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Grumpy Old Fan | Clothes calls, or the perils of practicality

by  in Comic News Comment

This past week (ish), DC Entertainment was so pervasive in the television upfronts, it almost made me forget the company still publishes comics. Joining Arrow on the 2014/2015 TV schedule will be adaptations of The Flash, iZombie and Constantine, as well as the Bat-prequel Gotham. (And hey, that was Caity “Black Canary” Lotz reprising her role as Don’s pregnant-hippie “niece” on Sunday’s Mad Men!) Moreover, we’ve now seen a moody black-and-white photo of Ben Affleck as Batman, standing next to his new Batmobile and ready to dominate the next Superman movie; and The CW has shown us a nifty little clip of the Flash in action.

While I’m prepared to like all of these shows, and certainly willing to give them reasonable opportunities to succeed, once again they remind me that no comic — and certainly no superhero comic — can be adapted to live-action with complete fidelity. Indeed, by taking its cue directly from the comics of the ‘40s and ‘50s, the old Adam West/Burt Ward Batman show was one of the more faithful projects. Likewise, the pilot of the Lynda Carter Wonder Woman series didn’t go too far from Diana’s earliest adventures in All Star Comics #8 and Sensation Comics #1. However, I don’t think that approach would work these days.

In its place seems to be a desire either to justify the comics’ fantastic elements, or to replace them with acceptable substitutes. I’ve said before how the Christopher Reeve Superman movies are a good example of this. While they were pretty good at translating the core characters to the big screen — particularly Clark/Supes — they jettisoned a lot of the lore in the process. This didn’t sit especially well with me at the time, because in the fourth grade I wanted to see Krypto, Luthor’s purple-and-green jumpsuit, Jimmy’s signal watch, and the giant key to the Fortress of Solitude. In hindsight, though, those kinds of things might have been too much to throw at an audience which already had to believe a man could fly. To be blunt, a comics-accurate Fortress might well have looked like the gadget-stuffed North Pole castle from that Mexican Santa Claus movie.

It makes me wonder what would have happened if Warner Bros. had filmed the The Batman script by Superman “creative consultant” (and uncredited screenwriter) Tom Mankiewicz. That Batman was very much influenced by the comics, bringing together not just the Joker and the Penguin, but Rupert Thorne, Silver St. Cloud, Robin’s origin and even the Batcave’s dinosaur. It may also have been the last opportunity to see Batman in something other than black body armor. When Frank Miller reinforced Batman’s chest emblem with a bulletproof plate in The Dark Knight Returns, it inspired eventual Bat-screenwriter Sam Hamm to put body armor under the costume.

The rest is history. Ever since Bob Ringwood redesigned the Batsuit into a heavy, mostly monochromatic mass of rubber and vinyl, live-action superhero costumes have largely been exercises in justification. After all, if you were Batman, wouldn’t you wear whatever you could to keep from getting gunned down? Never mind that Batman’s entire modus operandi is built around what the Christopher Nolan movies called “theatricality and deception” — i.e., if you dress like a monster, your enemies will be so terrified they won’t be able to shoot straight.

Granted, some of Ringwood’s work might well have been making up for any perceived deficiencies in Michael Keaton’s physique. That wasn’t the case in Batman Returns, when Keaton’s costume ditched the molded muscles in favor of a more explicitly armored appearance. However, by that point the earlier approach had taken hold. John Wesley Shipp’s Flash costume, designed by comics great Dave Stevens for the 1990-91 Flash TV show, also featured molded muscles and looked plenty thick. (Its softer material did allow Shipp to pull off his cowl and hang it off the back of his neck, just like the comics’ Barry Allen could. That was a big plus in my book, even if the TV suit would never shrink to fit inside a ring.) Returns’ armor then gave way to Joel Schumacher’s Bat-nipples, which were then abandoned for Christian Bale’s more practical “spelunking” gear. The current Snyder/Affleck Sad Batman is apparently a combination of the molded-muscles look and the textured Super-suit from Man of Steel. No wonder my favorite Batman movie for several years was 1998’s The Mask of Zorro, whose heroes did pretty well in a few yards of black cloth.

Obviously I’m no fashion policeman, but I suppose “texture” is now the new aesthetic in this field. Nothing can look like Spandex — or at least nothing can look as flimsy or shiny as Spandex. Even the new Star Trek uniforms use little delta-shield patterns. Thus, texture dominates Brandon Routh’s and Henry Cavill’s Superman costumes, Ryan Reynolds’ Green Lantern outfit, and Tobey Maguire’s and Andrew Garfield’s Spider-Man costumes; while Affleck’s Daredevil suit, the X-Men uniforms, most of the Arrow costumes and Grant Gustin’s Flash costume all look somewhat leathery. (Gustin’s suit does look less bulky than Shipp’s, but I’m waiting to hear why it’s more practical for a super-speedster than, ahem, Spandex.)

