Call For Comments: Why Are There Still Superhero Costumes?

Chinese dinner scene from The Defenders. Characters with no superhero costume

From Mav (with Monica Geraffo): This is going to be about superheroes and fashion. But it’s not going to seem like it at first and there are a billion concepts that I want to tie together, so bear with me. So, it shouldn’t be a surprise at this point that I love superheroes. I love superhero comics, and movies and TV. We live in this weird golden age where all content is basically superhero media, and there’s good and bad about that, but on the whole I love it. But one of my favorite things about superheroes is when they’re not being superheroes. I maintain that the single best superhero content ever put to film isn’t anything obvious. It’s not the final battle in Avengers: Endgame. It’s not Wonder Woman walking through No Man’s Land. It’s not even Chris Reeves convincing people that a man can fly in Superman(1978). Nope, the single greatest superhero moment on film is all of episode 4 of season 1 of Netflix’s Marvel’s The Defenders. Yep! That Defenders and that episode. Forty-Three solid minutes of Matt Murdock, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones, and Danny Rand arguing over Chinese food. It’s awesome. Yes, I know a lot of people don’t like that series, and even people who do tend to think that episode is boring. They’re wrong. That episode is everything that is great about superhero TV shows. That 43 minutes tells me everything I need to know about those four characters (five, once Stick shows up). It tells me their motivations. It tells me their ideologies. It tells me their relationships with each other. It makes me care about each and every one of them. That 43 minutes made me write a whole conference presentation defending Danny Rand, because that 43 minutes of watching him have dinner with the others makes Iron Fist work.

Shwarma scene from the Avengers. Characters with superhero costumes

But before today I never really thought about it in comparison to a similar scene, the post-credit shawarma scene from the first Avengers movie. When I started doing some research for this upcoming episode and comparing notes and thoughts with our guest, superhero fashion expert Monica Geraffo, I started thinking about the clothes that superheroe wear “off the job”. This is a big research focus of Monica’s. And I think comparing the two dinner scenes does something. The Avengers scene is 30 seconds of the team eating in awkward silence and it feels uncomfortably long and that’s sort of the point. It’s funny because of how painful it is. But it couldn’t have gone on any longer. In fact it could have been shorter. And I was thinking about why I like one scene so much more than the other when I noticed for the first time that not only are the Avengers (or most of them) in costume while the Defenders aren’t, but a big reason for that is that the Defenders (other than Daredevil) don’t have “costumes”. Or… at least they don’t have “superhero costumes”. Well… or at least… they don’t wear their underwear outside of their clothes. Because certainly at that point in the Avengers saga (and to a lesser extent after) there was no costume for most of the Avengers. Tony Stark had kind of “a look” (which really was mostly just “he looks like RDjr”), but the others really needed to be “in costume” to be recognizable. There’s no cosplaying MCU Natasha Romanoff or Clint Barton or even Steve Rogers. The costume is the character. BUT, I can absolutely cosplay Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Danny Rand or Matt Murdock… and it doesn’t take spandex to do it. And I totally absolutely have seen people wandering around comic book conventions as Luke Cage or Jessica Jones. There’s a definitive look to it.

Clark Kent changing out of his superhero costume

But the secret identity outfit is always a costume. In the movie Kill Bill vol. 2, Bill points out that “What Kent wears – the glasses, the business suit – that’s the costume. That’s the costume Superman wears to blend in with us. Clark Kent is how Superman views us. And what are the characteristics of Clark Kent. He’s weak… he’s unsure of himself… he’s a coward. Clark Kent is Superman’s critique on the whole human race.” This is a point that is basically taken up by a lot of superhero studies. It’s based on canonical evidence from both the Superman comics and films. Christopher Reeves intentionally screwed up his posture when playing Clark Kent to make him appear shorter than Superman. There are a ton of little differences like this. It’s expanded on in The Superhero Costume by Barbara Brownie and Danny Graydon. Everything about the “Clark Kent” costume is designed to make him look exceptionally boring because that’s what he thinks “ordinary humans” look like.

Arrow characters dressed for a wedding. They wear regular clothes more often than superhero costumes

So when I was talking to Monica about planning this episode she sort of extended this to the whole CW Arrowverse. She argues that on those shows the lead character (Barry on Flash, Ollie on Arrow, Kara on Supergirl, Jefferson on Black Lightning, etc) always has the worst fashion sense, in order to contrast them to their more supreheroic identity, and that the sidekicks are always way more interesting. And of course, I’ve spent the entire day since then going through TV fashion blogs like Worn On TV looking at stills from the shows. Now to be fair, I’ve long been a fan of these sites. Watching the shows and then trying to find out where you can buy the clothes is half the fun of like every show on the CW (and yes, I love my Southside Serpents jacket because Riverdale is the best show on television). Anyway, as I looked through a bunch of the shows, of course Monica has a point — I mean this is like her whole job and stuff — but it made me really start thinking about the idea of what even is a superhero outfit at this point? My favorite of the Arrowverse shows is easily Legends of Tomorrow and it’s the one where the cast is LEAST likely to wear costumes, much like the Defenders characters they mostly wear regular clothes. And it’s fine. Because honestly, I’m pretty sure superhero costumes as a concept don’t make sense and haven’t in a long time.

