Why Can’t Superhero Movies Have Superhero Costumes In Them?


With Empire Magazine revealing the most recent batch of superhero movie costumes, I really have to wonder: why can’t superheroes in movies have actual costumes?

Sure, there are still capes, and sometimes tights, but overall, superhero movies trend toward the dark and “realistic.” I’d like to blame Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, with his body armor, bullet proof plates, and gauntlet gloves, but the trend runs much deeper.

The 60s through the 80s were a heyday for superhero costumes that felt like they came right out of the Silver Age. Adam West’s Batman had eyebrows painted on the cowl, giving him a permanent look of shock, and Burt Ward wore the classic pixie boots and high-cut green shorts of Robin. The costumes were silly, irreverent, and fun, matching the tone of the 1966 Batman show. The 1978 Superman film carried the same concept, costume-wise, with Christopher Reeve donning the iconic red underwear over a classic, brightly colored Superman costume. Even Supergirl rocked the famous red-yellow-and-blue look in the 1984 movie of the same name and Wonder Woman wore a red bustier and star-spangled panties in her titular TV show.

Batman 3

The 1989 Tim Burton Batman film stuck to its roots, showing Batman with his iconic yellow spotlight logo (which Nolan later referred to as a “target”), but the costume design also tried to make Batman look more “realistic.” Gone were the gray leotard, blue undies, and the blue cape, exchanged for a black leather-like bodysuit and cape. The only highlight of color, aside from the logo, was Batman’s yellow utility belt. The yellow highlights were later dropped, ironically, with the Joel Schumacher directed Batman Forever. While the rest of Gotham became a neon colored paradise, Batman remained a solitary, dark figure. Robin joined him in this, with his costume taking on shiny, plastic look of muted reds and greens.

Other films, contemporary to Batman, decided to forgo costumes altogether. 1989’s The Punisher featured Frank Castle (Dolph Lundgren) in a t-shirt and leather jacket, seemingly without reference to the Punisher’s well-known white skull logo. There are other movies prior to Batman that decided to forgo “superhero” costumes, and stick with translating unrealistic characters into reality, like 1982’s Swamp Thing, 1986’s Howard the Duck, and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles trilogy.

Marvel movies post-Batman initially trended towards colorful costumes. The 1990 Captain America and the unreleased 1994 Fantastic Four both used looks similar to the costumes the characters wore in the comics, yet these movies were widely seen as “flops” if they were released at all. DC also made an attempt at colorful costumes in their 1990 Flash TV show. Though the show didn’t last beyond a single season, it did show one example of a superhero costume that didn’t look like armor.


But because of these colorful flops, superhero movies started used darker, more “realistic” costumes. Spawn removed his cape as often as possible, the Crow wore mostly black leather and trench coats, Blade wore body armor and black–but none of these were a very far cry from their appearances in comics. It wasn’t until Brain Singer’s first X-Men movie in 2000, that dark realism became the “in” look for superheroes. Gone were the yellow and blue jumpsuits from the original comic, gone were the uniquely colored costumes the X-Men wore in the 80s, instead every member of the X-Team wore a black leather jumpsuit.

There was nothing visually interesting about the jumpsuits, and while some characters had minute differences–Storm’s cape and Wolverine’s piped “X”–there was nothing special about the costumes. In fact, they weren’t costumes, they were uniforms. Ghost Rider, Catwoman, and even Fantastic Four exchanged any semblance of a “superhero costume” for dark leather duds.

There were some exceptions; Daredevil’s costume was a deep red, but the actual fit of the garment looked baggy and leather-like; Elektra wore a bright red bustier in her own movie, but a black leather get up in Daredevil;  Toby Maguire’s Spider-man getup was a close mirror of his comic counterpart, but was soon exchanged for all black in Spider-man 3; Superman Returns was one of the last times we saw underwear-on-the-outside, but while the costume was on key, the movie was not.

Iron Man began a sort of “golden age” for superhero movies, but the 2008 film was more about Tony creating the suit than wearing it. The suit itself is modern looking, streamlined, but even its gaudy colors were muted, with the gold becoming fainter in each sequel. Thor exchanges his nonsensical, Kirby chest-dots for dark-colored chain-mail and body armor. Even Black Widow lost her gold gauntlets, using  guns instead of her “widow’s bite.” Hawkeye is a poor imitation of the comic book Clint Barton, losing not only his sass, but also his purple, circus-inspired costume. Superman lost his underwear and gained scale-mail that looks more like it belongs to an Aquaman costume. Cap no longer has wings coming of off his helmet, instead they are embedded in his cowl. Spider-man wears a dark, textured spider-suit with a pseudo-cod piece in Amazing Spider-man (though his costume in the upcoming sequel is brightly colored and is the best representation of the comic suit to date). Wolverine wears leather jackets, not orange and brown or yellow and blue jumpsuits. And, of course, Batman wears body armor.


And it’s not just movies, the CW’s entire line of superhero TV shows, specifically Smallville and Arrow, are staunch in their lack of “traditional” superhero costumes. The failed NBC Wonder Woman pilot is the only show that attempted a colorful costume in recent years, and the too shiny material was so off-putting, that the single episode they filmed featured a number of costume changes in an attempt to improve the look (adding pants, removing pants, adding straps, using a bustier, etc).

Since the 80s, almost every time a colorful costume is used, the show or movie it’s in is considered unsuccessful. It’s a false correlation that Hollywood is drawing from; look at cosplayers, who lovingly create costumes modeled off the comics and are somehow able to make a silly, colorful leotard look perfect and realistic.

Part of why I love superhero comics are the costumes; they don’t have to be realistic, they don’t have to make sense. Yet Hollywood is insistent on superheroes looking and dressing “realistically.” The entire future X-Men team looks almost identical, in their black leather vests and pants, and the look is just not dynamic or interesting.  If unrealistic costumes are your big complaint about superheroes, you’re missing the point of the genre; superheroes are people who can fly and lift cars–does it really matter if their underwear is on the outside?


About Author

Ellie Hillis

Ellie Hillis is a Heroine Addict…which is to say she loves super heroines. A comic historian and an aspiring author, Ellie wrote her thesis on the endurance of superheroines in comics, and has been published in Capes, Cowls & Villains Foul and the Gallery of Evil, both published by Spectrum Games. When she’s not reading, writing, or drawing comics, she’s probably watching television comedies, making costumes, listening to nerdcore, or analyzing popular culture.

  • Nobody

    “Toby Maguire’s Spider-man getup was a close mirror of his comic counterpart, but was soon exchanged for all black in Spider-man 3”

    …and then he switched it back out for the red and blue, because that was part of the plot.
    Also, the costumes have changed and evolved in the comics as well due to people’s suspension of disbelief not being what it once was.