Clothes make the (super)man. Popular culture is filled with action heroes, but it's the transition to a colourful costumed persona that distinguishes the “super” hero. James Bond, Luke Skywalker and Katniss Everdeen are the same person whether they are saving the day or folding their laundry, but Spider-Man, Superman and Wonder Woman hide their heroism under mild-mannered secret identities. It's only when they don their capes and cowls do these characters become superheroes.
These costumes, and the changes between them, are essential to the superhero’s appeal. The everyday outfits of Clark Kent, Peter Parker and Kamala Khan invite audience self-identification, while the superhero suits encourage us to look up to Superman, Spider-Man and Ms. Marvel. This tension between the “super” and the “human” was recently seen in Thor: Love and Thunder (2022), where the Norse god Thor (Chris Hemsworth) struggles to maintain a plain-clothes romance with Natalie Portman’s Dr Jane Foster, replete with pancake breakfasts in their pyjamas. However, as with countless heroes before, the need to answer a higher calling for justice prevents Thor from enjoying a normal life and the hero must once more don his iconic costume.
This tradition of diametrically opposed alter-egos conveyed through costuming goes back to the origins of superheroes on the comic book page. The earliest comic book superheroes first appeared at the tail-end of the Great Depression. Apart from occasional trips to Oz, cinema was still stubbornly monochromatic in the late 1930s. By comparison, comic books were alive with colour as costumed crimefighters like Superman and Wonder Woman bounded over buildings and brushed off bullets. These comics were cheaply published on low quality stock through an unreliable four-colour process. The use of bright primary colours enabled the characters to pop from the dull paper and inspired young readers to imagine escaping Depression-era austerity.
Even when printing processes improved, bright colours persisted as signifiers of heroism in superhero comic books. From Spider-Man’s red and blue unitard to Thor’s flowing red cape, the heroes who populated the burgeoning Marvel Universe in the 1960s maintained this tradition of primary-coloured costumes. Contrastingly, the nefarious intent of villains was identifiable from their penchant for secondary colours: The Joker’s purple suits, Cheetah’s orange fur and the Green Goblin’s ghoulish ensemble. The dubious morality of later comic book antiheroes such as The Watchmen was signalled when “good guys” like Rorschach and Nite Owl wore the browns and purples traditional reserved for villains.
Apart from Christopher Reeve’s comic book accurate attire in Superman: The Movie (1978) early efforts to adapt comic book costumes to cinema tended to avoid the bright colours for which superheroes were known. When Tim Burton directed Batman in 1989, he eschewed the hero’s trademark blues, which Adam West had made famous in the Technicolor TV series, in favour of encasing Michael Keaton in black foam latex.
The film credited with initiating the modern superhero movie boom, 2000’s X-Men, similarly favoured black leather over the comic’s yellow and blue uniforms. In a moment of levity before X-Men’s third act fisticuffs new teammate Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), sitting uncomfortably in his leather uniform, questions, “You actually go outside in these things?” to which team leader Cyclops curtly responds, “Well, what would you prefer, yellow spandex?” This brief reference to the brightly coloured costumes of the comics served as both a concession and a reminder to fans, “Yes, X-Men was a comic book first, but remember, this is a movie”.
X-Men was released during the early days of today’s superhero movie dominance, when all a comic book fan could hope for was a vague resemblance to the source, a halfway decent film, and a smattering of such self-referential moments. Little over a decade later X-Men received a prequel, X-Men: First Class (2011), which saw the heroes ending the Cuban Missile Crisis in the comic book faithful attire that seemed so ridiculous ten years prior.
The more comic book faithful costumes of today’s superhero movies are attributable to a number of interrelated trends. With the arrival of the internet once-isolated comic book fans found their voice amplified. These enthusiasts used their newfound power to agitate online for greater fidelity in comic book film adaptations, including colourful costumes. Production technology and increasingly lavish budgets also enabled filmmakers to realise the costumes that once seemed unattainable in live action cinema with standout examples including the practical armour designed by Stan Winston for the first MCU movie Iron Man (2008) or the CGI enhancements that allowed Ryan Reynolds to still deliver one-liners from behind Deadpool’s all-covering onesie. The continued success of superhero movies also emboldened studios and filmmakers to take greater risks bringing comic book costumes to the screen.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016) director Taika Waititi embraced the creative confidence of contemporary superhero movies with Thor: Love and Thunder. Where Waititi’s first Thor film, Ragnarok (2017), found the hero losing his hammer, hair, and eye in quick succession, Love and Thunder represents a return to comic book costumes by way of 1980s heavy metal album cover art. In the film Thor’s superhero status is threatened when his ex-girlfriend, Dr Jane Foster, assumes the mantel of the Mighty Thor. On seeing his old flame in full superhero costume, Thor responds by making his own costume more ostentatious, more colourful and more comic book. Riding the Rainbow Bridge to Eternity with their primary-coloured capes fluttering dramatically in the wind, Thor and his fellow Love and Thunder heroes, Jane Foster and Valkyrie, look like they have flown straight from a comic book page onto the big screen.
The Thor films have also maintained the comic book convention of secondary colours for villains, with Loki wearing a series of green robes and suits in the previous films. Thor: Love and Thunder takes this trope even further with the antagonist Gorr the God Butcher’s villainy conveyed by a complete absence of colour in his make-up and costuming. These grey shades stand in stark contrast to the film’s primary-coloured heroes, and immediately evoke through costuming the good versus evil dynamics of the original comic books, which can now also be found across countless superhero films and TV shows.
Although some may bemoan the superhero’s annexation of modern blockbuster cinema, these costumed heroes, drawing on their comic book origins, have undoubtedly made modern movies a much more colourful place.
– Liam Burke is a university lecturer, writer, and documentary filmmaker based in Melbourne. He is the Screen Studies discipline leader at Swinburne University of Technology. Follow him on Twitter.