The GeeksverseThe Roundtable | Live-action film/TV adaptations of superhero costumes that didn’t work

The Roundtable | Live-action film/TV adaptations of superhero costumes that didn’t work
Published on Friday, September 27, 2013 by
At the last Roundtable, we talked about our favorite live-action film/TV versions of superhero costumes. But not every design looks good on screen, as we’ll see as Joe, Nick, and Zedric list their least favorite live-action film/TV superhero costume designs… 

Translating superhero costumes to live-action TV or film is a fickle art. Given the wide variability in comics superhero costume designs and differing opinions among viewers as to how integral they are to the visual identity of a character, it’s pretty much impossible to come up with a universal heuristic for creating a good live-action approximation of a comic book superhero costume. Principles that work for tailoring a plausible real-world equivalent of say, Wolverine’s look might not work for a character like Batman: the former would still look like Wolverine if he spent a whole movie wearing nothing but jeans, boots, and a leather jacket, so long as he has his claws, his distinct hairstyle, and his sideburns, whereas if the latter spent a whole movie parading around in a black tracksuit while wearing a utility belt, it wouldn’t be much of a Batman film at all.

When talking about poorly-received live-action TV/film superhero costumes however, the two most common design flaws, regardless of budget and build quality, seem to be (1) a casual dismissal of distinctive design elements of the source material, and (2) an imbalance between fantastical and realistic aspects that heavily favors one over the other to a degree that it upends the viewer’s sense of immersion and suspension of disbelief.

Below, Joe, Nick, and Zedric list their least favorite live-action film/TV superhero costume designs. Some of these are out-and-out poor designs. And some of them are actually decent, impressive even, when viewed out-of-context. But what unites them is the feeling viewers get that somehow, something is missing, and that the costumes fail to recreate on-screen the subjective visual spirit of the original comics designs.

Nick Saunders (contributor)

Well I’ll be a Batgirl in a bodysuit—it appears I get first crack at the piñata this week. While I very much enjoyed the previous discussion with my esteemed peers, the perennial player hater in me truly savors this opportunity to rip into what I feel are some unequivocally catastrophic renderings of my favorite comic characters.

  • Spawn from 1997’s Spawn: In my mind, public enemy number one would be 1997’s Spawn. In this cinematic debacle, it was decided that the eponymous character, who is known for his flowing, sentient parasite of a cape, should spend 99% of the film cape-less. When the cape is finally revealed during the third act of the film, it comes out looking like a big-ass Fruit Roll-up. I seriously think that halfway through editing the FX team powered down their Commodore 64, stole a pallet of Fruit by the Foot, wove it into a tapestry, and told everybody who didn’t like it to suck it.

Spawn as he typically appears in the comics.


The cape from the Spawn film: “Fear my mighty fruit roll-up of hellish intent!”

  • Deadpool from 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine: While whether or not this character can be considered a “hero” could be debated ad infinitum, my next nominee for awful movie translations is Deadpool, as depicted in 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine. I thought Ryan Reynolds was an excellent casting choice for the “Merc With a Mouth”, and I had very high hopes for how Deadpool’s portrayal would turn out. Little did I know that they were going to turn him into Powder on steroids and sew his freaking mouth shut. As trendy as the Trainspotting look is with today’s hipster youth, making one of the most hardcore anti-heroes in contemporary comics look like a Hepatitis-C infected casting reject from American History X is utterly appalling and unforgiveable.


  • Superman from 2006’s Superman Returns: Oh, Superman Returns, how you disappointed me. For a film haughtily intended to be the “true” Superman III of the Richard Donner series, damn did they get it all wrong; that plot had more holes in it than my lucky underpants. However, setting the intermittently-superpowered bastard child and the continent made of Kryptonite aside, the suit itself just didn’t look right. The chest insignia was too small, too rubbery, and too textured. The leather cape looked oppressively heavy and uninspired. Even the shade of red used in the costume was far too dark—to the extent that it was practically brown. While I am not entirely in love with the latest version of Superman’s suit in Man of Steel, at least I don’t fantasize about reversing the gravitational rotation of the Earth in an attempt to stop it from ever coming into existence.

Left: The Superman costume as it appears in Superman Returns; right: A fan-made tweak of the design. Note the brighter, more saturated reds and the enlarged chest insignia.

Zedric Dimalanta

In my opinion, the least successful attempts at recreating superhero costumes in live-action TV/film, regardless of budget, are the ones that end up changing the core visual theme of the original design (often for superfluous reasons, such as “because it’s cool” or “because we already have these in the costume bin so we might as well use them”), to the extent that the characters might as well be original creations with no connection to the comics. There are a lot of (dis)honorable mentions, with the three that I find the most egregious below:

  • The Punisher in the The Punisher (1989): I actually have a soft spot for this film—if nothing else, it had the stones to be an R-rated feature at a time when “comics are just for kids” thinking was still a prevalent attitude in mainstream media and even Marvel’s Punisher comic was subject to the Comics Code—but taking away the skull shirt that is the defining visual design hallmark of the character pretty much renders the Punisher as a generic 1980s action movie hero in appearance.

