There’s nothing more satisfying to a comic book fan than seeing a beloved hero whose exploits they’ve followed for years on the page brought to life on the big screen. There’s a vivid gratification to seeing your favorite comic book heroes transcend the medium of comics to reach new audiences who can fall in love with the character and, with any luck, with comics. It’s uniquely satisfying when a great ensemble of actors is assembled, a director with just the right vision comes on board and a script materializes that respects the source material and knows how to take the character and their world in a bold new direction using a different medium.
Yet, when a superhero movie begins production, there’s one element that gets fans champing at the bit with anticipation…the costume. There’s nothing quite like seeing a talented costume designer take a classic comic book design and rework it to look great on film. Yet while some superhero movie costumes have managed to tow the line precisely between honoring the look of the comic book and crafting a functional piece of production design that looks great through a lens, other recent efforts have fallen woefully short. Here, we’ll look at a little bit of both…
15. WORKS: BATMAN
We’ve had a lot of great Batman costumes over the years. from the bulky, armored look worn by Michael Keaton to the more streamlined panther-esque suit worn by Val Kilmer, Christian Bale’s more utilitarian suit in The Dark Knight was great and even George Clooney’s two toned blue and black suit in Batman and Robin was pretty cool (if you mentally airbrushed out the nipples).
Yet, when that first publicity still of Ben Affleck in full costume for Batman v Superman was released audiences seemed to unilaterally agree that after 50 years of making Batman movies Hollywood had finally nailed the bat suit. Drawing its influences from Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Jim Lee’s New 52 redesign the suit represents a rare moment in which internet detractors were thoroughly silenced. The film itself on the other hand…
14. DOESN’T WORK: SCARLET WITCH
Elizabeth Olsen absolutely rocks the role of Wanda Maximoff, astutely conveying the character’s moral fortitude, emotional vulnerability and the weight of carrying such extraordinary powers. If only she’d gotten to do it in a better costume. It’s understandable that for the majority of Avengers: Age of Ultron, Wanda did most of her avenging in street clothes but her outfit upon joining the team was…really nothing to write home about.
Wanda’s comic book costume has a sense of grandeur and theatricality to it. It’s brash, a little sensual and also kinda scary. While we’ll concede that it’s a tricky design concept to pull off on-screen, we can’t help but wish they’d done something a little more daring with her design in Captain America: Civil War.
13. WORKS: WONDER WOMAN
Looking back now, it’s easy to take Wonder Woman for granted, but if it hadn’t been the critical and commercial home run that it was, not only would it have jeopardized future DC films but it may even have set the course of female led superheroes back by years. Fortunately, the stars aligned and the most iconic woman in comics was done (if you’ll pardon the pun) justice.
While it’s easy to credit Patty Jenkins entirely for this success, credit must be given to Zack Snyder for casting Gal Gadot and to Michael Wilkinson for designing her incredible costume. The design is steeped in Hellenic history, it’s battle scarred and worn yet regal and majestic while unmistakably capturing the essence of the costume from the comics.
12. DOESN’T WORK: DAREDEVIL
Marvel and Netflix’s Daredevil is a phenomenal show and British actor Charlie Cox is by far the best Matt Murdock we’ve seen on screen so far (sorry Rex Smith and Ben Affleck) but there’s something about Daredevil’s simple yet iconic costume that gets lost in translation every time an attempt is made to bring it to screen. The crew of the 2003 Daredevil movie reportedly had a nightmare of a time trying to get the costume right, and while the film’s costume design is passable it’s just not quite right.
The same goes for Cox’s costume in the Netflix series. It’s a great design in its own right but it doesn’t quite scream Daredevil. It looks restrictively stiff and bulky even though Cox and the stunt guys move really well in it. Plus, there’s something heretical about the fact that they couldn’t work the iconic DD logo into the design.
