[In light of Jared Leto’s recent Joker reveal, we decided this perspective was as relevant as ever.]
As geek-friendly properties become increasingly mainstream, Hollywood has made it a point of adapting one beloved cartoon series, comic book, and video game, after another – with everything from a Godzilla reboot to a Batman vs. Superman team-up in the pipeline. Yet, even the most buzzed-about projects have faced stern criticism from longtime franchise faithfuls.
Recently, 20th Century Fox unveiled 25 character images for the superheroes and villains that will square off in the time-traveling X-Men: Days of Future Past movie – debuting first looks at high profile players as well as two versions of the Sentinel robots. Readers familiar with the characters were quick to praise certain designs (such as newcomer Bishop as well as future and past iterations of fan-favorite Wolverine); however, not every image was a hit – as Evan Peters’ Quicksilver and a “Future” Sentinel (Mark X) variation were both the cause of widespread ridicule and complaining.
Of course, this isn’t even the first time (this week) that passionate fans have taken to Internet comment boards to decry Hollywood’s treatment of choice characters. One recent mock-up image (or photoshop hoax) of a spandex children’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles costume caused many to conclude that the upcoming film reboot was, once again, set to ruin all of our childhoods (until actual images of the designs appeared and changed a lot of minds).
Understandably, we fans have reason to be increasingly vocal – now that everyone (including feature filmmakers) are clamoring to join-in on the superhero bandwagon that many dedicated followers have been championing for decades (even at the risk of ridicule from peers). That said, as fervent fans have expanded their reach through social networking and internet comment boards, some have also become increasingly irrational – decrying, and preparing to boycott, upcoming films as a result of concept artwork, prototype toys, set images, and isolated (albeit official) production photos, that they deem as an affront to their version of certain pop culture characters.
In an effort to set the stage for a larger discussion about whether or not we can truly determine the quality of an upcoming feature film via children’s merchandise and static images, we ask: Can You Pre-Judge a Comic Book Movie By Its Superhero Costumes?
Reasonable Fan Outrage
No doubt, a lot of the frustration behind pre-release sneak peeks stems from the numerous times that fans have been burned in the past, as studios and filmmakers (who knew nothing about the source material) attempted to piece together a profitable movie adaptation by throwing out key aspects of a beloved character (or their physical appearance). Previously, we identified 6 terrible costume designs that resulted in equally bad movies, but in order to help less superhero-obsessed readers understand what all the fuss is about, we’re going to revisit a few of the worst page-to-screen attempts here.
Easily one of the most obvious examples of a head-scratching costume reveal that, even at the time, had many people (rightly) concerned about the final superhero film product was Joel Schumacher’s Batsuit(s) in Batman & Robin – which famously added external nipples to the dynamic duo’s crime fighting attire (along with a pointy bra for Batgirl). The film also included laughable outfits for Poison Ivy, Mr. Freeze, and Bane but Bat-nipples are the most notorious example of just how nonsensical Schumacher’s take on Batman had become.
A slightly more recent example, the Catwoman solo film (starring Halle Berry) included one of the least functional and downright bizarre costumes in superhero movie history – drawing understandable fury from comic readers. In a film where Catwoman goes toe-to-toe with one brutish thug after another, the slashed leather pants and cumbersome headgear, paired with bare midriff and empty utility belts, made it clear that director Pitof thought sexualizing the character was more important than providing her with basic protection from physical injury.
Early glimpses at concept artwork and leaked merchandise images offer our first look at a filmmaker’s prospective vision and, as we all know, you only get one chance to make a first impression. To that end, plenty of other superhero movies have featured head-scratching costume designs, so it’s easy to understand why certain longtime fans have been cynical about Hollywood’s attempt to bring beloved characters to the big screen.
Dishonorable Mentions: Wonder Woman (NBC TV Show) & Steel
Yet, sometimes costume controversies were ultimately the least of our problems.
Sometimes The Costume Isn’t the Problem
Without question, there are cases where a bad costume ruins a movie – making it difficult for audiences to take tense superhero conflict seriously. Still, there are plenty of times where a divisive visual design choice is the absolute least distracting aspect of an especially problematic production.