The Punisher in the 1989 film (left) and the Punisher as drawn in the comics Marvel published at or around the time of the film’s release (center: Punisher #12 cover by Whilce Portacio and Tim Bradstreet, right: Punisher War Journal #8 cover by Jim Lee).

  • Mephisto in 2007’s Ghost Rider: So let me get this straight—Mephisto is a being of godlike power, who can take any guise he wants, who has appeared most often in Marvel’s comics as either a fanged, red-faced, human-shaped demon or a more disturbing, avian-looking, androgynous humanoid with dreadlocks, and yet in the film he chooses to look like a 67 year-old Peter Fonda out for an autumn constitutional? Then again, this is the film that asks its audience to believe that a 44 year-old Nicolas Cage, valiantly struggling hairline and all, is supposed to be a strapping young lad in his 20s. So yeah, maybe there’s some sort of twisted rhyme and reason at play here.

Left: Mephisto, as played by Peter Fonda in 2007’s Ghost Rider; center: Mephisto as painted by Joe Jusko; right: Mephisto as drawn by John Romita, Jr. and Al Williamson.

  • Whiplash in Iron Man 2 (2010): I actually have no qualms about the costume itself, although it is odd that a villain with no innate superpowers who fights with his head and torso exposed can pose such a serious threat to Iron Man. My problem with this design is that it represents the worst aspects of how Hollywood bastardizes design concepts to fit some arcane formula known only to studio execs that supposedly tells them “what people really want to see.” If I remember correctly, the reason the producers didn’t want to use Crimson Dynamo as the villain in the Iron Man sequel—despite it being a very sensible option, Crimson Dynamo is up there with the Mandarin and Titanium Man as among Iron Man’s most notable foes—was because Iron Man already fought an armor-wearing villain in the first film (well, duh, you guys ever hear of something called the “Armor Wars“?), so instead they decided to mash together classic Iron Man nemesis Crimson Dynamo (real name: Anton Vanko) and B-list Iron Man villain Blacklash (real name: Mark Scarlotti), resulting in “Whiplash” (real name: Ivan Vanko), a thrown-together hybrid of both comic book villains with none of their history or appeal. And then they turned around and gave Whiplash a full set of powered body armor in the film’s underwhelming climax, anyway. Iron Man 2 director Jon Favreau, a huge fan of the comic books who clashed often with the producers throughout filming over what he felt was excessive meddling and unnecessary changes to the script, still managed to sneak in a nod to Crimson Dynamo in the film, however.

Iron Man 2‘s Whiplash (left) was an amalgamation of the comics’ Anton Vanko, the original Crimson Dynamo (center) and Blacklash (right).

ihavenomouthandimustscreamThe worst offender, however, has to be Deadpool from 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine, precisely because the change messed with a most fundamental aspect of the character that goes deeper than just aesthetics. The Whiplash design may have shown a disregard for the source material, but at least it could be argued that the designers were creating a new (if derivative) character and thus weren’t beholden to the comics. There’s no such excuse for X-Men Origins: Wolverine‘s Deadpool, though. I’m not even a fan of the character and I thought the changes were too much. Nick has already demonstrated visually above the baffling design decision to turn the wisecracking “merc with a mouth” to a mute Baraka clone that takes literal inspiration from the title of a famous Harlan Ellison short story, so I’ll just leave you guys with this YouTube video posted by a member of the studio who designed Deadpool for the film, showing the 81(!) major revisions the designers had to go through before they finally had a look that director Gavin Hood, the film’s many producers, and the marketing guys at Fox could all agree on.

This just goes to show that appeasing every “suit” (most of whom had probably never read a Deadpool comic book in their life) results in a compromised design that satisfies no one.

Joe Milone

Zedric and Nick have already touched on some really good examples (but let me go on record and say that like Zedric, I love the 1989 Punisher movie). But to me, the worst offenders are:

  • Captain America from the 1979 Captain America TV movie: I know that Evel Knievel was super popular back in the day, but I don’t get the costume design at all. The movie is loosely based on the source material, but the costume is close in color only. Just pure crap.

[I have to say, though, I thought it was pretty sweet when the makers of Captain America: The First Avenger did a little homage to the 1979 TV movie when they had Cap use his shield as improvised frontal armor for his motorcycle—ed.]

  • Captain America from The Avengers: It just didn’t look good at all, especially considering how awesome the costume looked in his solo movie.

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

  • Spider-Man from The Amazing Spider-Man TV series (1977–1979):  The costume, while accurate, to me, looked like someone that you would hire for a kids birthday party. Then it got worse in the episodes that followed the feature-length pilot, when the show’s designers added the Spider utility belt and webshooters that were worn over the costume.


[I’m really digging the funky theme music in the show’s intro, though—ed.]

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