Can you believe there was a time when comic books were disposable ephemera, consumed mostly by kids but with a small (and quietly ashamed) adult fan base? Drawing their influence from the pulps and science fiction magazines of the early 20th century, they enjoyed a following among soldiers shipping out to fight in World War II. Nonetheless, they suffered from a stigma that the nascent image spent decades trying to shake. This wasn't helped by Dr. Frederick Wertham whose book Seduction Of The Innocent accused comic books of just about every "un-American" impulse the McCarthy era could level at them.
Now, of course, DC characters like Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and even Aquaman are household names. Of course, this is due in no small part to the comics themselves. But let's not forget that these characters have wowed audiences on TV and in movie theaters ever since those early Batman, Superman and Captain Marvel (now Shazam!) serials of the '40s. It's satisfying to see these iconic characters in their resplendent costumes in live-action. Done well, they can add a new dimension to the characters' aesthetic and even influence their look in the comics themselves. But every now and then costume designers miss the mark in bringing these icons to life.
20 MR. FREEZE (BATMAN & ROBIN)
On paper, Mr. Freeze is a perfect cinematic foe for The Dark Knight. his newly re-imagined (by Paul Dini in Batman: The Animated Series) backstory brought depth and pathos to the character. Plus, his costume and abilities are inherently visually interesting. Dr. Victor Fries is an absolute gift for the production designers, costumers and visual effects artists who are tasked with bringing this fascinating villain and his world to life. What we got, however, represents a slew of bad decisions that stem from a studio more interested in selling toys than making a classic character cinematically viable.
Admittedly Batman & Robin and Arnold Schwarzenegger's portrayal of Freeze are pretty low hanging fruit. But seriously... that costume! Its in-universe function doesn't make a lick of sense. It uses diamond enhanced lasers to keep Freeze's body at zero degrees. We're pretty sure the average freezer can keep things at zero degrees without the need for a steady stream of diamonds to power it. This could be forgiven if the costume itself weren't such a disaster. It looks gaudy and cheap and unbecoming of such a big budget movie. The proliferation of LED lights actively detracts from whatever menace Schwarzenegger was able to bring to the character. Plus, according to a retrospective in The Hollywood Reporter, the LEDs used to light the actor's mouth leaked battery acid and almost killed him. According to Cinemablend, Schwarzenegger still pays the studio to keep the suit in his office... but we can't imagine why.
19 THE ATOM (LEGENDS OF TOMORROW)
We have absolutely nothing but love for Brandon Routh. The actor simply bleeds affability in everything he does. Despite Superman Returns' myriad issues, even the most disapproving of fanboys give Routh props for his earnest portrayal of the Man of Steel. But it wasn't until much later that we got to see how the corn-fed sense of modesty that's such of an engaging part of his on-screen persona made him perfect for the role of Ray Palmer/The Atom in Legends Of Tomorrow.
While Routh's charming performance engaged fans of the Arrowverse, many still aren't quite sure about the costume.
There's just a little too much of a "low-budget Iron Man" vibe going on here. Of course, the suit if the source of the Atom's powers, and we get that it needs to look and feel like a piece of technology. Yet, the suit is so bulky and clunky that it doesn't seem fitting for a character who is defined by his shrinking powers and agility in the comics. Indeed, when Palmer does shrink in the show, the suit actually detracts from the effect. We're not saying that a spandex suit would have been the answer, but the production designers should have chosen a design that transcends our notions of what is high tech. Although, admittedly that can be tricky on a TV budget.
18 BLACK CANARY (SMALLVILLE)
Dinah Lance is a great character who desperately deserves a place in DC's burgeoning cinematic universe. Created in the late '40s by writer Robert Kanigher and artist Carmine Infantino, she was originally a supporting character in The Flash. She was a strong and independent female character at a time when strong and independent female characters were in short supply. She's kicked a lot of butts and taken a lot of names over the years, but throughout the decades her look has barely changed since her first appearance in Flash Comics #92 in 1948. Comprised of a black leather jacket over a black bodysuit and fishnets, it's a sensuous-yet-empowering look that's virtually impossible to get wrong... but if anyone could do it, the costume designers of Smallville could.
