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Superman’s Live-Action Costumes, Ranked: “On My World, It Means ‘Haute Couture'”

by  in Lists, Comic News, Movie News, TV News Comment
Superman’s Live-Action Costumes, Ranked: “On My World, It Means ‘Haute Couture'”

After a season’s worth of teases, offscreen conversations, and almost-glimpses, Tyler Hoechlin is set to become television’s newest Superman. Live-action versions of the Man of Steel started with a 1948 movie serial and (as of this fall) include five TV shows, eight feature films and a Broadway musical.

While every interpretation has its limitations, Superman’s “look” is the common denominator. Not only must it suggest powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men, it must also convey the character’s humanity, and especially his innate goodness. No amount of special effects can offset a Superman who doesn’t have that regular-guy appeal.

Moreover, since each Superman actor must also be disguised convincingly as a certain mild-mannered reporter, it’s not the easiest standard to meet. In fact, this ranking is more about that combination of actor and costume than anything else. Honestly, with some of these actors all we have to go on are their Super-suited photos.

Joe Shuster tweaked his original Superman design slightly in the year or so between “Action Comics” #1 (cover-dated June 1938) and “Superman” #1 (Summer 1939); but the latter’s cover — the Man of Steel at the apex of his leap over a tall building — is pretty much the Superman the world has come to know. The details, including the “S”-shield’s appearance, changed even more over time; but the basic blue bodysuit, red trunks, boots and cape, and yellow belt stayed essentially the same until Jim Lee’s 2011 redesign. Even the spitcurl in Supes’ hair turned into an essential element. Thus, without further ado, let’s see how well these actors wore it!

12. 12. Nicolas Cage in the planned feature film “Superman Lives” (1998)

As mentioned above, this ranking tries to be as fair as possible to the actors and their wardrobes. Still, even with recently-unearthed photos and the footage from the “Death of Superman Lives” documentary — and the acknowledgment that we will probably never see Nicolas Cage on-screen in the final form of his Super-suit — somebody’s gotta come in last. While “Lives” tends to be mocked for its overall aesthetic, the classic outfit came across fairly well. The problem was in the brooding intensity he and director Tim Burton sought to bring to the role. He just didn’t look like a particularly happy Superman… and yes, I know what you’re thinking. We’ll get there, don’t worry.

11. 11. John Haymes Newton in Season One of the TV series “Superboy” (1988-89)

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The biggest reason John Haymes Newton ranks so low is that, put simply, his Superboy costume didn’t serve him very well. It looks very much like a Christopher Reeve-era knockoff (not surprising, considering that the “Superman” movie producers also produced “Superboy”), only with much brighter colors and not as well-made. Whether due to budgets or a lack of attention to detail, something significant is lost. There also appears to be an overdose of product in his hair, resulting in a rather dire spitcurl. The whole thing gives the impression that Newton is trying too hard. Even in the midst of adolescent turmoil, a future Superman can’t afford to be so uptight. There’s always the chance he and his suit might grow into the Superman we know and love, but it certainly didn’t happen while “Superboy” was on the air.

10. 10. Tom Welling in the TV series “Smallville” (2001-11)

Before all the “Smallville” fans grab the pitchforks and light up those torches, rest assured that I’m just as surprised as you are. I have a lot of respect for Tom Welling and his work as a proto-Superman; but there simply isn’t enough of him either as Superman (or a more familiar Clark Kent, for that matter) to rank him much higher. He wore three proper costumes in the series’ later seasons: a black trenchcoat over black pants and a black T-shirt with white “S”-shield; a red leather jacket with the “S” across the chest; and in the final episode, the Superman suit (borrowed from “Superman Returns”).

However, the series’ mission statement meant essentially that Welling would always fall just short of actually being Superman until that final episode, so judging how much he looked like Superman is sort of like judging Gilligan and friends on how well they got off the island. Moreover, when Welling eventually did embrace his destiny, viewers never saw him in full.

Even so, the final episode’s final scene — Welling racing to the Daily Planet’s roof and revealing the Superman costume under his clothes, with John Williams’ famous score blaring as he went — ended the series on a real high note. Welling strode across that rooftop like he’d just hit a walk-off home run, which is just the sort of confidence you want in a Last Son of Krypton.

