In the world of Hollywood blockbusters, the grand unveiling of a brand new Superman suit is an occasion like no other. With Man of Steel, director Zack Snyder will be dressing Henry Cavill in a cutting-edge concept for Superman’s suit and cape – but how did the transformation from Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s circus strongman to a soldier from another world take place?
We’ve gathered up the evidence to take a look at how the suit started, how it made its way onto film, and which versions almost became realities (but thankfully didn’t).
Let’s all take a closer look at The Man of Steel: History of the Superman Suit.
Without question one of the most iconic images of Superman was his first appearance on the cover of “Action Comics” #1 (pictured), but his suit was a far cry from the one fans would come to know. From the police badge-shaped crest on Superman’s chest to the strange boot webbing on his shins (look closely), this version of the character was bound for some fine-tuning.
Even so, there’s no question that the blue tights and red underpants – based on those worn by Victorian-era ‘strongmen’ over flesh-colored bodysuits to resemble nude, classical heroes – were a hit, as the basic design remains unchanged seventy years later.
Granted, if a man in tights was throwing a car next to us we probably wouldn’t be paying much attention to how high his boots were, either.
Superman wasn’t the only star of “Action Comics,” meaning he had some time to perfect his look. H next appeared on the cover of Issue #7 (pictured), with higher boots, and the second incarnation of his symbol: a bold red ‘S’ placed within a yellow triangle.
The new logo is certainly sharper than its predecessor, but it’s the boots that most stand out. With their tapered ankles and scalloped top seam, artist Joe Shuster drew a pair of boots in 1938 that would be called classic, old-fashioned, groovy, retro, hip and ‘futuristic’ by fashion-lovers over the next seven decades – without ever changing.
‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,’ we suppose. But now that the costume had been all but nailed down, the matter of the logo and cape became the main priority. And as anyone who has ever tried to design a strong logo (or worn a cape) knows, the devil is in the details.
While Shuster got the most important parts of Superman’s look set in stone, the rise in the character’s popularity meant that more artists were soon hired to help handle the workload. It was these early artists – like Fred Wray, John Sikela, and others – who helped flesh out the rest of the costume by committee.
Few of the lesser-known artists were more influential than Paul Cassidy, who in 1940 blessed Superman with a new logo on both his chest and cape on the cover of “Action Comic” #26. With a bigger, more graceful ‘S’ inside of a diamond-shaped triangle, the logo took another step towards the one we know today.
Although the colors of the cape’s emblem changed from the first appearance to “Action Comics” #29 (pictured), Cassidy had made his mark, also adding movement to the cape, making it look significantly less like a heavily-starched bed sheet.
It’s impossible to talk about the early days of Superman without paying special attention to the animated serials produced by the Fleischer Studios in the early 1940s. Mainly, because the cartoons are some of the most incredibly animated and highly-polished in existence; due in no small part to Max and Dave Flesicher’s lack of interest in producing them.
Let us explain: to scare off Paramount Pictures, the Fleischers claimed that producing the serials would cost $100,000 per ten-minute episode (over $1.6 million today). Shockingly, Paramount agreed to half that price, and the studio set to work, changing Superman’s logo yet again.
Placing the ‘S’ onto a black background made it a bit harder on the eyes, but would resurface in the comic books decades later. Although the logo didn’t last, the use of rotoscoping (animating over footage of actual actors) gave Superman fans their first idea of how the hero would move – and fly – on screen.
By 1945, Siegel and Shuster had nailed down the design of Superman’s costume – the bottom of the ‘S’ badge would be pointed, not squared – and was able to copyright the symbol that what would one day become the second most recognized on Earth.
In testament to how quickly the artists had ironed out the kinks: as Superman was set to make his debut in live-action, his costume in the comics would follow this exact design for the next forty years. The muscles that pushed the fabric to its breaking point would fluctuate with the times (as would Superman’s hair), but the basic design would not.
Superman was set to make the leap to TV and film, and would never leave.
In the serial Superman (1948) and its sequel Atom Man vs. Superman (1950), Kirk Alyn became the first actor to know what it felt like to wear the costume of the Kryptonian orphan, even if the times mandated a higher rise in his underpants than the comics allowed.
The costume was actually light grey and brown instead of Superman’s trademark red and blue, since those colors photographed better in black and white; and color wasn’t the only compromise. Since the special effects required to make a man fly were still years away (suspending Alyn from wires was attempted, and abandoned completely after deemed a painful waste of time), the live-action Alyn was replaced by an animated version when performing super-heroics or flying.
The serials became a massive hit for Columbia Pictures, bringing about the sequel and making a live-action TV series inevitable.
For an entire generation of TV viewers, George Reeves was synonymous with Superman. Originally starring in the feature-film Superman and the Mole Men (1951), Reeves’ initial outing as the titular hero became the pitch for the TV series Adventures of Superman (1952), which would run for six seasons.
