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Design Of The Times: 10 Superhero Costumes That Looked Great On-Screen (And 10 That Didn’t)

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Design Of The Times: 10 Superhero Costumes That Looked Great On-Screen (And 10 That Didn’t)

It may sound obvious, but comic books and movies are two completely different kinds of media. What looks good on the page doesn’t always translate well to the screen. But how do you know when to stay faithful to the source material and when a few tweaks are in order? Given the film industry’s spotty track record when it comes to superhero costume design, this question has no easy answers. For every time we’ve gasped in wonder over a costume and immediately run out to buy a mass-produced version of it for Halloween, there is a time that we’ve wanted to wrap our heroes in a sheet and quietly escort them off-screen so they’d quit embarrassing themselves.

This article pays tribute to examples of both the good and the bad superhero movie costumes. It isn’t a top ten list so much as it is a general overview of some of the best and worst that cinematic superheroes have to offer. But while we may not be ranking anybody today, we are most definitely passing judgment. So get ready for some sartorial sass as we look at ten costumes that looked amazing and ten that need to be hit with a dissolving ray!

20. LOOKED GREAT: IRON MAN

During Iron Man’s early history, his best-known costume — the red-and-gold armor — didn’t look especially iron-y. Most of it was made of a “wafer-thin” metal that behaved like cloth until magnets snapped it into shape. It’s an interesting concept, but most moviegoers probably wouldn’t have been amused to see their Iron Man wearing glorified tin foil.

And so, when the MCU’s Tony Stark first banged out a sleeker version of the armor that helped him escape captivity, the final product much more closely resembled traditional armor. While that arguably makes the movie Iron Man less technologically advanced than the comics Iron Man, there’s no denying the end result is pretty awesome. Who doesn’t want a metal suit that flies, shoots rockets from everywhere, and glows in the dark?

19. DIDN’T: BATMAN (1997)

George Clooney as Batman

What can we say about George Clooney’s Batman costume that the rest of the internet hasn’t already said? People have had 20 years now to analyze, consider, reconsider and eviscerate this crime against both the Dark Knight’s legacy and good taste. The main point of contention is, as we’re sure you are aware, the inexplicable decision to make Batman’s suit as anatomically accurate as the censors would allow.

The end result looks like something that belongs in a different kind of Batman film, not a mainstream superhero movie. If only there were some convenient, Batman-esque shadows for him to hide in, but nope, this movie is too bright for that. The costumes are so bad that we’re still talking about them despite Batman & Robin‘s never-ending list of much bigger problems. That’s pretty impressive, when you think about it.

18. LOOKED GREAT: WONDER WOMAN

Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

Like most classic superhero costumes, Wonder Woman’s is both iconic and faintly ridiculous. It’s got either ballet shoes or curly boots with a stripe on the front, not to mention the star-spangled shorts. And every time DC has tried to give Wonder Woman a makeover, fans rebelled so hard that she always got her old duds back very quickly. How could DC bring the classic look to the big screen in a way that would keep everyone happy?

Turns out the key to success was giving Wondy a look more similar to what she wore in Darwyn Cooke’s DC: The New Frontier than in the main comics. The bodice looks burnished, like real armor, while the skirt consists of durable leather. It truly does look like something a Greek warrior might wear. But of course, there’s only one warrior worthy of this set of armor, and you’re looking at her.

17. DIDN’T: STEEL

Shaquille O'Neal as Steel

In the comics, John Henry Irons started his superheroic career as a replacement for Superman after the original Man of Steel’s famous 1993 death. He had a high-tech metal suit with which to fight crime, and after Superman inevitably returned, Irons took on a new code name, Steel, to continue the fight against evil.

In the movie Steel, John Henry Irons is none of that. Aside from a Superman tattoo, he has no connection whatsoever to Krypton’s last son. More jarringly, he doesn’t have a metal suit either. It clearly aspires to be metal, but it’s so blatantly not that we’re too busy laughing to be mad. Come on, guys. His name is Steel. He should wear steel, not cheap rubber and some chain mail picked up from a renaissance fair.