9. 9. Gerard Christopher in the TV series “Superboy” AKA “The Adventures Of Superboy” (Seasons 2-4, 1989-92)

From what I can tell, most fans of the late ’80s/early ’90s “Superboy” series considered Gerard Christopher a distinct upgrade from John Haymes Newton in Season One. Certainly he appeared a lot more comfortable in the (dual) role as reporter Clark Kent and his alter ego, the Man of Steel. Nevertheless, like Newton he had to deal with a too-bright super-suit. These days film and TV fans are blessed with costume designers and cosplayers who can work wonders within the confines of tight budgets, so perhaps Christopher and Newton were just products of their time. I just can’t get past those distracting colors (especially the yellows) which emphasize the suit over the actor inside. It’s by no means terrible, but not quite “super” enough to rocket him any higher on this list.

8. 8. Bob Holiday in the Broadway musical “It’s A Bird… It’s A Plane… It’s Superman” (1966)

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Live theater clearly doesn’t have the same resources as film or television, so in that respect it’s not surprising that Bob Holiday’s Superman would have to work that much harder. Most photos from the original Broadway run are in black-and-white, making it hard to judge how the suit’s primary colors came across on stage; but generally the costume complemented Holliday’s physique (he worked out for the role) and rumpled good looks. With classic Silver Age artists like Curt Swan, Wayne Boring and Al Plastino drawing Supes as a pretty beefy guy, Holiday’s appearance wasn’t too far from the source material in that regard. We’ve seen how easy it can be for the costume to overwhelm the actor, and Holiday’s turn as the Man of Steel shows the value of (relative) subtlety.

In fact, many fans may be more familiar with “It’s A Bird” from clips of the 1975 ABC TV special starring David Wilson as a fairly unpolished Superman. His costume doesn’t fit nearly as well, its blues are too dark and its reds too bright, his hair is too shaggy, and his cape flops around his shoulders like a gym towel. If he’d gotten an official spot on this list, it’d be at an appropriately-unlucky No. 13.

7. 7. Tyler Hoechlin in the TV series “Supergirl” (Season 2, 2016-17)

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The first photo of the most recent Superman seems to have suffered from too much retouching, especially around Tyler Hoechlin’s head. Subsequent behind-the-scenes photos show a better haircut (although not much in the way of a spitcurl) and perhaps a more accurate daylight perspective on the suit’s colors.

The suit itself seems inspired mostly by the New 52 redesign, although its details are different enough to be noticeable. It has a nondescript red belt with gold highlights instead of the classic red trunks. Its boots are also very similar to the New 52 costume’s, with an “armor” piece running up the shin almost to the knee. Like Melissa Benoist’s Supergirl costume, Hoechlin’s suit sports some extra stitching which I presume is meant to emphasize his physique; but it also appears to suggest the New 52’s “body armor” elements in a way that Benoist’s suit doesn’t. Hoechlin’s costume does have the classic suit’s open neck, as well as golden “clasps” (reminiscent of Supergirl’s mid-1980s comics outfit and/or the Eradicator’s Superman costume) where the cape attaches just below the collarbone. The costume appears to be made of the same material as Benoist’s, giving it more weight than mere spandex but not as much as, say, Nicolas Cage’s rubbery outfit.

Generally I like this design. Its biggest innovation is the cape clasps, which seem rather unnecessary since the cape could just go the traditional route and tuck into the open neck. Supergirl’s costume is so simple — shirt, skirt, belts, boots, cape — that this one strikes me as a bit overthought. Regardless, it still says “Superman” to me, particularly because the “S”-shield is so prominent and very comics-faithful. The costume’s colors are balanced well, its cape and boots give Hoechlin a good shape overall, and from the chest up it lets Hoechlin look like Superman. I’m eager to see how it comes across in high definition.

6. 6. George Reeves in the film “Superman and the Mole Men” (1951) and the TV series “The Adventures of Superman” (1952-58)

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Reeves wore two different Superman suits, one in shades of grey (for black-and-white filming) and another in the familiar colors for when “Adventures of Superman” upgraded to color TV. Naturally, his costume was very faithful to the comics, except that the cape hung down a little farther off the shoulders and its S-symbol sported the same colors as the one on Reeves’ chest. Reeves also didn’t have a spitcurl, but he’s hardly alone.

