Does it really matter how a superhero looks when they’re portrayed on film? Does the costume play into the caliber of a film adaptation of a comic book? By now I’m sure you’ve seen the X-Men-Color and Costume video from kaptainkristian, that argues for the importance of color in a hero’s costume, but in case you haven’t:
I remember seeing Wolverine in theaters and hearing the people around me in the theater try to process what they had just seen. At the time, I knew who Deadpool was, but I wasn’t yet a fan of the comics. Still, I knew enough about the character to know that the depiction I had just seen was definitely more Deadpool adjacent than an accurate representation of the Merc. The people around me hated the way the character had been changed from a crazy, hilarious, awesome, and troubled anti-hero and essentially turned into a fighting robot with no mouth.
It was clear what the film had done. They were taking a character whose origin story is a bit… out there, to say the least, and sanitizing the story for us. They took the craziness out of Wade’s story and doused what makes Wade unique and cool with a hearty dose of reality. He wasn’t wearing a bright red and black suit that covered his entire body with eye holes that mysteriously change shape to match Wade’s expressions. He was essentially just a dude who had been experimented on and had his agency taken from him. Super fun, thanks, guys.
So when Ryan Reynolds essentially took back the Deadpool story and made it true to the comic book character we’ve all come to love, fans were stoked. He didn’t try to make the character realistic. He trusted the source material enough to create a movie that comic book fans would recognize. The costumes weren’t made more “realistic”, there wasn’t a reason for Wade’s abilities that would jive with the “real world,” but it didn’t mean the story didn’t have depth and meaning to fans.
Ultimately, I think that is why the “good” superhero films and shows have been successful–they trust the source material and stay as true to it as they can. Take the X-Men, for instance. It’s my experience that people who like the movie usually aren’t fans of the comic books, and those who enjoy the comics feel almost cheated by the film. In an attempt to make the X-Men feel more realistic, they toned down the costumes, opting for snappy-looking black leather rather than a colorful blue and yellow costume. The look of characters like Wolverine, Cyclops, and Jean Gray were toned down from their outrageous comic book looks to fit in better with what we see around us every day. Granted, there were other problems with the film, but it highlights a huge problem in superhero movies.
When we look at a comic, the costumed heroes we see often have outrageous, colorful costumes. Even characters with darker costumes like the Punisher or the Black Canary still have a look that makes them distinctive and easily sets them apart from everyone. When a superhero movie takes a hero’s look and tones it down to make it feel more “realistic”, “gritty”, or “less-cartoonish” they’re taking away something key to a hero while simultaneously being disrespectful to the source material. They’re saying that maybe a crazy and colorful costume works in a silly comic, but for a movie we’ve got to be real, and the film can’t be taken seriously if the hero is donning a bright color.
Wolverine’s bright yellow and blue uniform shows his loyalty to the X-Men, heroes like Captain America and Superman were meant to be symbols of American strength in wartime and their costumes reflect that, Kamala Khan’s Ms. Marvel costume is meant to show that merging of her love of her Pakistani culture with her new role as a costumed hero and Avenger. The relation of a character’s costume to their character is why we get so excited when we see a brilliant cosplay at a convention. Sure, there’s definitely awe of that person’s ability to sew and create a look, but a truly amazing cosplay is when the cosplayer not only embodies the look of a character but also the attitude. Being able to appreciate a character enough to recreate their look and their essence is awesome. It’s exciting to see someone else who loves a character as much as we do, and find themselves inspired to create something based on them. We get that same feeling when we see a truly awesome superhero movie, because we get to see Hollywood appreciate our faves right alongside of us. When they start changing stuff about our faves, usually starting with their look and ballooning out from there, they’re taking away what makes the character special, proving that they don’t get the character, and ultimately that they don’t see the story as valid on its own.
It isn’t a matter of a lighthearted superhero versus a dark and gritty one. Instead, it’s the perception of movie makers that want to take a comic and “legitimize” it by making the story darker or lighter than the source material would have ever wanted or creating a look for a hero that is only lightly inspired by the hero’s original look. It’s a basic lack of understanding of a character and saying a drastic change to the tone or look of a hero’s story will give it merit and value. Comics already have merit and value, and when they move to the big screen, we want someone to see that pre-existing value translated into a new medium. And that understanding of a character and their story starts by understanding why they dress the way they do.
Do you think it’s important for movie superheroes to stay true to their comic book looks, or do you prefer a more realistic look? What other comic book movies captured their source material well? Tell me about it in the comments!
Image credit: Marvel