The GeeksverseThe Roundtable | Favorite superhero comics-to-film/TV costume translations

The Roundtable | Favorite superhero comics-to-film/TV costume translations
Published on Friday, September 13, 2013 by
We’re still in a comic book movie state of mind at the Roundtable, so this week, we’re talking about our favorite comics-to-live-action translations of superhero costumes.

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: as popular as movies based on comics have become in recent years, and even with the seeming speed and ease with which comics can be adapted for film and television, comics are much more than just “paper movies.” Sure, there’s a lot of a crossover when it comes to the technical language, and the art and craft of storyboarding is a close cousin (practically a sibling, really) of comics-style visual storytelling. But the fact remains that not everything that “works” in comics finds easy and equivalent expression in a full-motion medium, particularly live-action film and television.

Adam Warren pokes fun at the conventions of superhero costume design in Empowered

Adam Warren pokes fun at the conventions of superhero costume design in his creator-owned comic Empowered.

Take superhero costumes for instance. We’re used to the idea of the “spandex superhero costume”—close-fitting garments that cling so tightly to the wearer’s anatomy that they appear practically painted on, allowing all the major muscles and anatomical landmarks to show through but nonetheless rendering nipples and any bits between the waist and upper thighs practically invisible. But spandex (or Lycra, if you prefer) and spandex-like textiles don’t really behave that way in the real-world. Real spandex/spandex-like clothing, even high-end compression training suits worn by those with immaculately sculpted physiques, aren’t as uniformly form-hugging, supportive, or as conveniently modest as their comic book counterparts, an observation anybody who has been to a comic book convention with a large cosplayer contingent can confirm.

Beyond the materials used in costuming, there are just certain superhero costume elements and conventions in comics that are either impractical to recreate in a real-world setting or just look plain silly when rendered accurately for live-action film or television, undermining the audience’s suspension of disbelief. As artist David Mazzucchelli noted in his afterword to the 2005 edition of Batman: Year One,

Once a depiction veers toward realism, each new detail releases a torrent of questions that exposes the absurdity at the heart of the [superhero] genre. The more ‘realistic’ heroes become, the less believable they are.

The seams in the fiction start to show literally and figuratively, so to speak, at the intersection of realistic representation and comics fantasy.

Not all superhero costumes need drastic adjustment to look good on the screen, of course. Some, like Bryan Hitch’s designs for Black Widow’s and Hawkeye’s outfits in Marvel’s Ultimates comic—paramilitary-looking updates of their classic outfits—appear ready-made for adaptation to live-action renderings and look like they jumped directly off the page on to the screen in The Avengers:


Still, the superhero movie and television show costumes that catch our eye the most are the ones that reference the most iconic looks of the source material characters, yet maintain the illusion of real-world plausibility.

Jason Thees

flash-shippMy favorite costume-to-live-action-media translation is probably John Wesley Shipp as the Flash. While it was a bit spongy and bulky and foamy for today’s looks, at the time, it was damn amazing AND perfectly comic accurate. Well, more or less… it was Barry Allen in Wally West’s suit, but… It was Flash. Too bad that show got hosed by a constantly changing time slot.

Next is the recent take on Captain America in his solo movie. I enjoyed the Simon/Kirby era look, and the way they used it. It really harkened back to the WWII propaganda serial for me, and Cap turned that joke costume into something he was proud to wear. The evolution into the “real” suit was well done; kept the appropriate color scheme, lines and style while making it much more utilitarian.


From left to right: A concept illustration of Chris Evans’ costume for Captain America: The First Avenger, a second illustration of the costume, the actual costume on a display mannequin, the costume as it appears in the film.

I wish I could say the same about his his look in The Avengers, but I just didn’t feel that one. Too many strange lines, random zippers, and plastic-y armor. It seems a little early to me to move him into the “Heroic Age” Steve Rogers gear for Captain America: The Winter Soldier… That said though, while digging up some images for this bit, I’m amazed at how much the serial Cap costume calls to mind Alex Ross’ design for “Bucky Cap”.

Last but not least is Hellboy (and Abe Sapien, and really, most of the “monstrous” cast). That character had no business ever translating to screen well, but Ron Pearlman really nailed the character, and the FX team really nailed the makeup. The combo makes for a great visual.


Characters from Hellboy II: The Golden Army, from left to right: Johan Krauss, Abe Sapien, Hellboy, and Liz Sherman.

Honorable mention goes to David Ogden Stiers as Martian Manhunter in the aborted 1997 pilot to the JLA TV series… nah, I can’t even pretend to like this one.

Zedric Dimalanta

Captain-AmericaFirstAvengerLike Jason, I really liked how the Captain America costume from Captain America: The First Avenger looked on the big screen. To me, it successfully combined elements of both Bryan Hitch’s World War-era II Ultimate Captain America design from Ultimates #1 and the modern Ultimate Captain America design from later in the series, and provided just the right blend of real-world plausibility and comic book fantasy. Was the look too “futuristic” for the film’s World War II-setting? It’s debatable, but I think it only makes sense that the Allies’ top secret supersoldier would have the benefit of highly-advanced materials technology.

And like Jason, I thought the 21st century Captain America costume used in The Avengers was a huge step down aesthetics-wise from the one from Captain America: The First Avenger. I don’t know what direction they could have taken the design given that the costume from the previous film already looked pretty contemporary, but I know I and many other fans I’ve talked to found Captain America’s costume in The Avengers less than impressive on screen and in stills. It looks like bad cosplay.