Unfortunately, the suit worn in both the feature-film and the first two seasons was still grey and brown. The producers made the shift from shooting in monochrome to color in 1953, even though color television had yet to be widely adopted.
So although the suit was red and blue on set, it was broadcast in black and white – fans wouldn’t actually see Reeves in color until the series hit syndication in 1965.
“You’ll believe a man can fly”; it was the promise made by the producers of Superman: The Movie (1979), and one on which they delivered. But while the special effects team proved that showing Superman in flight was possible, Christopher Reeve and director Richard Donner proved the Superman suit could still silence crowds.
Staying with the comic book fiction and explaining that the fabric of Superman’s suit came from the Kryptonian blanket he was wrapped in, it also added to the story behind the logo. Previously explained away as a symbol chosen by a young Clark, Martha or Jonathan Kent (depending on which comic you read), Donner’s film made the ‘S’ a sigil of the House of El, and Kal-El’s family crest.
In many ways the four appearances of Reeve’s Super-suit is still the most iconic in film, due largely to the fact that it was a perfect adaptation of the comic book’s costume up to that time; short red underpants, a boldly drawn symbol, and colors you could see coming a mile away. But we’re still not sure about the ‘throwable ‘S” thing.
We’ll spare anyone who isn’t a big fan of DC’s “Crisis on Infinite Earths” storyline, and simply say that in 1986, the comic book publisher needed a fresh start for Superman. Comic book writer/artist John Byrne was called upon to craft a new origin story for their biggest superhero, and he wasted no time in choosing what would stay from the original stories, and what would go.
While the ‘S’ logo was once again chosen by Clark and Martha Kent, and the suit was crafted from regular fabric, it was the visual style of Byrne that was most influential. Artists of the previous decades (special nod to Curt Swan in particular) had drawn Superman as an imposing figure, but Byrne took things much farther.
Hulking shoulders and arms, slim waist and musculature visible through his suit likened Superman to action movie stars of the 1980s – and ever since, the navy blue and crisp symbol have remained the status quo.
The 1990s were an interesting time for Superman, as storylines and style choices divided fans like never before – not least of which was the “Death of Superman” arc – considered by some to be one of the best ever written, while being decried as an abomination by others. Ushering in the “Reign of the Supermen,” Superman’s death brought the unforgettable (for different reasons) costumes of Superboy, Steel, Cyborg Superman and the Eradicator.
But it was Superman’s return from the grave that had the most impact. “The Return of Superman” had the superhero emerging into the world with shoulder-length hair, and a jet-black bodysuit sporting a chromed logo. Superman had gone metal.
Eventually Kal-El returned to his flashier outfit, but this black suit would remain influential, playing a large role in more than one attempted reboot of the hero on film.
Like we said, the 1990s were an interesting time. Superman made his triumphant return to television in Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (the rare double-allusion title), a new focus placed on Clark Kent’s personal life, inspired by much of Byrne’s reboot.
The suit was once again created by Clark (Dean Cain) and his mother, although the ‘S’ badge was sent to Earth along with baby Kal-El. The darker blue material and larger chest emblem may have been a nod to the art style of the comics, but there’s no denying that this suit is a bit of an oddity among the other live action incarnations.
The plunging neckline, emblem and cape all embody the lighter tone of the TV series, but it’s no surprise that the style choices were never adopted elsewhere.
While Superman’s mythology got a lighter take on television, he was taken to a much darker place in the comic books. Specifically, in Mark Waid and Alex Ross’ “Kingdom Come.” Set in a reality apart from the canonical comics of the time, “Kingdom Come” follows an aging, retired Superman, called back into action when the world stands on the brink of metahuman war.
Since he is no longer a crusader for hope and optimism, but an elected leader in a dark time, Superman replaces his ‘S’ emblem with a simpler, less elegant, black logo.
As proof that even a variation of the Superman emblem can be powerful, the “Kingdom Come” logo has become nearly as iconic as the original among DC fans, with Alex Ross’ more realistic art style making the connections to Superman’s earliest days even more haunting.
Comic book fans have come to universally agree that the world is better off without Tim Burton’s planned Superman Lives, starring Nicolas Cage as the titular hero. Images of Burton’s… innovative take(s) on Superman’s classic suit have ranged from controversial to obscene, even making the “Return of Superman” suit seem tame by comparison.
With a chrome ‘S’ logo that looked more like folded blades than a family crest, the version of the suit pictured here is actually the most faithful of the bunch. The similarities between this Super-suit and those worn by Michael Keaton in Batman (1989) and its sequel are hard to miss, so Burton certainly had a vision.
We wouldn’t say the design is completely without merit – the suit cropped along the collarbone is an interesting change, and exaggerated muscles are present in Man of Steel as well – but we’re still not sorry the film failed to get off the ground.
