Monday, March 27, 2006

Clothing makes the (Super)man

The biggest problem I have with superheroes is that they wear their underwear outside of their clothing.

I was talking to a friend of mine about an idea for a Live-Action Roleplaying Game (LARP, for those of you in the know) involving the X-Men and Spider-Man, as they were portrayed in their respective movies, when that statement came up.

So, let's talk about the superheroic costume, shall we? When taking superheroes out of comic books and putting them into virtually any other type of media (other than cartoons), their costumes are the hardest part to translate. Film and television directors have tried a number of different approaches to handle this thorny issue.

Sometimes, the directors had the courage to just put their actors into tights. And sometimes this works out. Christopher Reeve had the physique to pull off the Superman costume, Adam West did not have the physique to pull off Batman. This technique hasn't had a huge representation in modern superhero films, for good reason.

The next option is for the silhouette hugging costume that is made of something a little sturdier than spandex. The Spider-Man costume that Toby Maguire has worn, and the Superman costume for Brandon Routh both fit into this category. Visually they follow the design of the costumes from the comic, but the textured fabric they're made of gives the costume a weight and reality that spandex lacks. The sculpted muscle-suit of the Flash television show also followed this pattern, and while it didn't work, so did the rubberized Captain America uniform.

Then we have those costumes that aren't superhero costumes, but neither are they ordinary clothing. The leather outfits that the X-Men wear, the "costumes" of the Mystery Men and the armored Batsuits fit into this category. (Although there is an argument for the Batsuits fitting into the previous category.) These outfits aren't something that any sane person would wear down the street, but neither does the audience viewer think of them as being "men in tights." Personally, I put armored costumes, like that of Judge Dredd or Robocop, or if they ever make an Iron Man film in this category as well.

And then the final option is to keep your superhero out of costume. Tom Welling on Smallville, of course, is the quintessential example of this. However even movies and television shows that take one of the above approaches tend to give us a lot of time with the heroes out of costume.

Part of this is practicality. Regardless of the fact that Judge Dredd has never shown his face, you don't pay Sylvester Stalone's salary and not use his face to sell your movie. (Which is really a damn shame. Stallone was willing to do it, and the Judge masks and armor looked really good.) Also, unless you're dealing with a Hugo Weaving, it's hard to have your actors emote through a mask. But I think part of it is that, regardless of how good your superhero costume is, people are afraid of showing too much of it, because they think it looks silly.

Outside of licensed novels, superhero novelists shy away from costumes too. In the Wild Cards novels, very few of the Aces wore a costume, and those who did still had serious concessions to practicality. Part of this was the "realistic" nature of the series, but having tried my hand at writing a superhero novel, I think the other part of it is that when describing a costume, it's hard to not just describe someone in colored tights.

I give Hollywood credit for it's continuing attempts to get the superheroic costume right. But I fear that the costume will largely continue to be restricted to the drawn image, and that our live action heroes will continue to mostly wear leather, plastic and trenchcoats.


Blogger Ricardo said...

hi stopped by via blog mad. I think the costume issue over the past few years has been handled well but I'm still on the fence about the new Superman costume. I'd say the dumbest thing ever done within the last 10 years or so was the nipples in the Batman costume. But the director of those films had no clue about comics. My biggest relief was how good the Spider-man costume came out since he is my all time favorite. Great blog.

12:51 AM  
Blogger Aaron said...

Oh yeah, the Bat-nipples were monstrous. But Schumaker will never be allowed to touch another superhero movie, we all know this.

Spider-Man's costume was really well done, for which I am grateful. I think that it stands next to Christopher Reeve's Superman suit as my favorite.

As for the new Superman costume, well, I'm glad that it is still mostly traditional. And the changes are small enough that they're unlikely to bother me. I'm not thrilled with the changed belt symbol, or the raised up "S" symbol, but I can handle them. And I would have liked the chest symbol to be a little larger, the way that both Reeve and Cain wore it. My biggest complaint is that while I don't mind the textured material, I'd have liked it to be a little brighter.

Spidey can have his colors muted. He lives in a darker world, and he isn't bulletproof. But Superman should be able to wear bold primary colors, and hold his head up high while doing it.

7:43 AM  
Blogger Al B Here said...

For my 2 cents, the polyfoam rubber ears glued on to the outside of Captain America's costume were really the worst...

7:54 AM  
Blogger Aaron said...

Those were hideous, to be sure.

But at least they had a function. Originally the costume had slits to allow the actor's (and I use that term loosely) ears to stick out.

Apparently, the slits hurt too much.

Why they went with rubber ears instead of a smooth cowl I'll never know. But they did serve a function (since the comic book Cap's ears are visible through the cowl).

The bat-nipples? Those were just wrong, and only served to help someone's fetish.

8:37 AM  
Blogger Al B Here said...

Still not ready to drop the Cap thing yet. Was it really necessary to do the costume in rubber? Cap's shirt is supposed to be chainmail (or at least it was at one point, can't speak for now). That shouldn't have been too tough to translate onto the silver screen (or direct to video as the case may be)...

5:36 PM  
Blogger Aaron said...

Well, I understand why they didn't do chainmail. Colored chainmail has a very distinctive look, which is nothing like they have Cap's costume looking like in the comics.

More recent comics have actually made his costume a scaled-mail outfits (very small overlapping plats). Those would have worked better, but would have been very heavy, unless they were made of Aluminum or Titanium.

On the other hand, those options would have cost serious money.

You're absolutely right about Cap's costume in that film being pretty darn horendous. I'm still more offended by the Bat-nipples, but hey, we each have our own things that bug us. :)

5:47 PM  

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