The Progression and Regression of Superhero Costumes

As comic book movies have taken a turn for the realistic, so have the characters’ costumes. Instead of looking cartoonish and, well, comic book-y, superhero costumes have become more practical and believable – for the most part. While normalized versions of costumes are trending, some remain stuck in the past.

Back in the day, superhero costumes like Batman’s or Superman’s were little more than designed cloth, simple as could be. A pair of tight thermals with underwear on the outside made every kid look pretty damn close to his or her favorite hero.

Practicality started coming into play when Christopher Nolan rebooted the ‘Batman’ franchise. All of a sudden, Bruce Wayne’s costume had a reason to look the way it did. It wasn’t simply an rubber suit that stopped bullets, like in the Tim Burton or Joel Schumacher movies. This one served a purpose.

Burton’s ‘Batman’ never gave any explanation as to how Wayne got or made the suit and its nifty belt toys (not to mention the not-so-street-legal Batmobile). They just came into existence. One would have to completely ignore the origins of everything that turned Bruce Wayne into Batman. If we were supposed to believe that old man Alfred created it, that’s asking too much. I just can’t suspend my disbelief that far.

Then along came Nolan, who gave us the Who, What, When, Where and Why to each item. Where is Batman’s mask from? China. He and Alfred ordered them, presumably off the world wide web, so that it could hide his face. Where did the suit come from? Wayne Enterprises. It was prototype armor made for the military. The Batmobile (now given the much-better name “Tumbler”), his cape and all of his high-tech gadgets were each given a feasible explanation. Nolan’s ‘Batman’ films are set in our world, not the imaginary La-La Land of Just-Go-With-It.

To be honest, Batman and Iron Man are practically the same superhero. They’re both rich bachelors who use their money to buy the technology that turns them into superheroes. (Yes, I understand that neither are technically superheroes, but bear with me for a lack of terms.) Just like Batman’s, Iron Man’s suit has to look the way it does. The suit is the science behind the average guy inside it. Both of these costumes are justifiable, suitable and necessary for their characters. Could you imagine what a cloth version of Iron Man’s costume would have looked like had ‘Iron Man’ been a black & white serial?

Certainly, there’s room for argument, but in my opinion the new take on superhero costumes is far superior to that of the old. As set pics have leaked revealing Anne Hathaway’s practical Catwoman costume from ‘The Dark Knight Rises’, I’d never consider going back to the Halle Berry version. (Unless maybe for the plain bra top. That was nice.) We see Tom Hardy as Bane, wearing nothing more than a trench coat, average pants, average shirt and a harness that we can assume holds the tank that supplies the steroid-ish gas to his face mask. Again, it’s practical.

Perhaps the most embarrassing of the older costumes comes from the 1990 ‘Captain America’ movie. Compared to Chris Evans’ suit from ‘The First Avenger’, I’m sure not a single person misses the old suit. Cap’s new suit fits the character and aids him with the technology needed for World War II combat. (Unfortunately, Cap’s new suit for ‘The Avengers’ was revealed at Comic-Con, and it’s not looking too great.

So, when the new norm for comic book costumes tends to lean towards the realistic, why are we still seeing a slew of tight, leathery, uncomfortable and abnormal costumes amidst our superhero movies?

Next year’s ‘The Amazing Spider-Man’ is supposed to take a realistic turn by having the character use web-launchers (as opposed to the webs just shooting out of Peter Parker’s wrists). So why isn’t his suit making that change as well? Apparently made of recycled basketballs, Spidey’s new suit is the most colorful and retro-looking one donned by the character to date.

The costumes of ‘X-Men: First Class’ may be excused for being a throwback to the period the movie’s set in as well as the original costumes from the comics, but those from Bryan Singer’s and Brett Ratner’s ‘X-Men’ movies cannot. The leather suits of the X-Men, Daredevil and Elektra aren’t going to stop a knife or bullet. Aside from Banshee in ‘First Class’, none of their suits even serves a purpose.

With Superman once more headed for the big screen in ‘The Man of Steel’, it’s depressing to see yet another high-potential superhero not receiving a revamp of his classic costume. The first promo image that hit the web a week ago reeks of Dr. Doom from the horrendous ‘Fantastic Four’ movie. The new Superman sports the typical tights-and-cape costume. It makes me wish with that the folks who creatively adapted Cap’s red, white and blue uniform could have done the same for ‘Man of Steel’.