Ok, here’s where I’m going to start cleverly tying a bunch of random research from the panel together. So a couple months ago, Monica posted a short video to instagram which was sort of her “this is how I would costume my favorite characters from the X-men” if she were given the reigns of the franchise. NOT the superhero outfits. This is “presume each character has a sense of style uniquely their own. How do they dress?” And looking at what she came up with, it all makes sense. Monica wore each outfit herself, there’s no special effects, she doesn’t dye her hair, it’s all just conceptual. And yet, I can look at each outfit and I understand who the character is… even if they’re not necessarily the choices I would have personally made for the same character. But even without speaking to her specifically about why she made each choice… just knowing the characters, I get it. And I think, if I were watching her show without any preconceived notions of what the women of the X-men were supposed to look like, I’d have a pretty good understanding for what the characters were like based purely on their visual stereotyping. So, that is to say…. I don’t think I’d need them to have superhero costumes on the show. EVER. And the show would be better for it.

Falcon costume from Falcon and Winter Soldier

So in my most recent paper for PCA, I made the argument that a lot of what we call the superhero genre is just a bunch of outdated structural tropes that we are just using because of inertia. They’re mostly decisions that Sigel, Shuster, Kirby, Simon, Kane, and Finger made more than 80 years ago because they made cultural sense in the context of the stories they were telling at the time, and we’ve just been copying them over and over. One of the most obvious examples here is costuming. In the MCU films and TV shows, Steve Rogers, John Walker and Sam Wilson all wear comic book accurate superhero outfits. Each one of them wears a mask. But none of them have ever had a secret identity within the context of the MCU diegesis. They literally hold press conferences under their real name. And yet, they each wear masks. This makes no narrative sense. They’re wearing masked costumes to “look like Captain America” except in their universe people only know who Captain America is BECAUSE of them. If Captain America were invented in the world of the MCU he should have a uniform in the same way as any other uniformed officer, as the military and the police do in the real world, but it wouldn’t be in bright garish colors and it wouldn’t have a mask. Hawkeye and Black Widow’s outfits make sense. Captain America’s doesn’t.

Characters from the Gifted don't really even have a concept of superhero costumes

And the further away from being an official state sponsored operative, the less sense it makes to have a “costume” per se at all. Realistically if you were a teenager that suddenly received superpowers, you wouldn’t become Spider-man; you would become something like the kids from the Gifted… or Legion… or Runaways… or Cloak and Dagger… or the Marvel Netflix shows… or maybe Buffy the Vampire Slayer… at best… or maybe movies like Chronicle or I Am Number Four at worst. You’d use your powers, but what’s the silly outfit for? It’s for inertia. The characters wear superhero costumes because without them, geeks will complain that they’re not wearing them. Realistically, you’d most likely superhero without them.

Characters from Wicked + Divine where rockstar costumes which feels more like superhero costumes than anything in real life.

That’s assuming you decided to become a superhero at all. Because the more I think about it, realistically it makes a lot more sense to become a rock god like Wayne’s favorite characters in The Wicked + The Divine. You’d turn to celebrity and do drugs and have sex and just be rich and powerful (this was part of Wayne’s talk at PCA as well. I’m wondering if people like it if I put Wayne and my talks both up on the Youtube… they’re more academic than what we do with the regular show but would that be interesting? Let us know). MAYBE you’d save the world… if you had time. But mostly you’d just enjoy your life and your gifts because with great power comes… the opportunity for even greater power. At the very least it comes with cooler clothes than wearing your underwear on the outside.

So yeah, we want to talk about all of that. Do costumes makes sense in superhero shows anymore or is it better if they realistically forego them? Do you need to see your characters looking like comic characters or do you want realism? Or does it make sense to have some sort of hybrid? What else should we talk about with regards to superhero fashion? Let us know in the comments below.

1 Comment and 2 Webmentions for “Call For Comments: Why Are There Still Superhero Costumes?”

  1. Very interesting, and I think a solid argument for the outdatedness of comic book “costumes” (at least in live action adaptations). I think, in some cases, race (or any other marginalized status) can be a factor. Blair Davis writes (paraphrasing) about how Luke Cage wearing street clothes in the Avengers comics makes his skin color the identifying factor for the reader – essentially, “that’s the one black guy, so it must be Luke Cage”. For the Pierce’s in the Black Lightning series it also makes sense that they would hide their identities with masks/costumes (even if the logic of how well hidden they are doesn’t necessarily hold up). Characters like Kamala Khan and Miles Morales makes sense, to me, as having secret identities/wearing costumes.

    Somewhat side thought, too – is part of the problem with superhero costumes that they draw from certain conventions (trunks reflecting old circus strongman outfits) or stereotypes of culture rather than reflecting both the personalities and needs of the characters themselves? Monica’s Rogue outfit, for example, does that with street clothes but we don’t often see the same thought put into costumes.

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