It wasn’t that long ago that the world’s first glimpse of a new superhero costume for a live-action project would premiere in, say, the pages of a fan magazine, or even an early trailer. Now, we live in a time when every major news outlet scrambles to score the first run of such an image. The recent debuts of Jason Momoa‘s Aquaman costume from Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice and Melissa Benoist‘s Supergirl costume from the upcoming CBS show got me thinking.
With so many examples of superhero costumes for fans to examine, which have been the most faithful to their four-color roots? And is there any connection between the loyalty of a costume to its source material and the quality of the adaptation; that is, do they go hand in hand? Let’s take a look through some of the most reverent examples and see what we can find. All of the costumes I considered for this article were from live-action projects, as animation doesn’t carry as many challenges for transitioning a costume. I also omitted CGI characters such as The Hulk and The Silver Surfer, since their creation was primarily digital.
1) Christopher Reeve as Superman, Superman: The Movie (1978): What better place to start than with an icon? While the suit doesn’t conform expressly to any one comic artist, it does replicate all the hallmarks of the widely accepted Superman look: spit curl, wide “S” on the chest, secondary yellow “S” on the cape, thin yellow belt with circular buckle, even the subtle “M” shapes cut into the top of the red boots. The thorough translation of that look, along with Reeve’s heartfelt performance, lifted Superman: The Movie to its status as both the first serious superhero blockbuster and the grandfather of the entire comic-book film landscape.
2) Andrew Garfield as Spider-Man, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014): Another iconic hero, another familiar costume, though perhaps not from a film afforded the same affection as Superman: The Movie. Whatever your thoughts regarding Marc Webb’s second stab at Spidey, you have to admit that the costume is hard to criticize. It’s all there, as if he just swung in from an early Stan Lee/John Romita Sr. issue: the rounded white eyepieces (not pointed; a detail that bugged me about the Raimi films), the bright blue and red in their classic configuration, even the black web-rings that encircle the web-slinger’s fingers. If anyone ever thought that the Spider-Man costume wouldn’t work on film as is, here’s proof to the contrary.
3) Sebastian Stan as The Winter Soldier, Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014): A more recently created character, but another successful translation from page to screen. The Winter Soldier springs from the mind of Ed Brubaker into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, complete with metal arm and a half-mask that makes him look like a Cobra trooper. The comic design of the Winter Soldier already lent itself to cinematic copy, and the recent debut of the character allowed much of the general audience to experience the character on film without prior knowledge.
4) Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman, Wonder Woman (1975 – 1979): Much like Christopher Reeve’s super-wear, this costume was a crystallization of Wonder Woman’s history of slightly modified battle attire (sometimes shorts, sometimes a skirt, etc.) by cementing the “swimsuit” style look in the public’s mind. Like Reeve, it helped that Carter was a solid physical match for the character. This is generally what springs to mind when one thinks of WW: golden tiara with red star, gold and red top, blue star-spangled lower piece, bullet-stopping bracelets and striped red boots. While the show suffered from an overabundance of camp and the absence of a generous budget, the costume would continue to appear in much the same form across multiple media formats for decades.
5) Robert DowneyJr., Iron Man, Iron Man (2008): An instant classic. Utilizing Adi Gradov’s Extremis-era armor design from the comics (which made sense as Gradov worked as a concept artist on the film), the Stan Winston Studio delivered a detailed, believable armored battle suit that filtered the multitudes of Iron Man suits into a crowd-pleasing singularity. Bonus points for the design of the Mark 1 armor, capturing the DIY feel of a clunky, first-draft walking tank with panache. A rare example of all elements of a film working together to produce something special and unexpected.
6) Brandon Lee as The Crow, The Crow (1994): While admittedly a relatively simple look to replicate on film, the late Brandon Lee’s striking performance leapt out from behind the rage-mime makeup to create a truly memorable character: raw, emotional, caring and vengeful. The unadorned black clothing kept the focus on the power of the character and his mission while satisfying the fans of James O’Barr’s graphic novel.
7) Billy Campbell as The Rocketeer, The Rocketeer (1991): Such a period-evocative costume design that feels as if it could only have exploded out of the 1930s, yet Dave Stevens’ high-flying aviator first appeared in 1982. Disney’s 1991 film followed Stevens’ lead exceptionally well, nailing the thick-buttoned leather jacket, jet pack, puffy pants, boots and that Art Deco helmet that looks like Dr. Fate’s blue-collar cousin. This adherence to Stevens’ design helped the film achieve its rollicking derring-do and high adventure as an energetic throwback to the early days of cliffhanger serials.
8) Nicolas Cage as Ghost Rider, Ghost Rider (2007): Ghost Rider’s costume design isn’t necessarily the most eye-popping, from the neck down. From the neck up, well, it’s just hard to beat a burning skull that can talk, laugh and spew brimstone. But the filmmakers did an admirable job of equipping that flaming skull with all of his comic-accurate accoutrements: lots of leather (with buttons that transform into metal spikes), a long length of lethal chain, and of course, that seriously intimidating bike. While the film may have stumbled with wild shifts in tone, the look of the main character was handled with aplomb.
9) Ron Perlman as Hellboy, Hellboy (2004): A great example of an above-and-beyond creation of costume design. The Hellboy design team, under the direction of Guillermo del Toro, duplicated Mike Mignola’s Hellboy comic design even down to the underbite that gives him that tough-guy profile. The devil’s in the details: the filed-down horns, the symbols cut into his skin, the worn duster jacket, and of course the Right Hand of Doom. The character’s relative human-like size allowed practical effects to create him believably in live-action, as opposed to Michael Chiklis’ Thing in Fantastic Four, who was rendered much smaller than his on-the-page counterpart. Coupled with Ron Perlman’s surly yet lovable performance, Hellboy translates improbably well into our world.
10) Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach, Watchmen (2009): Aside from the shifting mask, the rest of Rorschach’s ensemble may seem a bit pedestrian. But this one’s all about the little touches: broken belt loops, old bloodstains; all the effects of an obsessive crime-fighting mission on a man without Bruce Wayne’s resources. This wear and tear, combined with Haley’s mastery of the character’s objectivist rage and bulldog tenacity, made Rorschach as much of a standout in the film as he was in the graphic novel.
Now obviously this isn’t an exhaustive list, or even particularly ranked on a subjective scale of comic-faithfulness. It’s simply my opinions regarding the examples that bridged the visual gap between comic and film in the best way. But within these picks there seems to be one through-line that pertains to the best examples: attention to replicating a character’s costume usually runs parallel to attention paid to the character’s inner workings and personality. Not always the case (Ghost Rider may be an exception) but many times a commitment to the legacy of a character’s outside equals a respect for the character’s inside.