[Ed.: And what’s with the scaly pattern and texture? Click this photo to enlarge and get a good look. -JZ]

Throwing a superhero’s costume back to its origins is perfectly acceptable – but in a day when practicality, believability and realism are present in the most successful comic book movies, you’d expect those things to be applied. Superman’s costume does not aid the character whatsoever. It’s time for an overhaul. Instead of simply showing that they’re all on the same team, the X-Men need a reason to wear the matching leather uniforms. And no matter how cool it may look, I can never picture an awkward web-slinging teen wearing a skin-tight suit made of basketballs.

No matter what your opinion is on the subject, I’m sure that we’re all on the same page when it comes to the planned suit for Tim Burton’s aborted ‘Superman Lives’ project. Thank heaven that never made it to the big screen.


  1. Michelle pfeiffer in batman returns had the best suit ever. tight , very tight , sleek. nice on the eyes too. dont care for the new catwoman no matter how real it is. the problem with the new superman costume is its too dull. he is the man of frickin steel. colors should be bright. he looks like evil superman in superman 3.

    • Evan Withrow

      I’m with you here Aaron. I was positive when I saw the title of this post that Bat Nipples would be everywhere. Yet nary a mention of Kilmer, Clooney or their provocative pectorals 🙂

  2. “Aside from Banshee in ‘First Class’, none of their suits even serves a purpose.”

    And Havoc’s suit. His was perhaps the most important. It channeled his power into a useable beam.

  3. I just don’t care for the new suits to be honest. They’re weird and give every character a more generic feel. They don’t seem super, they just seem like dudes in fancy suits. Realism is overrated – after all, remember what happened when George Lucas decided to explain The Force?

    Also, why would Superman need a functional suit? He’s Superman!

    • i agree on the realism is overrated comment. i want to see batman kicking ass and not being all moody. if i want moody i will go and rent a french film. 🙂

      • Dick Ward

        I think he does! I mean, that’s Superman. If I wanted to see some badass dude wearing badass armor I wouldn’t be seeing superman.

        I feel the same way about Batman though – the whole thing is way overdone. Even Punisher only wore a bullet-proof vest at most. The technology makes the hero seem less heroic.

        I could be a badass too if I had full body armor and a tank.

  4. The practical suits makes sense for Batman and Iron Man, as they have no superpowers to speak of, but for Superman or Spiderman to go a realistic route, they would have to abandon the costumes altogether. Peter Parker might wear a ski mask and swing through town, and Clark would just take off his glasses and kick your ass in. I don’t want to see that happen at all. Or even worse, you could go with the sadly more practical Scarlet Spider costume (gag) and the black and silver pajamas Superman costume (double gag).

      • EM

        Essentially correct. In the new Action Comics, set some five years ago at the dawn of Superman’s career in a new continuity, Superman wears jeans. In the new Superman, set in the present day of the same new continuity, Superman wears a costume that strongly resembles the classic look already familiar the world over.

        • EM

          In the new Action Comics timeframe, Superman is the first superhero; having no superhero tradition to draw on, he is inventing himself as he goes, hence the underdeveloped costume. (Apparently the new continuity does not contain fictive superhero comics that he could read for ideas about what a superhero costume should look like.)

  5. I think the real issue here is that certain images that work fine on a comic book page (bright colors, crazy patterns, long flowy capes) just look silly in live action. It’s a tricky balance to design a costume that’s faithful to the comic book image yet doesn’t look campy. The new Captain America costume does a surprisingly good job of that.

    Superman’s costume is too iconic. You can’t change it too much. The Christopher Reeve movie series just said “To hell with it” and copied the costume as-is, and somehow made it work in the movies’ universe. When Bryan Singer took over, he was terrified to change the look too much, but was equally terrified of the bright colors, so he darkened and muted the suit. The result looked hideous.

    Now Zack Snyder is not only trying the dark colors again, he’s added that ridiculous lizard-scale texture that just looks terrible. Add to that the fact that the new actor looks like a total douchebag wearing the suit, and you’ve got an unwinnable scenario. 🙂

    • Thor’s costume was Godly and worthy of a king. It had a reason to look the way it did. When he was mortal he didn’t walk around in that garb, he was dressed down and normal.

  6. Joe Campbell

    I think people take superheros too seriously these days. I do agree that I’m not a fan of the new Spidy suit, but not for the same reasons. It think in trying to differentiate this Spider-Man from Raimi’s they made it overly complicated. With Spider-Man, I really don’t care how he made it, I just want to see him swing through the streets in his iconic suit.