11. WORKS: HAWK AND DOVE
Come on now, let’s be honest. Nobody, absolutely nobody could have suspected that an onscreen Hawk and Dove could possibly look this cool. The costumes for the upcoming Titans TV show (which will be exclusive to DC’s own digital streaming service) do a great job of capturing and indeed elevating the designs from the comics.
The comic book costumes have an elegant simplicity to them, and costume designer Laura Jean Shannon has avoided the common trap that many costumers make by not over complicating the designs with lots of superfluous zips, buckles and affectations. The suits look functional, formidable and real while remaining true to the fairly simplistic nature of the comic book designs. We can’t wait to see what they look like in action.
10. DOESN’T WORK: AQUAMAN
It’s not that we don’t like Michael Wilkinson’s design, or how well Jason Momoa fills out the costume. Objectively, it’s a phenomenal piece of production design. Just look at that detail! It’s ornate and has an ancient yet timeless look to it that gives you a little insight into the design aesthetic of Atlantean culture. While it’s an excellent costume, as an Aquaman costume it just doesn’t feel quite right.
Maybe we wish that Wilkinson had tried to make the orange scale mail work on screen or maybe the clear homage to the ’90s era Aquaman comics just didn’t correlate for younger fans but the look for Aquaman in Justice League just didn’t resonate with audiences as much as the looks for Superman, Batman or Wonder Woman did. We look forward to seeing what (if any) new threads Momoa sports in James Wan’s movie later this year.
9. WORKS: CAPTAIN AMERICA
If you want to see how badly this could have gone, check out the 1990 Captain America movie starring Matt Salinger or the low budget 1979 movie starring Reb Brown. As great as Cap’s costume looks on the page, it’s a tricky design concept to bring to the big screen. Yet, from Captain America: The First Avenger right through to Civil War, the MCU has treated us to several great incarnations of Cap’s costume.
The First Avenger costume looks iconic yet utilitarian and appropriate for a soldier. The stealth suit in The Winter Soldier is a cool homage to the Steve Rogers: Super Soldier years and the costume that debuted in Age of Ultron and was tweaked slightly for Civil War marries the best of the pre and post Avengers costumes. Even the original “star spangled man” version has a certain honest appeal.
8. DOESN’T WORK: THE ATOM
It seems almost ungrateful to complain about Brandon Routh’s costume in the CWverse. After all, it’s a minor miracle that we’re even getting to see a relatively obscure character like Ray Palmer, aka The Atom, on screen at all, let alone seeing him played by an actor as accomplished as former Superman Brandon Routh. Nonetheless, while it’s clear what they were trying to do with this bulky, armored tech suit it doesn’t quite bear scrutiny.
Characters like the Atom are the embodiment of Clarke’s third law; they represent a science so advanced compared to our technology that it might as well be magic. Thus, a simpler suit that’s truer to the comics would probably what work better than what we actually got; giving us DC’s Ant-Man rather than what looks (for all intents and purposes) like a low budget Iron Man.
7. WORKS: BLACK PANTHER
This month, audiences will see Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther in his very own movie. If early reviews are any indication, the film will be everything that fans had dared to dream. Not only does the film look great even by the standards we’ve come to expect from the MCU, it represents a much needed step towards greater diversity and representation in superhero movies.
While Black Panther’s costume has had some minor alterations over the years, his aesthetic has enjoyed a certain consistency throughout his 52-year publication history and costume designer Judianna Makovsky did a great job of capturing the essence of his look in Captain America: Civil War. Everything you need to know about the character is in this design, from the vibranium claw motif to the African tribal motifs. Even though it’s an elaborate design it doesn’t look too busy on-screen. We can’t wait to see more.
6. DOESN’T WORK: BLACK BOLT
Hey, remember what it felt like to be excited by the prospect of the Inhumans making it to the big screen? Remember how rife with cinematic possibility the franchise was? How epic in scope the mythology of the Inhumans promised to be. Then we learned that the Inhumans movie was pulled from Marvel’s slate and that the property would instead make it to TV with a limited IMAX release of the pilot. But that could still work, right? Many hoped that the show could be Marvel’s Game of Thrones and oh how wring they were.