Both narratively and visually, the show made some odd choices when it came to portraying Black Canary. She was re-imagined as a conservative reporter and talk show host who would frequently butt heads with Erica Durance's left-leaning Lois Lane. In an interesting inversion of comic book lore, this version of Dinah wore a dark wig to over her naturally blonde hair. While there's nothing about the look in the show that's singularly awful, it doesn't hang together well at all and the crude eye makeup that makes up her 'mask' is an under-ripe cherry atop a slightly under-baked cake.
17 BATMAN, ROBIN & BATGIRL (BATMAN & ROBIN)
A madman has encased Gotham City in a blanket of ice. The lives of all her citizens hang in the balance. The maniacal Mr. Freeze has enacted his plan to freeze every living soul in the city, so that his nefarious companion Poison Ivy can replace all human life in the city with her animal/plant hybrids. The newly assembled team of Batman, Robin and Batgirl have just minutes to thwart the dastardly duo's plan and thaw the city. The lives of every single Gothamite hand in the balance. So, what do our intrepid trio do? They head back to the Batcave for a costume change! How is Akiva Goldsman still getting work as a screenwriter?
These "Ice Armor" costumes are one of Batman & Robin's many low points.
If the costumes were proven to be effective against Freeze's ice weapons we could give the movie the benefit of the doubt. Heck, we'd give them a pass if they at least looked cool. But these costumes are not only functionally useless, they're complete eyesores to boot. They don't even have well-stocked utility belts. And what's with that arbitrary silver detailing on Batman's arms? All those silver chevrons on a blue background make it look like he's been taking costuming advice from Captain Boomerang.
16 AQUAMAN (SMALLVILLE)
DC fans should drop to their knees and thank the Geek gods for Michael Wilkinson. The frequent Zack Snyder collaborator is one of the most talented and prolific costume designers working in Hollywood today, and he has worked his magic with all of the members of the Justice League to bring us familiar-yet-refreshing iterations of their classic costumes that make them viable and visually appealing for the medium of cinema. His work on Aquaman is a particular triumph. Not only does it look cool, it does what any good piece of production design does and tells a story visually. The suit gives audiences an insight into its wearer and Atlantean culture whether they're aware of it or not.
Of course, we don't expect a TV show to be able to match a huge budget Hollywood movie in terms of production design. But even by early '00s television standards, fans could be forgiven for expecting a little more than an orange hoodie for Smallville's Aquaman. The way in which the Aquaman logo is incorporated into the piping is kind of cool, but it's hardly an ensemble befitting the King of the Seven Seas. Of course, "AC" never truly embraced his Atlantean heritage until the show's 10th season, but Aquaman fans expecting a more iconic iteration of their hero were not rewarded for their patience.
15 TWO FACE (BATMAN FOREVER)
Somewhere out there, in the vast and sprawling multiverse, there's an alternate reality in which Tommy Lee Jones brought his formidable acting talents to bear for the role of Harvey Dent a.k.a. Two-Face. In this universe, however, aside from a fairly promising monologue right at the start of the movie, Batman Forever represents the nadir of the character's on-screen presence. Heck, even William Shatner was more restrained in his performance in an animated film based on the '60s Batman TV show. Two-Face is one of the most psychologically intriguing characters in Batman's rogues gallery. While Jones could certainly have done something interesting with the character, he probably realized he'd get paid just as much if he simply aped Jack Nicholson's Joker.
This horrendous Two-Face costume was Batman Forever's final insult.
By all means, the costume design should show the dichotomy of Dent's character. The animated series did a great job with that. But a pink and black tiger print suit on top of a leopard print shirt and tie? There's an incredibly on-the-nose point about mankind's restrained, animalistic nature being made there, but it's made in a particularly gaudy and horrible way. Combine the suit with his ruler-straight scar and the fact that the left side of his face looks like it's been smeared in blueberry pie, and it makes for an iteration of the character that we'd all rather forget.
