Translating superhero costumes from comics to film
There’s a scene in Pixar’s 2004 superhero film The Incredibles in which Bob Parr, aka Mr. Incredible, is talking about his new costume design with Edna ‘E’ Mode, his designer. An argument ensues about his desire for a cape as Edna insists on “No capes!” due to their impracticality.
It’s one of the most memorable scenes in the film and it brings to mind a similar argument about the adaptation of superhero costumes in comic book films, which is this: How do you please both the general movie-going audience and comic book fanatics when it comes to designing a superhero costume for a live-action film?
To those of us who care about such things, the process of bringing to life our favorite comic book characters in a real and believable way is a delicate negotiation between preserving the history of the character’s costume design from the brightly-colored world of comics, and making it practical and feasible in a real-world scenario. In the case of Zack Snyder’s, 2009 film Watchmen, this balancing act is even more charged, because costumes are an essential piece of the narrative. Among comic book intellectuals, there’s been more than a little controversy about the costume design choices for the Watchmen characters in their latest big-screen reveal.
A little background.
Watchmen is a 1986 Hugo Award-winning comic book series published by DC Comics written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Dave Gibbons. It has received critical acclaim and is considered by many to be the greatest comic book story of all time, making Time Magazine’s List of the 100 Best Novels between 1923 and 2005. After several unsuccessful attempts to adapt the story to film, Snyder did so more or less successfully, even after it was widely speculated that the comic was unfilmable due to its complex storytelling structure.
The story is based in an alternate history where superheroes exist in real life. Set in the early 1980s, the U.S. and the Soviet Union are on the brink of nuclear war and superheroes have either been outlawed or are working for the U.S. government. The story deconstructs the idea of the superhero, focusing on a group of costumed individuals who are coming to terms with the murder of one of their own and combatting the societal fears of that era.
So what’s the big deal about changing the costumes a bit?
Dr. Julian Darius, founder of Sequart Organization, a nonprofit group devoted to the study of popular culture and the promotion of comic books as a legitimate art form, puts it like this: “Watchmen’s all about depicting superheroes in the real world or a realistic world just askew from our own. It asks questions such as how a real-life superhero with superpowers would alter history and society, right down to our cars and our fashions. When it comes to the many costumed superheroes in Watchmen who don’t have superpowers, Watchmen is very careful to keep them realistic.”
Which proves to be a problem when translating the costumes from the comic to film.
Hollywood has fully embraced the idea of heroes wearing super-slick, high-dollar wardrobes, but this isn’t the right approach when we’re talking about normal, everyday people dressing up and fighting crime.
The plot of Watchmen revolves around six main characters: the Comedian, Doctor Manhattan, Nite Owl, Ozymandias, Rorschach and the Silk Spectre. Only Doctor Manhattan possesses superpowers; the others are all Batman-type heroes — vigilantes who rely on their own skills. These characters struggle with their insecurities, their emotions, their dysfunctions. In other words, they’re just like us. And that’s what makes the comic book so powerful.
“The movie largely ignores the impracticality, the simply unreal nature, of class superhero costumes,” says Dr. Travis Langley, Professor of Psychology at Henderson State University. “In a deconstruction of whether our world has any room for comic book superheroes come to life, that’s no trivial oversight.”
To truly appreciate the complexity of this issue, we must go back to the beginning of the comic book superhero. And the beginning is Superman.
Back while they were creating the Man of Steel, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster were brainstorming how to make their character stand out from other popular pulp-magazine heroes, which were precursors to the comic book, such as Doc Savage, The Phantom and Flash Gordon. Their idea was to make Superman as colorful as possible, with a big, billowing cape, which was rare for fictional heroes at the time.
Superman’s body suit was inspired, at least partly, by the costumes Victorian-era circus strongmen wore. “Acrobats and strongmen would wear trunks over tights,” Langley explains, “That gave them greater freedom of movement while both showing off the muscles and covering the more private creases and bulges. Wrestlers did that, too. Circus performers would wear capes, too, although they tended to take them off before lifting barbells or swinging out on the flying trapeze. There’s more to the cape than that. People used to wear capes, particularly in high society. Capes evoked a sense of majesty, mystery, and power.”
As times changed, superhero costumes changed as well. Gibbons and Moore reflect this in the comic. “Early on, we see brighter colors, more capes, and styles suitable for a circus or swashbuckler film,” Langley notes, “Later, their outfits grow more practical, more ready for combat. We see capes but not as many, because one superhero, Dollar Bill, got gunned down when his cape got caught in a revolving door, long before The Incredibles’ costume creator shouted, ‘No Capes!’”