16. LOOKED GREAT: BLACK PANTHER

Chadwick Boseman as Black Panther

Fans waited a long time for Black Panther to hit the big screen. When Marvel finally made it happen in 2018, few walked out of the theater disappointed. Everything about the film seemed to come together perfectly in a pulse-pounding, visually exciting, record-breaking adventure. That success extends, of course, to the costuming.

For the most part, the comics’ version of Black Panther’s costume is a simple black cat suit. That look is beautifully replicated here, with plenty of awesome high-tech additions and a subtle silver accent here and there — not enough to disrupt the suit’s sleek design, but just enough to break up the solid black body suit. Hey, do you think T’Challa would be interested in starting a clothing line? Asking for a friend.

15. DIDN’T: SUPERMAN (2013- )

Henry Cavill as Superman

When DC began the New 52 reboot in 2011, many of their characters received makeovers. This included Superman, who lost his iconic red shorts in favor of a streamlined blue leotard. Ironically, Superman looked more naked now than he did with the underwear. And yet this was the look emulated in 2013’s Man of Steel and which still appears today in the DCEU. It works about as well on the screen as it does on the page.

But that’s not the only problem with this particular costume. The colors are so muted that it looks like Supes rolled around in the mud before stepping in front of the camera. Obviously, an overly cheery look would not match the DCEU’s tone. But if the symbol on his chest really is Kryptonian for “hope,” would it have killed them to make the costume look a little more, well, hopeful?

14. LOOKED GREAT: SUPERMAN (1978-1987)

Christopher Reeve as Superman

Speaking of Superman, let’s take a look at Christopher Reeve. He famously portrayed the Man of Tomorrow in four movies, though most people like to pretend the last two don’t exist. In any case, Reeve’s costume has become as seminal as his performance. It is intensely, almost garishly colorful, but somehow it doesn’t feel that way. The suit just fits the optimistic spirit of Reeve’s Superman and of the movies in general.

He’s so unreservedly, unapologetically pure that Lex Luthor’s assistant feels comfortable cutting a deal with him, knowing that he will keep his word even to one such as her. He stands out in every scene, partly because of the costume and partly because of his own Super-ness. Reeve as Superman represents everything positive in the world, and his costume reflects that.

13. DIDN’T: CAPTAIN AMERICA (1979)

Reb Brown as Captain America

Long before Chris Evans brought Captain America to life with a surprisingly plausible costume, Reb Brown had his shot at the character in not one but two TV movies. The fact that the only thing people seem to remember about these movies is the dubious costumes choices should tell you something. Most infamously, instead of his usual cowl, this Captain America has opted for a motorcycle helmet with sculpted wings sprouting out from the front. It makes him look less like the Sentinel of Liberty and more like a four year old at a skating rink.

Sure, you could argue that Cap should wear a motorcycle helmet to set a good example for the kids. And you’re be right, except for the fact that he never takes it off. Not even when he’s running around pushing bad guys off of dune buggies.

12. LOOOKED GREAT: BATMAN (1966)

Adam West as Batman

Originally we were going to put this one in the “awful” category — just look at it. The cape and cowl are a shiny purple, there are little frowny eyebrows doodled onto the cowl, and half the time you can see the leotard bunching up in spots. How can we possibly justify saying that this costume looks great? It’s all about the context. The ’60s Batman TV show and accompanying feature film are a deliberate camp-fest. Adult viewers aren’t supposed to take one single frame seriously.

In other words, this costume looks so fantastic precisely because it looks terrible. Adam West pulls it off with the same deadpan panache that he pulls off every ridiculous escape and over-the-top line of dialogue. For any other Batman, this costume would be plain, unironically awful but for West, it is awfully perfect.