14 SUPERMAN (SUPERMAN RETURNS)
Superman Returns is... problematic. It's not a terrible film, by any means. It's beautifully shot, has some great performances (most notably by the then-unknown Brandon Routh as the eponymous lead) and has a score which evokes the best of John Williams while taking the motifs in a new direction. But the film is deeply tonally confused and spends far too long gazing at its navel when it should be looking up at the sky. Considering that director Bryan Singer wanted the film to be a love letter to the Richard Donner Superman films, his work shows none of the same sense of romance or escapism.
Despite Routh's winsome performance in it, the Superman Returns costume neatly encapsulates the film's tonal dissonance. It's needlessly dark and somber when it should be bright and hopeful. The red is so dark and muddy in a hue that it looks almost brown. Although the redesigned logo looks pretty great, its size and positioning on Routh's chest make it look almost apologetic. We get that the suit is supposed to reflect Superman's lack of confidence in a world which has learned to get by without him, but the suit looks so dour that it even detracts from the film's handful of really triumphant moments.
13 BLUE BEETLE (SMALLVILLE)
In a way, you have to admire the team behind Smallville for at least attempting to bring Jaime Reyes to the screen. One would have expected them to play it safe and introduce the less outlandish iteration of the character Ted Kord, especially since they paired Jaime with Booster Gold (who was best friends with the Ted Kord version of the character). In the show, however, Kord acts more as a mentor figure to young Jaime, who (as in the comics) gains his powers after coming into contact with an alien artifact known as the blue scarab.
Smallville gets an A for effort, but it came up spectacularly short in bringing Blue Beetle's intricate alien costume to the screen.
In fairness, there's a clear attempt to replicate the comic book aesthetic as accurately as possible, but there's something unquestionably lost in translation here. The suit somehow manages to look both bulky and flimsy. Despite the effort that clearly went into the design process, the end result looks like fairly competent cosplay rather than unfathomable extraterrestrial tech. The whole ensemble looks like it's lifted from a low-budget sentai show... Which, given the character's nature and origin, is actually kind of appropriate.
12 BRUCE WAYNE'S VIGILANTE COSTUME (GOTHAM)
When Smallville aired in 2001 it had a simple mandate; "No tights, no flights." The show insisted on focusing on the character of young Clark Kent without getting lost in the trappings of the Superman mythology like his iconic costume. Of course, one could argue that the show lost its way since over its 10 seasons it addressed virtually every aspect of Superman lore except the suit. Nonetheless, it was a bold take, and many fans who grew up with the show consider it the definitive take on the Man of Steel. But while this worked fairly well for Supes, many fans were left scratching their heads when it was revealed that Fox would do something similar for Gotham in 2014. Just how much mileage was there in a cape-and-cowl-free Gotham City.
As it turned out, there wasn't much. Like Smallville before it, Gotham quickly realized that, without a fully-fledged Dark Knight, the show's bag of tricks was frustratingly limited. The above result, which debuted in the episode "Fear The Reaper" was the show's attempt at a compromise. Much like in Batman Begins, Bruce 'borrows' the suit from Lucius Fox for... extreme sports. Unlike in Batman Begins, however, the suit looks just awful. It's sold as a bleeding edge tech suit, but it looks like mid-range biker leathers topped with a mask that would provoke levity rather than fear in Gotham's criminal underworld.
11 THE FLASH/ IMPULSE (SMALLVILLE)
The Silver Age isn't always well regarded by comic book fans. In the wake of Dr. Wertham's Seduction Of The Innocent, the comic book industry went through a period of massive self-regulation in the form of the Comics Code Authority. Combined with the emerging science fiction craze and the general optimism of the Atomic Age, this led to some creatively zany yet ultimately tepid storylines. The era did, however, bring us some cool re-imaginings of flagging DC characters such as Hawkman, the Atom Green Lantern and the Flash under the stewardship of editor Julius Schwarz. The Flash, in particular, was one of the most successful and visually interesting redesigns, courtesy of the legendary Carmine Infantino. Gone was Jay Garrick in his blue jeans and red sweater. Readers were introduced to a new Flash, Barry Allen in his familiar red bodysuit with accompanying mask, gloves and yellow boots.