Darius, the founder of Sequart, adds, “That’s exactly the kind of thing that would happen but that we don’t see very often in superhero narratives, which are far more concerned with the glamour and the fantasy of superheroes than with how they would work in reality. It’s this same concern that steers Watchmen to explore what superheroes would be like in the real world.”
I decided to go to one of the sources of the comic. Gibbons offered some insight into the costume design, particularly for Nite Owl and his alter-ego Daniel Dreiberg. “If you think of Nite Owl and Dan Dreiberg, he’s a bit chubby and a bit rounded and he’s kind of got these licks of hair coming down and a slightly-hooked nose, kind of pointy ears, so it’s all about owl-type things, plump bodies with sharp appendages.”
In Snyder’s film, Darius points out, Dreiberg’s costume is very sleek and sexy, though it does honor the overall design from the comic. “Unfortunately, the result of this is to make those characters look kind of perfected, like these super-human, cool, Hollywood heroes. The movie’s cinematography reflects this, using slow motion and special effects. Unfortunately, this runs contrary to the entire point of Watchmen, which was to depict superheroes in a real-world environment.”
Darius adds that the comic version of Nite Owl looks like a person playing dress-up and that’s key to understanding his character. “When we meet him, Dan Dreiberg is a broken man, haunted by the fact that his best years were behind him, and may have been kind of stupid and pointless anyway. He sees the costume as something he did that was pathetic, even as he’s still drawn to it. So it’s important that his costume not look too cool, because that works against the story.”
The way the costume communicates the psyche is critical as well for The Comedian — the cynical, violent hero who was the victim of a brutal murder. Gibbons recounts the process of iterating The Comedian’s look: “Originally, I tried a very military costume with him, a camouflage costume, but that didn’t work for him, that didn’t look very dramatic. It meant that he tended to fade into the background, which isn’t what you really want with a main character. So we went for a black leather work, sort of a fetish mask and straps and buckles and all that kind of stuff, offset with a smiley face that I dropped in there.”
The black leather and the eye mask, along with that famous smiley face, are key indicators of the irony and anger of the character. The Comedian is not a good guy. He’s a murderer. He’s arrogant. He seems to think life is a joke. And not many of his peers liked him or respected him.
For Langley, who thinks critically about these things, the mask is also a material symbol of The Comedian’s evolving relationship with the one female character, Silk Spectre, who turns out to be his daughter. “In Silk Spectre’s last lines, she talks about taking on a stronger superhero name, carrying a gun, and wearing a more protective costume, ‘something leather with a mask over my face,’” to echo her villainous father. Langley points out that in the movie, these details are left out; The Comedian wears no such mask and Silk Spectre is wearing a leather costume during the entire movie; her costume evolution doesn’t exist in the film.
Langley mentions that the treatment of Silk Spectre’s costume in the film did not succeed as the comic did in conveying a message about the role of women in comic books. “In the graphic novel, Silk Spectre is the girl in the group, the ‘skirt,’ the way so many class superhero teams — Justice League, Fantastic Four, Avengers, X-Men — all started off with exactly one woman on the team. She wears a sheer top, really a diaphanous nightie, over an opaque swimsuit. The movie’s Silk Spectre wears garters, but there’s nothing see-through about her costume and she looks ready to kick some bad guys around. It’s not a bad costume, but that’s the problem: It makes no real statement about the impracticality of superheroine outfits and how underappreciated heroines had been as full-fledged superheroes.”
But changes are necessary any time you translate a piece of art from one medium to another. “It’s normal that cinema has to modify costumes from comics, in the same way that it’s normal for cinema to streamline the plot of novels,” notes Darius.
But he goes on to explain why these particular changes, at least in his and many other Watchmen fans’ minds, were not the right fit for the film version. “The movie adaptation’s costumes are a lot slicker and more detailed than the comic’s. Everything’s textured. Everything’s got subtle ridges and customized details. The end results are costumes that you could make marketing campaign posters out of.”
He concedes, though, that in spite of amping up the costumes for cinematic drama, the 2009 Watchmen preserves much of the real-world detail that was so essential to the original work. Snyder did what many claimed couldn’t be done: he successfully adapted Watchmen into an entertaining, mostly faithful version of a graphic novel, and achieved box-office success. Non-comic fans who watched it either liked it fine or they didn’t. But that’s not really the audience Snyder made the film for; he made it for the fans of the comic; he made it for himself.