawing laughs and ridicule rather than the desired respect the characters deserve in their action-adventure stories.

So designing superhero costumes for the big screen is a fine art.  I cannot judge Captain America based on these early designs -- I will need to see the finished film to see if it works or not. Until then, the discussion about differences in print comics versus live-action superhero films is enlightening and entertaining.

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