With his classic ensemble, the Flash has one of the best, most iconic looks in superhero comics.
Although it has been re-appropriated for visual media several times, we've yet to see an on-screen Flash costume that viewers consider truly definitive. This entry from the Smallville canon, however, is among the most egregious missteps. Bart Allen wore a simple red hoodie before returning as Impulse (his one-time comic book identity) wearing a slightly modified hoodie which (confusingly) incorporated more of a Flash motif than anything Impulse ever wore in the comics.
10 RED TORNADO (SUPERGIRL)
Red Tornado is one of the great unsung heroes of the Justice League. He's often compared to Marvel's Vision. Both are synthetic intelligences fighting for justice amidst a team of superpowered humans, both were created by supervillains, and both occasionally provide meditations for the reader on the nature of life and the ethical ramifications of artificial intelligence. Unlike Marvel's popular synthezoid, however, Red Tornado is more than just a robot. He's also inhabited by the air elemental Ulthoon, from whom he derives his wind powers. In this regard, he's more of a spirit in a robotic shell than a pure android. But while Red Tornado's appearance and powers are loaded with potential, his first live-action appearance was somewhat underwhelming.
On Supergirl, the combination of a bodysuit and makeup was a serious misstep that made the character look more like a creature from the surreal Britcom The Mighty Boosh than a comic book icon. Although the sound designers did their best to add servo noises and metallic clanging to his movements in the show, viewers are painfully aware that they're looking at a slightly embarrassed actor in a clunky and visually unappealing suit. This is a shame because, for the most part, Supergirl does a great job of demonstrating how much can be done these days on a TV budget.
9 WONDER WOMAN (2011 TV PILOT)
It might not seem like that long ago, but the TV landscape of 2011 was very different to how it is today, at least if the unaired Wonder Woman pilot for NBC is anything to go by. Created by David E. Kelley of Ally McBeal fame, the show may well have done irrevocable damage to the public image of this amazing character had it ever actually aired. Rather than trying to honor Wonder Woman, her comic book canon or the Greek mythology upon which it's based, the show seemed far more interested in making her fit the framework for what Kelley presumed women would want to watch on TV.
In the pilot, Wonder Woman was re-imagined as the CEO of a not-for-profit organization and sold Wonder Woman dolls on the side!
While actress Adrianne Palicki certainly looks the part as Wonder Woman and does her best with the material, she looks seriously uncomfortable in the suit. And who could blame her? Kyle Buchanan of New York magazine said it best when "looked less like a superhero outfit and more like a Project Runway challenge gone awry, the kind of thing Nina Garcia would dismiss by sniffing, 'Shiny, cheap, and tacky'."
8 CYBORG (SMALLVILLE)
Say what you will about last year's Justice League, but it provided some astonishing visuals and showed the world that Cyborg was a viable cinematic property. Not only did Ray Fisher do a great job with the character, especially given his fairly limited screen time, but Michael Wilkinson and the visual effects team really delivered when it came to bringing Cyborg to life. Check out the movie in 4K and you'll see just how intricate and mesmerizingly beautiful a digital suit can be. But, of course, Ray Fisher wasn't the first actor to bring the character of Victor Stone to life on screen. That honor goes to Lee Thompson Young who played the character in Smallville.
You've got to hand it to the team behind Smallville. they never met a character they couldn't put a hoodie on! The way the studio approached the character could be considered either clever or a cop out. In the show, Cyborg's cybernetic parts are actually underneath his skin. Thus, the closest we see to a comic book accurate cyborg is an x-ray shot in which we see the familiar eyepiece and chin guard. With that in mind, why they chose to put the character in this tacky looking ensemble is anyone's guess.