While Black Bolt is not the only Inhuman whose design wasn’t done justice, he was among the most egregious. The signature mask is missing and while the familiar lightning bolt motif is evident on the jacket it looks cheaply made and hardly the regalia worthy of a king.
5. WORKS: BLACK LIGHTNING
It’s great to know that the CWverse can still surprise! The Black Lightning TV show represents a clear expansion of the CWverse in a range of ways; appealing to a slightly older demographic, featuring a middle aged protagonist and demonstrating more interest in social commentary and politics than usual teen-friendly melodrama upon which the CW brand is built.
The show does a great job of establishing Jefferson Pierce out of costume but when he climbs into the Black Lightning suit it makes us wonder how we’ve never seen this character on-screen before. Laura Jean Shannon’s costume design concept could so very easily have fallen flat. The notion of a self illuminated superhero suit was attempted in the aborted Superman Lives and while it didn’t look great then it works surprisingly well here. The armor itself is sleek yet formidable and the suit ranks as one of the CWverse’s best.
4. DOESN’T WORK: THE JOKER (SUICIDE SQUAD)
Okay, so maybe this isn’t so much a costume issue as an entire design concept issue but it’s not surprising to see how this concept rubbed so many fans the wrong way. The Joker, like his nemesis Batman is fairly fluid and lends himself to multiple interpretations but we’re not convinced that David Ayer and Kate Hawley’s LA gangster aesthetic is a great fit for the character.
The multiple scars alluding to a history of skirmishes with The Dark Knight are a great touch but the bare chest and purple crocodile skin/trench coat/boxer shorts combo is hardly becoming of DC’s most iconic villain. We could look past all the bling and 85% of the ink but why on Earth would Joker tattoo the word “Damaged” on his forehead? If there’s one thing The Joker doesn’t consider himself, it’s damaged.
3. WORKS: SPIDER-MAN
There’s no denying that Spider-Man is one of the best designed characters in all of comic book mythology. The interplay between the red and blue, the line work, the use of the spider and web motif…it’s just a great visual. As such, there’s never been a bad Spider-Man suit committed to film. Even the costume from The Amazing Spider-Man which deviated the most from the comics looks pretty damn good.
While all Spidey’s on screen suits have been great, Judianna Makovsky’s costume for Captain America: Civil War and Spider-Man: Homecoming is sheer perfection. In addition to being the most comic book accurate Spidey suit on film, the suit’s greatest accomplishment is the eyes. Their ability to expand and contract gives the mask a range of expression that we’ve gotten used to in the comics but that we’ve never seen on film before.
2. DOESN’T WORK: SUPERGIRL
The costume worn by the excellent Melissa Benoist in the equally excellent Supergirl show on the CW is far from bad. In fact, it’s a good deal better than the New 52 costume that the character was wearing over in the comics when the show first premiered. But while it’s perfectly passable it doesn’t have quite the sense of grandeur that the character deserves.
While the blue is a nice rich shade and the body suit has a pleasing texture, the red on the cape, skirts and boots is a tad too somber, as with 2006’s Superman Returns. Moreover, the “S” shield, arguably the most important piece of imagery in comics really fails to pop without the yellow behind it. It’s by no means the worst costume on this list but it just doesn’t feel right.
1. WORKS: ROBIN
It took 75 years but we finally got it…the perfect on screen Robin suit! When the first image of Brenton Thwaites was released in December of last year it got a whole lot of fans and newcomers excited for the Titans show which will debut on DC’s streaming service. While time will tell how the suit looks in action this first look showed the world everything it needed to know about the baddest Boy Wonder yet.
While the primary influence is clearly Tim Drake’s Robin costume of the ’90s (he even carries Tim’s signature bo staff) there’s a little of the New 52 design of Dick Grayson’s Robin suit here and there. The muted color scheme also owes a debt to the (frankly underrated) Robin armor worn by Chris O’Donnell in Batman Forever.
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