    For heros like Spider-Man and Superman, the suits are practically synonymous with the hero. What else would you recommend for Superman than what he’s wearing? You give anything too drastic, and he will cease to be Superman and become merely a super alien.

    I do think the realistic touch works for Iron Man and Batman, but for some heros, the suit is part of what makes the hero.

  7. Jane Morgan

    I wonder when they’re going to start cranking out the motion-capture animation reboots, so our superheroes can have some super bodies.

  8. Brian H

    Superhero types in comic books wear costumes- as do their movie counterparts. They wear costumes to identify to other characters and to readers their special status. Some of the costumes become iconic, and some have a functional aspect.

    Some comic book adaptations really emphasize to the audience a colorful palette full of outlandish costumes, other adaptations de-emphasize the outlandishness in order make the movie less fantastic.

    I do like the new Captain America costume- the material seems functional rather than goofy like Superman Returns or Spiderman, but I think it is the middle ground adaptations that seem to fail the most.

    Pretty much any movie where spandex has been replaced with leather, and the actor’s and actresses look painfully uncomfortable in every scene. Seeing Xmen characters in matching leathers seems almost as silly as if they all wore stilettos.

    If I had to guess though, the reason that this is an issue, is because when you see a still of the character and they look ridiculous, it makes you think that if they couldn’t nail the right look, the rest of the adaptation is likely to miss the mark as well.

    The goofy attempt at the Superman Returns costume was followed by a host of other painful and boring aspects of that movie.

    • I agree with Brian about Cap’s new duds for Avengers. Just looks like a motocross rider’s gear, which makes sense if he gets out a motorcycle again. Could be a lot worse….

  9. For the most part, I quite like the “make the costumes more realist” trend. But there’s a difference between realistic and plain “Let’s make it weird because it’s modern” like Superman’s. That scale texture may have even looked okay if they’d kept it to just the blue, but I think there’s too much influence by people using photoshop and 3D software (And I’m guilty of this myself) always suggesting that more and more textures add detail lol! Superman’s costume just looks like it was made in 3DS Max and somebody suggested an overall bump map. 😉

    As for Batman, that lost its credibility and ‘how it could be real’ atmosphere as soon as that silly bike popped out of the crashed Tumbler (Well, as far as Batman’s gadgets went, anyway. The film lost credibility much earlier on)

  10. Just to clarify, that’s NOT Catwoman’s costume…that’s Selina Kyle’s burglar outfit…the costume will incorporate some of that look, but hasn’t been seen yet. That’s why when Warners released that photo, they were careful to release it as a photo of “Selena Kyle” and not “Catwoman”. Just sayin’. 🙂

    • FLskydiver

      Sounds right. Can’t imagine they’d create a Catwoman outfit without some sexy little kitty ears.

      • FLskydiver

        (Just looked again at the Halle Berry costume) Well, I guess it turns out they did make sorta make such a costume for Halle. My god, what the hell is up with those huge ears? Did they call her batwoman in that movie? Hopefully, the new outfit sticks closer to the model of Pfeiffer’s hot homemade costume (but appropriately modernized).

  11. FLskydiver

    This article could really have used a reference to the scenes in Hancock where the film specifically discusses the necessity of designing and creating a cool superhero outfit for branding purposes. People don’t seem to give that movie any love, but I’m quite fond of it. It goes without saying … Charlize Theron is super-hot.

  12. ML

    The red underwear worn on the outside and yellow belt look terrible. I say just go with an all black costume with a silver S symbol.

  13. Persekore

    I just wish we could find a way to make metal look like metal again.

    I’m one of those people that movie snobs tend to look down on, the sort of person who misses obvious green-screen effects and doesn’t realise that a plot point is an overblown cliché until the second or third watchthrough … but as much as I enjoyed the costume design work in Thor, I kept wondering why the great Gods of Asgaard felt the need to wear rubbery armour.

  14. MrSeyker

    Sir, you are SO wrong it hurts.

    While I prefer the WW2 costume, Cap’s new Avengers costume is by far the best superhero costume I have seen since Batman Begins (quite frankly, TDK suit looks fine at the top, but dear lord, WTF is up with those pants!).

    And as the leaks keep showing, Cap’s new suit offers a degree of mobility Nolan’s bulky suits can’t even dream off.