7 POISON IVY (BATMAN & ROBIN)
When you think about it, Poison Ivy is loaded with potential for a cinematic re-envisioning. She's a complex character with a strong motivation that's particularly pertinent in today's increasingly eco-conscious society. Yet, the only live-action big screen adaptation of the character we've gotten so far is an incarnation that's so regressive, not even Academy Award-winning actress Uma Thurman could save it. Although Thurman is clearly having a great time channeling her inner Marlene Dietrich, audiences most certainly did not share her enjoyment. Even alongside a Mr. Freeze who spoke entirely in ice puns and a Bane whose vocabulary is comparable to Team America's Matt Damon, Ivy earned herself a Razzie award.
Thurman's Poison Ivy wears several variants of her costume in the movie and they were all pretty awful.
Why would such an ecologically minded supervillain adorn herself in so much latex? Doesn't she know that stuff comes from trees? Not content with wrapping her entire body in it, she's even got latex leaves glued to her face. And what's with the dual cones of hair on her head? Is she trying to pick up shortwave radio? Even Gotham did a better job with the character (and on a fraction of the budget).
6 GREEN LANTERN
Nobody could ever accuse Ryan Reynolds of taking himself too seriously. Indeed, both Deadpool films are peppered with self-deprecating references to the Canadian thespian's past projects and acting abilities. Not only do they take liberal potshots at Green Lantern, but even Reynolds' previous turn as Wade Wilson in X-Men Origins: Wolverine is grist for the satire mill. But while certainly flawed, Green Lantern is not quite so horrible as most of us remember. Though we'd all rather see him in red and black than green, Reynolds showed that he could have been a great Hal Jordan with better material.
On paper, the idea of a digital suit makes a lot of sense. After all, Green Lanterns' uniforms are not costumes. They're constructs made of light. With that in mind, it makes total sense that they'd eschew traditional costuming for digital animation. But there's something in the execution that doesn't quite work. From the not-quite seamless interaction between the 'suit' and Reynolds' skin to the fact that you could see his individual toes, the costume, while well-intentioned, missed the mark in ways that rankled audiences. It'll be interesting to see what the designers come up with when the Green Lantern Corps make their inevitable debut in the DCEU.
5 WONDER WOMAN (1974 PILOT)
What keeps comic boom properties alive for decades? What keeps bringing generations of readers back again and again? Some may argue that it's simply a matter of creating characters with timeless appeal. While they'd certainly have a point, at least part of it is allowing each generation to make subtle changes to the character in order to make them their own and keep them fresh. But while re-interpretation and re-invention are all well and good, they can be taken too far. Historically, comic book properties have faltered or failed when they've deviated too far from the essence of the source material or altered the characters beyond recognition to force them to conform to a particular zeitgeist. Such is the case with the oft-forgotten 1974 Wonder Woman pilot.
The pilot tried to make Wonder Woman into a Charlie's Angels character without any fidelity to the comics.
Not only was this version of Diana blonde and completely lacking in any discernible superpowers, she was dressed in an outfit that bore absolutely no relation to that of the comics. This divergence from the source material could even be forgiven if the suit had any aesthetic value of its own... but it just doesn't.
4 THE JUSTICE LEAGUE (1997 TV PILOT)
You'd be hard-pressed to find a super team more visually dynamic and diverse than the Justice League. Look over their lineup (any iteration you choose) and you'll see a wealth of colors, textures and cool details. They have some of the most iconic logos and costumes in comics, even if you're forced to work without DC's Big Three, as the makers of the unaired 1997 Justice League of America TV pilot were. Even if your main protagonist is the obscure Justice League International member Ice and your lineup is composed of the Atom, the Flash, Guy Gardner's Green Lantern, Fire and Martian Manhunter (not pictured), the prospect of developing the JLA for the screen should be a gift to a costume designer.