His suits were padded to give the impression of muscles, but that was almost beside the point. Reeves’ Superman was a very genial figure, kind to friends and stern to enemies. He didn’t look like the Superman of 1950s comics, and he didn’t look like a youngish strongman in a suit, but his portrayal still holds up because of the way he carried himself. His posture, the twinkle in his eye, and the stature he seemed to gain in the suit are perfect illustrations of Superman’s intangible qualities, particularly the character’s paternal nature.

5. 5. Kirk Alyn in the serials “Superman” (1948) and “Atom Man Vs. Superman” (1950)

Kirk Alyn may not be the first (or second) name you think of when consider live-action Men of Steel, but as the first film Superman, he cut a pretty convincing figure. Like Holiday and Reeves, Alyn didn’t have much more to combine with his performance than his own body and the super-suit, and he filled out the costume very well. Not as broad as Holiday nor as thin as Reeves, Alyn’s frame was a lot like Joe Shuster’s muscular scrapper from the DC Comics source material. The resemblance became even clearer when Alyn put on Clark Kent’s double-breasted suit and glasses. Not everyone can pull off both aspects of the role, but Alyn navigated both quite well. He gave the Man of Steel’s live-action career a successful start, so perhaps we owe him a debt of gratitude.

4. 4. Henry Cavill in the feature films “Man of Steel” (2013) and “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” (2016)

Not to put my thumb on the scale, but I feel like Henry Cavill’s Superman has a very good “look” which has unfortunately been obscured by a couple of dour movies. The suit itself is basically a trunks-free update of the classic costume, made out of thick, textured material and augmented with some figure-accenting lines. Accents below the ribs point diagonally towards the pelvic region, suggesting the classic trunks and (along with an oval “belt buckle”) breaking up the suit’s middle. Similar linework on the “S”-shield makes it look more ornate, even baroque, in keeping with the movie’s neoclassical Kryptonian aesthetic. The floor-length cape tucks into the costume’s open neck.

My two biggest problems with Cavill’s Super-look are his receding hairline — to me he looks more like Superman in “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” — and the cape’s excessive length. Calf- or ankle-length is fine, but only Bat-characters and Jedi Knights need to drag around that extra few inches of fabric. When Cavill’s striding purposefully, as in his first emergence from the Kryptonian scoutship or while he’s being marched along by soldiers, the cape flows better. When moving more slowly or standing still (as in the Senate hearing in “BvS”), however, the floor-length cape throws off the costume’s balance and makes him look too serious. Even if that was the point, it’s not a good choice.

Otherwise I like the design. From a distance it’s simple, like the classic look; and up close the textures and details give it the weight today’s moviegoers have come to expect. There are some suggestions of sculpted musculature, but generally it gives the impression of a skintight suit over a very muscular body — which, of course, is what you want in a Superman outfit. While the colors are much darker than usual, they’re part of the movies’ washed-out palette. If Cavill’s suit had a little more pop in its blues, reds, and yellows, and maybe a yellow S-shield on the cape, it could only help.

Cavill’s personal “look” is different from a lot of other Super-actors. He doesn’t glower that much, although he yells in frustration a little more than I’d prefer. Often we see him curious or questioning, which suggests innocence or even naïveté. His Superman still wants to do the right thing, but the world he’s been thrust into is significantly more complex than in other live-action adaptations. It’s as if Cavill’s version of the character hasn’t found himself. Perhaps with “Justice League’s” purported lighter tone we’ll see a happier, better-adjusted Superman.

3. 3. Brandon Routh in the feature film “Superman Returns” (2006)

As with TV’s two Superboys and arguably Tom Welling, Brandon Routh was supposed to remind moviegoers of Christopher Reeve. Indeed, Routh was essentially picking up where Reeve left off, since “Superman Returns” was a sequel to “Superman II.” I’m not sure how successful he was as a Reeve surrogate, but on his own terms (and notwithstanding a problematic script) he was a very good Superman. His costume was essentially the classic design with no “S” on the cape but a small “S” for a belt buckle. Like the contemporaneous Tobey Maguire Spider-Man suits, Routh’s outfit was made of thicker material, textured with tiny pentagons. (Later, the Kelvin-timeline “Star Trek” uniforms worked the Starfleet arrowhead into a similar all-over pattern.) I don’t know how buff Routh got for the role, but in the costume he looks sufficiently bulked-up. The cape comes down about to his calves and flares out nicely, giving him a good standing-around shape.