I say all this because, as much as I realize the folly in judging a work by an isolated image, it’s also possible for filmmakers to overthink a superhero costume. Just as Superman doesn’t need to look like he’s wearing body armor, Batman’s traditional grays-and-blue/blacks also have an artistic function. As Michael Chabon described in his seminal superhero essay “Secret Skin,” the common design elements of cape, boots and briefs recalled both circus performers and Flash Gordon, and prepared the audience to suspend its disbelief. Chabon contended that “the superhero costume is, by definition, an impossible object [which] cannot exist,” and went on to recount all the mystic, metaphysical qualities for which a superhero costume did stand.

Not included in that list, but important nonetheless, is the notion of costume as visual shorthand. By providing contrast, Superman’s blue-and-red elements keep the design interesting, and also help orient readers with regard to movement and perspective. In live-action those elements might be distracting, so they’re not emphasized as much.

Regardless, if we think those elements can be translated from print to screen, naturally we want to see how thorough that translation can be. Arrow’s Deathstroke costume is effective because it captures the spirit, if not the exact details, of George Pérez’s original design. Its overstuffed combination of straps, weapons and armor, topped off with the familiar black-and-orange mask, makes the comics’ ready-for-anything approach into something the show’s slightly insane mercenary would wear. The Arrow’s TV outfit has also gone through some story-specific modifications, most notably trading Season One’s black eye-makeup for Season Two’s domino mask. It’s closer to Mike Grell’s Longbow Hunters redesign than to the original Robin Hood-inspired outfits (with their familiar feathered cap); from some angles it looks top-heavy; and I wish Stephen Amell would cultivate a proper goatee; but it works within the show’s philosophy.

Fortunately, that philosophy seems to have served Arrow pretty well, especially this year. Thanks to the magic of streaming video, I caught up with the series late last year, mostly in anticipation of its Flash spinoff. (Ironically, the only episodes I’ve missed are the two featuring Barry Allen.) Like Smallville before it, Arrow has taken a deep dive into the DC Universe, putting spotlights on everyone from the Huntress and Deadshot to Professor Ivo (whose research-lab ship, I was happy to see, goes back to his first appearance in June 1960’s Brave and the Bold #30) and Nyssa al Ghul. Despite splitting some roles among a couple of characters each (i.e., Thea has Roy’s nickname and history of drug use), it’s been winking at the traditional roles associated with the “big names.” I might have been a late convert to this show, but it was pretty cool to see (Green) Arrow and (Black) Canary busting heads together, and especially to watch the latter wield at least a version of the Canary Cry. This week’s season finale puts a mask on one character, and lets one try on another familiar garment. If Detective Lance ends up dying from something called “Aquarius” — and I’m not saying that happened this week, just throwing it out there — that’ll be another step toward conforming Arrow more closely to the comics.

Indeed, that’s the thing, isn’t it? If we hear there’s going to be a Character X TV show, we have our own particular checklist about what should be in it. (That’s why I’d love to see an Aaron Sorkin-esque “old lefty Ollie” take on Green Arrow.) We want these adaptations to confirm for us that what we saw in the comics could work. Part of that might be our own self-justification — the “this is cool, not just for kids” position — but I think a deeper part of that is a desire to see the transformative component Chabon elucidated so eloquently. As we know, if you take away Tony Stark’s armor, you’re still left with a genius billionaire playboy. Regardless of disguise, Bruce Wayne has still trained his body to physical and mental perfection. Barry Allen in street clothes can still run really, really fast.

However, by giving them their distinctive visual identities, the comics have allowed them — and, by extension, their readers — to transcend their more mundane aspects. Iron Man is technology unchained, the Batman is a nightmare-vision, and the Flash is literally speed personified. Superheroes trade on simple imagery because they symbolize such primal, elemental concepts. Breaking that imagery down, and reconstructing it with practical, tangible components, might be necessary; but risks undermining its effectiveness. In this regard I appreciated how the Flash preview emphasized the fun Barry (and Ollie, for that matter) was having with his powers.

I’ll close this week with one last observation about the Batsuit. Historically, of course, Superman (June 1938) preceded Batman by a little less than a year (May 1939). For most of their shared-universe history, the comics reflected this, whether it was Superboy meeting the young Bruce Wayne or “Batman: Year One” referring to “that fellow in Metropolis.” A while back I realized that the similarities between their costumes could even reflect this history. Why indeed would Bruce design a Bat-costume that contained many of the same elements — cape, boots, briefs, belt, chest symbol — as Superman’s suit? Why not in order to create a smidge more doubt and fear into any crook unlucky enough to get a good look at it?