I think most of the Ultimates costume designs created by Hitch translated real well to film, actually, although that’s probably because he designed them with the mandate that they be easily adaptable for other media from the very outset. I still wish that Marvel Studios had hewed closer to Hitch’s designs for Ultimate Iron Man and Ultimate Thor for the characters’ respective solo films.

One comics-to-film superhero costume update that I think doesn’t get appreciated enough is the one seen in the Blade films. Just to remind the younger readers out there, this is what Blade originally wore when he was first introduced in the comics (it isn’t bad by any means, but it hasn’t aged well). Nightstalkers artist Ron Garney hooked the character up with an all-black leather ensemble in the early 1990s but it was only in the first Blade film starring Wesley Snipes that the character got a real memorable makeover, complete with stylized fade haircut, the ubiquitous sunglasses, and snazzy body armor. Sure the whole black leather trenchcoat and sunglasses look is played out now, but think about this: Blade came out in the late summer of 1998, over half a year before The Matrix turned it into an inescapable character design standby.


My third favorite comics-to-film translation of a superhero costume isn’t a costume per se: the use of CGI models in live-action films to depict the Hulk. Yes, like a lot of folks who grew up during the 1970s and 1980s, I have a soft spot for Lou Ferrigno in green body paint in the role of the Hulk from the old TV show, but the Hulk isn’t just about huge muscles. No amount of forced perspective camera tricks can give any actor, no matter how massively-muscled he may be, the monstrous anatomy the character has in the comics. Whether you’re talking about the 2003 Hulk film starring Eric Bana, 2008’s The Incredible Hulk, or last year’s The Avengers, a properly textured and animated CGI Hulk looks and moves better, I think, than anything we can currently get using alternatives like animatronic models (which would probably be too stiff and fragile for use in big set-piece fight scenes) or a guy in a padded suit.

Nick Saunders (contributor)

Both Jason and Zedric have brought up excellent examples of successful aesthetic translations of comic characters to the film medium. Captain America: The First Avenger in particular is a textbook example of how the spirit of a design can be honored while minding the constraints of the real world, and I am also of the same mind that his appearance in The Avengerswas a disappointment. It is quite a feat to take a beast like Chris Evans and make him look anemic, so kudos to Joss Whedon and crew for that.


Left: Chris Evans as the lead in Captain America: The First Avenger; right: the actor as Captain America in 2012’s The Avengers.

On to my own humble nominations for cinematic tailoring greatness, I would suggest Robert Downey Jr.’s suit from the first Iron Man film. It bore a striking resemblance to both the “Iron Man Model 29 Armor” (a.k.a. the “PreExtremis Armor”) and “Iron Man Model 30 Armor” (a.k.a. the “Extremis Armor”) from the comic series, and due to its design was entirely plausible as a real-life suit of mechanized armor. Favreau and the FX team could have taken the easy way out and made the armor entirely CGI, completely obviating the need to construct a real suit for RDJ. Instead they constructed a wearable, modular suit for him to wear in close-up and “maskless” shots, further enhancing the believability of the fantasy world they had created.


The armor from the first Iron Man film (left), the so-called “PreExtremis Armor” from the comics (center), and comics’ “Extremis Armor” (right) were all designed by artist Adi Granov.

While the faithfulness and overall creative success of this film will likely remain debated by fanboys for decades to come, you just can’t hate on the costumes created for Zac Snyder’s Watchmen. Rorschach, Comedian, Dr. Manhattan were virtually unchanged from the source material, while Night Owl and Silk Spectre II received much-needed revisions. And in a satirical nod to director Joel Schumacher and his atrocious Batman films, Ozymandias was fitted with a rubberized nipple suit.


The Watchmen in the film (left) and as drawn by Watchmen artist Dave Gibbons (right).

My final pick for this week’s discussion would be the Tobey Maguire Spider-Man costume from the Sam Raimi films.


An image from 2004’s Spider-Man 2

It was a faithful representation somewhat reminiscent of Todd McFarlane’s take on the character, but with some modernized touches that kept Maguire from looking like a grape smuggler in a unitard. I liked the decision to make the suit’s spider web pattern a raised, textured element instead of just patterned lines, once again helping to mitigate any aforementioned smuggling potential. I also appreciated that the textured web design was retained even for the symbiote version of the suit in Spider-Man 3, while I acknowledge that I am likely in the minority and could potentially be stoned to death by my peers for even suggesting something of value came from this turd of a film.

Troy Osgood

capamericafirstavengercostumeCapLike everyone else, I have to say that the Captain America: The First Avenger costume was great.  Not an accurate representation of the classic Captain America suit at all, it’s much closer to the Ultimate version, but overall it looked good on the screen.  Translating Cap’s real uniform would be kind of hard, it’s technically some kind of chain or scale mail. And yes, like everybody else, I thought the costume in The Avengers was horrible.

An aside: I don’t understand the need to redo the costumes from one movie to the next. Iron Man, sure, but the others? I get that it has to do with merchandising, etc. But it just doesn’t translate. Peter Parker can afford to make a whole new suit every several months?

I’m going to say that ultimately it was Loki’s look that translated extremely well from comics to movie, in both Thor and The Avengers. The greens and golds were there in the same basic design.  I was surprised the horned helmet looked as well as it did in a live-action film. That seems to be something that is very comic book-y, hard to translate into reality, but they managed to do it.


Disagree with our choices? Surprised at the glaring lack of Batman and Superman? Let us know what you think in the comments section below or on Twitter and Facebook.
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