Three years ago, DC Comics adaptation Green Lantern was derided months ahead of its release when pasty-looking images of Ryan Reynolds suited-up as Hal Jordan hit the Internet. Fan reaction was overwhelmingly negative, causing us to ask if Green Lantern’s CGI costume could ruin the movie? Sadly, the absurdity of Green Lantern‘s story overshadowed even the most sensible criticisms of the costume. As soon as Hal Jordan saved a crashing helicopter by way of an overly complicated stunt car track, instead of something significantly more straightforward (and quicker), it was clear that director Martin Campbell had prioritized cartoonish style over the ability to suspend disbelief at nearly every turn.
Problematic superhero movies aren’t limited to the DC Comics side – and Marvel, not to mention plenty of indie comic publishers-turned movie makers, have their own skeletons to hide. Initially, fans were split on director Mark Steven Johnson’s choice to turn Daredevil‘s spandex suit into a fully leather costume for his 2003 film but nearly everyone ultimately agreed that it was the campy story, melodramatic performances, and underwhelming action that deserved primary blame for The Man Without Fear’s poor showing (even before the Elektra spinoff).
Point being, while it’s easy for us to nitpick costumes (without even mentioning the preliminary outrage that comes along with casting), there are many other factors that determine whether a movie will be successful (and satisfying) when it hits the big screen. In fairness, certain moviegoers keep a close eye on script writers, plot synopsis, and comic book prequels to gauge if a soon to be released adaptation will be dead on arrival – but a disproportionately higher amount of readers chime in when costume or character designs (even unofficial ones) are available to critique.
Additional Examples: Spawn and Punisher: War Zone
Still, even when we all agree that a costume or character looks idiotic on screen, that doesn’t outright mean that the respective film project is doomed.
Sometimes The Costume Isn’t Great But the Movie Still Is
Since stunt casting or a bad script (among countless other elements) can sink any superhero movie, regardless of costume quality, it should come as no surprise that a strong character story is also capable of ensuring a film delivers – even when costuming isn’t exactly what fans had in mind.
Years before Daredevil, back in the early days of the “modern” superhero movies (circa 2000), X-Men and X-2 director Brian Singer chose to ditch the mutant team’s colorful skin-tight spandex – in favor of black leather outfits. Singer’s decision moved the movie away from a live-action replication of comic book pages – vehemently angering fans that were clambering to see a yellow-suited Wolverine (as well as Cyclops in blue under armor and Rogue wearing a leather jacket over a green onesie). Nevertheless, a solid narrative and slick special effects made even the goofiest leather outfit moments palatable – especially given that Singer even allowed Wolverine to poke fun at the absurdity of costumes (in general) within both narratives.
Not a movie, but still a superhero adaptation success story, fans were initially skeptical of the simplistic design for the “Hood” (not yet Green Arrow) in Arrow – especially since the character, at first, opted for eyeliner instead of a proper mask. Yet, an enjoyable lead actor, fun DC villain cameos, and a gritty Batman Begins-like tone, have made the CW TV series a hit among casual viewers and die-hard comic book fans. To the show’s credit, many of the same viewers who thought the hero’s costume would look idiotic on screen are, one year later, signing petitions for Warner Bros. to include Amell’s version of the character in an inevitable Justice League feature film.
As a result, just because a character might not be portrayed the way fans remember (or want) doesn’t necessarily mean that the final experience will automatically be outright garbage. Costumes are, without question, a major part of the equation but sometimes (admittedly not always) changes can make for a better film – especially if they are in service of a stronger performance by a talented actor or a more satisfying set of story sequences. In some cases, this might mean letting go of an “iconic” character element or adding something entirely new – knowing that the change will upset certain fans (and set the stage for subsequent boycotts).
Honorable Mentions: Kick-Ass and X-Men: First Class
Which brings us to our final point – from time to time we (fans) are just plain wrong.