Put it this way: If you wanted to dress like a giant bat, the movies (especially Nolan’s) make a good case for going all-black and building your suit around body armor. However, if you wanted to scare criminals and there was a guy in Metropolis who wore a big cape-briefs-and-boots ensemble and who could throw cars around, why not remind your own criminal element of him while you’re at it? I like to think that the Batsuit worked that element of “want to see how bulletproof I am?” in conjunction with the Dracula motif.

Now, however, the Man of Steel sequel will probably reverse the comics’ chronology, with an older Batman preceding Superman. That’s sort of appropriate, given that for all practical purposes, the Nolan Batman movies made Man of Steel possible. However, it recasts the characters’ philosophies, even subtly. Superman and Batman are both expressions of limitless possibility, although one stands for power used responsibly and the other embodies the peak of human potential. To Superman’s audience, whose belief has already been suspended pretty considerably, a Batman who follows Superman is pretty easy to take — but a Superman who follows Batman must justify his existence to Batman’s audience.

Thus, introducing an “old” Batman into Man of Steel’s world reinforces the audience’s “practicality first” mode, by reminding them of the Nolanverse’s philosophy. Odds are it’ll inform the looks of the movie’s other super-characters as well. Instead of having a Batman who dresses like Superman because that’s what superheroes dress like, we’re getting a Batman who — for whatever Nolanesque reasons — has a thick suit of armor, because that’s what people expect. I’m still trying to keep an open mind about these things, and I know Ben Affleck doesn’t want his suit to be Movie-Daredevil, Part Deux; but “that’s what people expect” shouldn’t limit a superhero story. These costumes are meant for bigger things.

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And now, here’s the Futures’ Index for this week’s issue #2.

  • Story pages: 20
  • Number of “Five Years From Now” captions: 1
  • Percent of the story which takes place “five years from now”: 100%
  • Percent of last issue’s story which took place “five years from now”: 100%
  • Number of “Five Years From Now” captions in last issue’s story: 1
  • Likelihood that the next issue will also begin with a “Five Years From Now” caption: 99.9%
  • Character deaths: 0 (not counting the late Green Arrow)
  • Notable mourners for Green Arrow/Oliver Queen: Animal Man, Arsenal, Mr. Terrific, Flash (Barry Allen), Aquaman, Firestorm, Wonder Woman, the Masked Superman
  • Previous “memorial service” for Green Arrow/Oliver Queen: Green Arrow #101, October 1995
  • Notable 1995 mourners: Black Canary II, Arsenal, Green Arrow II, Superman, Batman, Robin III, Nightwing, Flash (Wally West), Elongated Man, Sue Dibny, Guy Gardner
  • Amount of time the pre-New 52 Oliver Queen stayed dead: 5 years, 6 months (October 1995-April 2001)
  • Cause of Firestorm’s tardiness related to Green Arrow’s death: carnal desire
  • Number of times one pre-reboot Firestorm participant was plucked naked out of the shower by an unexpected transformation: at least once
  • Other significant superhero-oriented funerals: Superman (1993), Green Lantern Hal Jordan (1996), Sue Dibny (2004)
  • Number of those decedents who were later revived: 2 (Superman and Hal)
  • Number of those decedents who mourned Green Arrow in 1995: 2 (Superman and Sue)
  • Number of those decedents Green Arrow/Oliver Queen mourned: 2 (Superman and Sue)
  • Number of those decedents present at the current funeral: 0 (not counting the Masked Superman)
  • Notable eulogists at those funerals: Bill and Hillary Clinton (Superman), Wonder Woman (Sue)
  • Eulogist at the current funeral: Animal Man

NOTES: After the first couple of issues’ worth of nastiness and death, I appreciated this issue’s slight change of pace. However, the “everyone comes out for a super-funeral” trope is in full effect, and Firestorm’s fight with Arsenal was hardly unexpected. As mentioned in the main post, I’m an old-school Ollie fan, so I liked the notion that “the War” would have driven him closer to his pre-reboot man-of-the-people perspective. I also liked Animal Man’s eulogy (no doubt written by Jeff Lemire), although I couldn’t help but contrast it with Wonder Woman’s “greatest eulogy you never heard” from Identity Crisis. Finally, while either “side” of Firestorm has usually been able to initiate the transformation, traditionally it didn’t require mutual consent — thus, you’d see Ronnie plucking Professor Stein out of a job interview, or Stein would be drunk and Ronnie’d have to deal with it. I want to say Stein was the one whisked naked out of the shower, but it could have been the other way around. Anyway, the entire Firestorm/GA subplot seems to hinge on this detail; otherwise, Jason could have transformed them on his own. I don’t like it when a plot depends on a bit of trivia, and FE is going out of its way to make Ronnie a jerk — which itself isn’t new — but the series is still young.

NEXT WEEK IN THE FUTURE: Bar fights! Batman Beyond vs. armored thugs! Tattoos! Polar bear stabbing! Dan Jurgens draws Booster Gold (I presume)!