Unfortunately, the limited budget and production of the pilot are painfully evident here. Atom looks like a Power Rangers villain, Fire and Ice look like they're about to dance with the stars and Flash looks particularly egregious, especially when we'd already seen a great on-screen Flash suit courtesy of Stan Winston several years before. Of the whole crew, Green Lantern and Martian Manhunter come out best. But of all the Lanterns, Guy Gardner's is a pretty low-risk costume to pull off. Even though John Ogden Stiers sporting a pretty impressive makeup job as the JLA's alien leader, his pendulous midsection makes him look like he'd have trouble flying too far off the ground.
3 STEEL (1997)
It was not a good year to be a DC Comics fan in 1997. While there was some pretty cool stuff going on in the comics themselves --Batman Black & White and Kingdom Come were particular standouts-- attempts to bring the DC canon to other media were not doing quite so well. Even Batman: The Animated Series irked some fans with its new, more simplified aesthetic. While Batman & Robin will forever be remembered as the worst superhero movie to come out of 1997, the Shaquille O'Neal vehicle Steel was hot on its heels. O'Neal was (and still is) a huge Superman fan, and while he's had a really interesting life off the court-- He's been an honorary U.S. Deputy Marshall, a rapper, and MMA fighter-- he's also lent his name to some shoddy products. Anyone who ever played the video game Shaq Fu will know what we mean.
While John Henry Irons a.k.a. Steel certainly had his day on film, this movie went about it the wrong way.
While Steel originally stepped in after Superman's death in 1992, this movie was completely divorced from the Superman mythology, and Superman and Batman are even cited in the film as fictional characters. It remains one of the cheapest-looking, shoddiest, and most reviled superhero movies of all time. The suit is among the film's most cardinal sins. If your main protagonist is a tech genius, it behooves you to develop a suit that doesn't look cheap, fake and ugly.
2 BRAINIAC (SMALLVILLE)
None but the most optimistic DC fans could have predicted that Syfy's Krypton would be anywhere near as good as it was. Many wondered just how well the doomed planet and it's inhabitants would be able to hold a series without their most famous son to bolster ratings. Fortunately, the show rewarded the faithful with engaging characters and performances, excellent production design and a plot that eschews the 'freak of the week' formula that still plagues DC television for full-tilt space opera. If the show was ever going to work, it needed to be the DC Universe's answer to Star Wars.
Among the show's many achievements is bringing audiences a fully-fledged Brainiac; a triumph of makeup and costume design that's even more impressive considering how it was done on a TV budget. We've seen a handful of Jokers and a bunch of Lex Luthors, but this was the first time we'd seen a comic book accurate Brainiac. It was not, however, the first time we'd seen the character on the small screen. In Smallville, we saw the much beloved James Marsters play the character... But aside from a pink polo neck shirt that vaguely replicated Brainiac's silver age look there's absolutely nothing to identify Marsters as the collector of worlds.
1 CATWOMAN (2004)
You all knew this was coming! There's little we can say about the 2004 Catwoman film that hasn't been lamented elsewhere (and here) ad nauseam. While objectively the film may be ever so slightly better than Batman & Robin, Joel Schumacher's neon-drenched opus is at least fun. The film was nominated for no less than seven Razzies and won for worst screenplay, worst director, worst movie and worst actress. Still, at least Halle Berry got into the spirit of things by giving a hilarious speech that parodied her emotional Oscar win speech two years previously.
The movie's Catwoman isn't even Selina Kyle; she's a completely new character called Patience Phillips.
Aside from a plot that revolved around an evil cosmetics company, the horrendous plot could at least have been forgiven if the film gave the comics canon even a passing nod. While it nabbed a few story beats directly from 1992's Batman Returns, its iteration of the costume wasn't nearly as successful as the suit worn by Michelle Pfeiffer. Indeed, there's barely enough fabric to even call it a costume. It's essentially an unflattering and unwieldy mask (seriously, how does that thing stay on), a brassiere, elbow high gloves, shredded leather pants and heels so high it's a miracle she can climb stairs with them, let alone walls.