11. DIDN’T: CAPTAIN AMERICA (1990)

Matt Salinger as Captain America

Who knew that successfully bringing Captain America’s costume to the screen would be so hard? After Reb Brown’s amusing attempts in the role, Matt Salinger stepped into an entirely different yet still facepalm-inducing Captain America costume for 1990’s Captain America. Salinger’s suit isn’t as overtly hilarious as Brown’s, but to call it an improvement would be a bit generous.

For starters, the material of the suit is… odd. It rather looks like someone took some sculpting clay and molded the costume onto him. The stiff, oversized wings on the cowl don’t help either. Salinger might look better than this Red Skull’s candy-like head — and that’s a pretty big “might” — but overall, the costume fits the movie in the worst way: they’re both cheap-looking and forgettable.

10. LOOKED GREAT: BLADE

Wesley Snipes as Blade

Blade is one of the few ’90s superheroes to not be cursed with a terrible costume. Well, the movie version is, anyway. When the first Blade movie came out in 1998, the comics version of the character had tragically succumbed to the fashion fads of the decade, including massive shoulder pads, pointless decorative spikes, and gratuitous buckles galore. And let’s not forget Blade’s 1973 debut, where he thought a cleavage-bearing green trenchcoat was a good idea.

So how did the movie version escape these fates? Mainly by sticking to the basics. Slick and simple, Blade’s costume fits him perfectly, both physically and thematically. It’s exactly what you would imagine a half-vampire vampire hunter would wear: all black, with a long black coat for extra awesomeness.

9. DIDN’T: THE INHUMANS

Cast of The Inhumans

Marvel’s Inhumans TV series, despite a well-hyped debut in IMAX theaters, quickly became a flop of inhuman proportions. One of the earliest complaints that fans expressed about the show was the characters’ appearance. Most of them wear a lot of black with little to nothing to connect them with their comic book counterparts. You could swap them out for any characters in any generic sci-fi/fantasy flick and never notice the difference.

You’d think a little color might be welcome after that, but Medusa’s get-up is a timely reminder to be careful what you wish for. Her pastel easter egg of a dress is enough to put you off purple forever. The only well-dressed character on this show is Lockjaw, and he’s a naked CG dog.

8. LOOKED GREAT: SPIDER-MAN (2002-2007)

Tobey Maguire as Spider-Man

No disrespect intended to the fine gentlemen who have since donned the wallcrawler’s webbed duds — they all did justice to their respective versions of Spider-Man and they all looked great doing it. But there’s just something about Tobey Maguire’s costume that deserves a spot on this list.

Maguire’s suit so closely resembles the comic book original that it’s almost like they created it by using a magical supervillain device that can bring pictures on paper to life. It’s got the right colors, nifty-looking web patterns and great big eyes that were probably designed for the exclusive purpose of dramatically reflecting important things inside of them. It’s simple, it’s distinctive and it’s pretty darn cool. It almost makes up for the fact that Maguire looks nothing like a teenager!

7. DIDN’T: SPAWN

Michael Jai White as Spawn

After making a deal with the demon Malebolgia, Al Simmons became Spawn in exchange for being able to reunite with his wife. Malebolgia, however, had tricked Simmons, failing to mention that, by the time Spawn made it back to Earth, his widow had remarried. As far as the film version goes, it would appear that Malebolgia also tricked him into a frankly laughable outfit in which to make his pilgrimage back to the land of the living.

The bodysuit is looks very fake, but by ’90s superhero movie standards, it’s practically a masterpiece. No, the primary problem here is the cape. Spawn, rather than being satisfied with a normal cape like everyone else, just had to have a special CG cape. The result is long and wiggly enough to make Doctor Strange’s cloak look subtle.

6. LOOKED GREAT: AQUAMAN

Jason Momoa as Aquaman

Aquaman’s classic costume would be hard to adapt to the big screen, unless your goal is to make the audience cry with laughter. While that’s not a bad goal per se, it’s not the direction the DCEU really wanted to go in. In other words, the scaly, bright orange shirt and grass-green tights had to go.