Patience (and a Level Head) Save Us All Frustration
It’s easy to get tied to a certain idea about how a character should look (or even act) on screen – based on specific versions of a beloved character (keeping in mind that comics often reinvent their heroes over and over again). It’s understandable, we remember fondly the comic book panels as well as animated series that defined our childhoods and, in some cases, helped shape the people we are now – making it difficult to accept dramatic changes that come with big screen adaptations. Although, for every Catwoman, there are a few instances where we, as longtime fans, just couldn’t look past our own preferences to appreciate budding potential.
When images of Optimus Prime initially appeared online, prior to the first trailer for Michael Bay’s Transformers, a significant portion of fans decried the complicated alien robotic design, orange flames, and lips – wishing for a traditional G1 version (a Freightliner Cab-over-engine Class 8 truck) of the Autobot hero. Fortunately, in spite of any cosmetic alterations, the Transformers films managed to capture the spirit of the Cybertronian leader while also showcasing exceptionally cool, believable, and fast-paced transformations.
Without question, amateur humor and a heavy reliance on human drama are still fair points of contention for the series but Bay’s choice to go with complicated robotics, instead of classic (and stiff) designs, succeeded in making the characters more versatile (and subsequently exciting) for big screen spectacle. Fans may still cringe at those infamous flames, but it’s hard to argue that small screen Optimus Prime is any more engaging than his big screen counterpart.
Rebooting Superman was no easy task, given that it took nearly twenty years for a filmmaker to even get a Man of Steel movie off the ground (Superman Returns) – and another six for a second reboot to find widespread commercial (and a decent amount of critical) success (Man of Steel). Yet, long before Zack Snyder’s Superman reboot hit theaters, fans were complaining about the updated costume – which removed key elements of the character’s design, most notably the yellow belt, red underwear, and S-shaped hair curl. Instead, Snyder’s team created a Man of Steel supersuit that not only looked great in action and was respectful to the classic costume (without simply copying and pasting), it also made sense within narrative context (as a Kryptonian hand me down). Early on, commenters criticized Snyder for not taking the character seriously; however, it’s clear the director was actually operating on an entirely different level – relaunching the Man of Steel in a way that everyone, not just comic book enthusiasts, could take seriously.
Honorable Mentions: The Amazing Spider-Man and Captain America: The First Avenger
While fans have a right to advocate for their favorite characters, it’s important that we also try to keep a level head. When we report official (and unofficial) images, toys, and other merchandise, it’s to help get an idea of what filmmakers might have in mind – but there’s a big difference between how images come across on a website and whether or not the actual costumes succeed on the big (or small) screen.
As with any other physical element in a film production, costumes need to be properly lit and require certain details to be explained within the context of the story. In the case of X-Men: Days of Future Past, a lot of commenters have been nitpicking the Quicksilver’s goggles and primitive tech belt; yet, as we discussed in a recent video analysis, it’s possible those particular elements are essential to making the character’s super speed believable. The goggles likely protect his eyes from high-speed debris and the headphones, paired with the rudimentary tech on his waste, could be a way for the character to either hear his surroundings, or communicate with others, while running. In context, some of those sillier elements might not seem so silly, and actually make for a more grounded and credible narrative arc, even if they’re still a departure from “classic” Quicksilver.
The bottom line: we love picking over early images of superhero costumes but it’s also important to avoid jumping to snap conclusions. Without a doubt, there will be numerous times in the future where crummy concept art or terrible kid costumes are an early predictor that a film is headed in the wrong direction. However, a little restraint and patience may save us all a little frustration, given that further information helps paint a clearer picture of what to expect – for better or for worse.
Ultimately, even in the cases of epic director fails, fans can take comfort in one notable truth: Hollywood will happily reboot any property that is capable of making studios money. Many of these characters will likely be revisited and reimagined multiple times in the coming decades – meaning that even if one adaptation outright ruins our childhood, there’s always a chance that the reboot (or re-reboot) will get it right.
Follow me on Twitter @benkendrick for future editorials as well as movie, TV, and gaming news.