Superman has seen some strange and memorable costume changes in “Elseworld” stories or standalone re-imaginings, but few are as confusing as what has come to be known as ‘Electric Blue Superman.’ For reasons far too foolish to explain, suffice to say that the approach of the year 2000 led even the most level-headed of DC’s creators to go a little too far off the beaten path.
When Superman was no longer able to rely on his standard powers (granted by Earth’s yellow sun), he turned to electricity, receiveing a new suit to help contain his energy. No cape, white eyes, and the ability to turn his powers ‘on’ and ‘off’ went over about as well as could be expected with fans, and the costume has since been shoved away into the dark recess of DC’s history.
It’s a fact already known to anyone who read the comics as they were published, but is worth repeating: no matter how ‘wrong’ a movie or TV show might get Superman, comic book writers can be just as misguided.
Contained in the long line of failed attempts to get Superman back onto movie screens – including but not limited to Burton’s Superman Lives – was another film from a future blockbuster team. J.J. Abrams didn’t just have an idea for a Superman movie, but a script following the personal and troubled story of Clark Kent in Superman: Flyby.
It was during the development of Flyby that Man of Steel star Henry Cavill was first considered for the role by director McG, and would actually have ended up sporting a Superman suit as sleek and otherworldly as Snyder’s current version.
The Flyby costume never made it beyond a few varying concept images, but the similarities between what almost was and what soon will be are telling. Neither director is apparently too fond of the red underwear, but we’d pick Snyder’s look over the Flyby contenders in a heartbeat.
Given their initial promise of showing ‘no tights and no flights’ it was assumed that the Clark Kent featured in Smallville wouldn’t be the costume ‘type.’ But as the years passed, and Clark Kent began acting rather… ‘super,’ his regular blue and red clothing would no longer suffice.
We wouldn’t exactly call a red leather jacket or floor-length black trenchcoat a ‘uniform’ in keeping with the Superman tradition – and neither would Man of Steel director Zack Snyder – but the show did finally allow fans to bear witness to Clark’s early attempts at costumed super-heroics.
The official Superman suit did end up making an appearance in the final season of Smallville, proving once and for all that there really is no substitute for the real thing.
Finally we arrive at the previous adaptation of the Super-suit, seen in Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns (2006). In hindsight, this version of the suit may be seen as somewhere between the costume of the classic comics and films, and the futuristic, alien outfit constructed for Man of Steel.
This piece gave a modern take by utilizing performance fabrics that look right at home on an Olympic athlete (covered in miniature versions of the trademark ‘S’) and sporting a chest emblem that seems to believe that less, really is, more. The suit was controversial among fans when first revealed, with an added logo on Superman’s belt buckle (because why not?) and swapping his signature red to a more muted maroon.
For everyone who hasn’t kept up with DC’s New 52 reboot, allow us to confirm that the times are, once again, a-changing. And not just where origin stories are concerned, since “Superman: Birthright” and “Secret Origin” both introduced new elements to the current Superman canon, while keeping the iconic costume intact. But that’s no longer the case.
With the brand new Superman introduced in 2011, it was immediately clear that Man of Steel and the New 52 had plenty in common. The removal of the red underpants and brand new style from the cuffs to collar polarized fans who felt that messing with the costume was tantamount to heresy, regardless of the reasons for doing so.
As is the case with Man of Steel, the costume is no longer a homemade invention of the Kents, but Kryptonian clothing; specifically, bio-tech battle armor that spreads outward when activated. No word on how long this current suit will last, but it’s certainly easier on the eyes than many of its predecessors.
Zack Snyder, Davd S. Goyer and Christopher Nolan have made it clear from the start that Man of Steel‘s main priority was introducing a new Superman that audiences could relate to; meaning every aspect of the story had to be grounded, including the suit. So the task became not only creating a new reason for Superman to done his blue tights and red cape, but changing the suit itself to reflect the film’s fiction.
Making a brand new suit that would still be instantly recognizable was the main challenge, so while the Kryptonian undergarment may imply deeper functionality, the ‘S’ remains as large as ever, and the hint of a belt remains (and Zack Snyder really did try to make the underpants work).
Adopting the notion of the ‘S’ representing ‘hope’ back on Krypton – first introduced in “Birthright” – the new suit is woven even more directly into the history of Superman’s home planet, shown to be the dress of every Kryptonian; minus the battle armor, of course.
It was a long road to get from the roots of Superman to the modern interpretation, and not all of the stops were ones we’d like to remember. Time will tell if Zack Snyder and Henry Cavill can silence skeptics and deliver a new icon for another generation of moviegoers.
Which of these takes on the uniform do you most remember – for good or bad? Are there any we’ve left out that you think deserve special mention?
If you haven’t already, be sure to check out:
Man of Steel hits theaters on June 14, 2013.
Follow me on Twitter @andrew_dyce.