Accordingly, Justice League chucked out basically everything except for the belt buckle and some scale-like patterns in favor of real, honest-to-gosh armor. He actually looks like a king now instead of some guy who hadn’t done his laundry in a week and didn’t have anything else to wear. The costume is far from the only reason why moviegoers were able to connect with the character and take him seriously, but it surely helped.

5. DIDN’T: DAREDEVIL

Ben Affleck as Daredevil

Daredevil may be a Netflix star now, but such a thing was unimaginable 12 years ago. That was back in 2003, when Matt Murdock was just another angsty hero of just another terrible superhero movie. Played by future ex-Batman Ben Affleck, this Daredevil’s on-screen adventures ended in disappointment all around. And yes, the costume was most definitely part of the problem.

You’d think it would be difficult to mess up a design this simple, but this movie managed it. They got the wine-red color roughly correct, but the suit’s texture just seems off. It’s like leather, but not quite? What is that, anyway? And to top it all off, they added a little “DD” up on the left breast like the logo on a polo shirt. There’s a reason why the trailer keeps his costume obscured by shadow, is what we’re saying.

4. LOOKED GREAT: GHOST RIDER

Nicholas Cage as Ghost Rider

Say what you will about the 2007 and 2011 Ghost Rider films — and there is indeed plenty to be said — but they did right by the character in terms of wardrobe. Even if you didn’t like what Ghost Rider was actually doing on-screen, at least you could enjoy what he looked like while doing it.

Correctly assuming that everyone was going to stare at Nicholas Cage’s fiery skull face no matter what they did, the costume designer wisely stuck to the basics when it came to Ghost Rider’s costume. A leather biker jacket and dark pants are all he needs to go punish some souls. And while the flaming skull and the chain whip can’t really be called a costume, they certainly don’t hurt the look any.

3. DIDN’T: GREEN LANTERN

Ryan Reynolds as Green Lantern

Of all the problems with 2011’s Green Lantern, one of the most irritating is the costume. Specifically, it doesn’t exist. It was created entirely with computers, and it shows to the point where this costume dips heavily into uncanny valley territory. There’s something ever so slightly off about it. You can’t help but get increasingly angry with it as the film staggers along.

And that’s not even touching on the suit’s design, which features lots of distracting glowing lines. Luckily, in this case, one of the movie’s big weaknesses becomes its biggest strength: Hal Jordan spends most of his time faffing around on Earth in civilian clothes instead of having cool space adventures in his costume. Not very faithful to the character, maybe, but a relief for the eyes.

2. LOOKED GREAT: DEADPOOL

Ryan Reynolds as Deadpool

Calling Deadpool a superhero is a bit of a stretch, but if he can break the rules, so can we. Deadpool featured everyone’s favorite fourth-wall-busting assassin in a near-perfect recreation of the outfit he’s worn in the comics since his debut in the early ’90s. Making this costume all the sweeter is what we had to go through to get it.

Deadpool’s infamous appearance in X-Men Origins: Wolverine showed the Merc with a Mouth without the mouth (literally), and also without his trademark red-and-black duds.  And yet Deadpool still managed to be the best part of that movie. We’re not sure if that’s more of a compliment to Reynolds’ innate likability as Deadpool or more of an insult to X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Either way, we’re glad that Wade finally has both a movie and a costume that are worthy of him.

1. DIDN’T: FANTASTIC FOUR (1994)

The Fantastic Four’s movie careers started earlier than you might have thought. In 1994, Constantin Films produced the very first Fantastic Four movie, entitled simply The Fantastic Four. Whether they ever intended to release the film or if they only rushed it out to retain the character rights is a subject of debate. What is not up for debate, however, is the quality of the team’s costumes.

The material of the costumes is so reflective it resembles a safety vest. The actors were also forced to wear giant “4s” that are so loud and obnoxious they’d look more at home in a Dr. Seuss book than a superhero movie. And they did it all so Constantin Films could cling to the rights long enough to give us Fantastic Four, Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer and Fant4stic.

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