The costume’s main problems are its crewneck collar and undersized chest symbol. The “S” has been redesigned slightly, which is fine. It’s a separate hard piece, not made of the suit’s fabric; and that’s fine too. However, those two elements in combination de-emphasize Routh’s chest, making him look thinner. Alyn and Reeves’ “S”-shields looked about the same size (relatively speaking) as Routh’s, but their traditional open-neck collars helped broaden their chests. Routh might even have done better with one of Jim Lee’s dreaded high collars, although that wasn’t the style at the time. Still, Routh was convincing as the Man of Steel — convincing enough to play another flying powerhouse in the “Scott Pilgrim” movie — and I look forward to his interactions with the CW’s Kryptonians as the Atom on “DC’s Legends of Tomorrow.”

2. 2. Dean Cain in the TV series “Lois & Clark: The New Adventures Of Superman” (1993-97)

If “Lois & Clark’s” Superman costume hadn’t been upgraded after its pilot episode, Dean Cain wouldn’t have placed this high. On the plus side, that first outfit did look like something Clark and Ma Kent would have put together in an afternoon; and it followed the classic design for the most part. However, it seemed to be made of regular old spandex, the boots laced up the front, and it too had a crewneck collar and smallish “S”-shield. Additionally, Cain’s pilot-episode hair was a bit mullet-y, perhaps following the contemporaneous comics.

Many of these bugs were worked out by the time the series went into production (although apparently the cape attachments were tweaked over the first few episodes).

A larger, more solid-looking “S”-shield covered more of Cain’s chest, and an open-neck collar replaced the pilot costume’s crewneck. The red trunks got beltloops, and the boots lost their laces. Cain also got a better haircut.

The boots and belt were still slightly off-model, but the overall effect was very convincing. The cape was pleated at the shoulders, helping it flow; and it even had a good-sized yellow “S” made of contrasting colors of thread, for that extra bit of flair. Most importantly, Cain’s easygoing manner anchored a portrayal inspired mostly by the post-John Byrne comics of the early ’90s. He looked very comfortable in the suit, and it allowed him to move well. He also made a fine Clark Kent (who, counterintuitively, ended up with the spitcurl).

Still, as you have probably guessed, no one compares to…

1. 1. Christopher Reeve in the feature films “Superman” (1978), “Superman II” (1981), “Superman III” (1983) and “Superman IV: The Quest For Peace” (1987)

Casting the first big-budget movie Superman involved actors and athletes alike, from Sylvester Stallone and James Caan to Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Jenner. After the then-unknown Christopher Reeve got the part, he refused to wear a muscle suit and bulked up under the guidance of David “Darth Vader’s Body” Prowse. Reeve’s costume was taken pretty much from the then-current comics (drawn mostly by Curt Swan), except with a larger “S”-shield and a cape which tucked in all around the open neck, not just at the shoulders.

Really, though, it seems like Reeve was practically born to play Superman. He looked like a combination of Curt Swan, Neal Adams, and José Luis Garcia-Lopéz figures come to life. Even the photos show an endearing friendliness mixed with hope and the requisite determination. He also absolutely nailed Clark Kent, especially the stagecraft of transforming from Clark to Superman. Not only do you believe a man can fly, you believe a man can hide behind thick glasses, stooped shoulders and a nasal accent. Reeve so embodied the qualities that audiences wanted out of Superman that he influenced future Superman artists. John Byrne incorporated the larger “S”-shield into his 1986 design tweaks, and Gary Frank used Reeve as a model for his Superman.

We comics fans throw around words like “definitive” and “iconic” maybe a little more than we should sometimes, but I daresay Christopher Reeve deserves both terms unreservedly. He not only redefined how actors should look as Superman, he helped redefine Superman, period.

Who’s your pick for the most super looking Superman in live-action?

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