Historically, superhero comics haven't been known for their subtlety. Originally meant to appeal to children, and stuck with 4-color printing, heroes and villains were dressed in garish outfits composed of bright colors (and often according to a simple, general rule). Publishers work to stay relevant, and that often resulted in costumes created or changed to look hip for that era... which also meant the costume would look dated immediately.
A dated costume or garish costume isn't always a bad thing. The classic Captain America look is a guy in bright blue wearing red pirate boots and wings sticking out of his mask, for instance. Sometimes just sticking with a costume over time and beating us over the head with it is enough to make us love it.
Costumes get changed for a number of reasons: a new creative team, more serious approach, technology upgrade, the character changes teams, a new person takes the mantle, et cetera. Usually, a changed costume tends to be for the better. And sometimes costume changes are terrible (we're looking at you, electric Superman).
In this article, we'll be looking at some of the best upgrades in history. These aren't always the very next iteration, but they're always changes for the better.
Robin's costume has always been, for lack of a better term, bold. Decked in red, green, and yellow, it's a wonder that the costume was ever considered for the sidekick to a hero based on a nocturnal animal and not Santa Claus. Things were worse in the early days, as good ole Dick Grayson used to show more leg than is considered appropriate outside a beach party. Add to that the green chainmail of his exposed underoos, his puckish Peter Pan slippers, and the polite high collar of his banana yellow cape, and what you've got is a hot mess.
The '90s are often criticized for their own brand of excess in comics... when things got edgy and full of pouches. But when Tim Drake took over as Robin early in that decade, the costume leaped forward by light years. Propriety got the better of the ensemble, and we went from gams to green tights. Black boots that looked ready for combat took over for the little elf shoes. And just enough darkness was added to the costume to make Robin look not completely out of place soaring through Gotham by night.
Gamora is best known now by her appearance in the Guardians of the Galaxy movie (portrayed by Zoe Saldana). But her character goes way back to Jim Starlin, Strange Tales, and 1975... and it definitely shows in her costume. She was always known as the "deadliest woman in the galaxy"; a trained martial artist and assassin. You wouldn't know it from her original costume, though, as she looks less like an intergalactic assassin and more like a witch from a Conan story or a fantasy mural on the side of a van.
Following her time palling around with Adam Warlock and Pip the Troll in the Infinity events (after already having been resurrected), she languished in the backwaters of the Marvel cosmic universe, until revitalized by the Dan Abnett Guardians of the Galaxy reboot. Her costume in that series still seemed more sword-and-sandals than outer space assassin, but at least she looked like she could fight (even though the costume went way more skimpy). After James Gunn popularized the team with his great movie, Gamora finally got her due, and was given a suit of high-tech armor and actually looked the part for once. In the armor, she finally managed to look like the ass-kicking space warrior she is. She's since had another costume change due to the Black Vortex that put her closer to her older costumes, but it is still a change for the better.
We'll get the obvious joke out of the way now. Yes, Daredevil is blind and, yes, it shows in his original costume choice. The 1960s weren't noted for classiness in their hero and villain costumes, and honestly Daredevil's doesn't stick out that much from the pack. We do have to wonder about the little singlet that he is wearing over his yellow spandex; it looks like his costume is wearing a costume.
Just seven issues into his ongoing series, Matt Murdock adopted the red horned costume that most of us are familiar with. A consistent red, far more appropriate for a guy with "Devil" in his name, is the hallmark of the costume. Making things monotone did wonders for how serious the costume makes the hero seem. It allows us to think of a blind guy in a skintight outfit fighting people with a billy club that doubles as his blind cane as a true bad-ass. The billy club holster no longer sticks out like he strapped a couple of hot dogs to his thigh. And in a subtle update, moving from the big 'D' to the staggered double 'D' was another move in the right direction.
Everyone has an image in their head of Superman when they think of the guy... as if his costume hadn't changed at all from his first appearance in the 1930s. But Earth's favorite Kryptonian has had a habit of tinkering with his red and blue getup... from changes of the 'S' on his chest shield to some ill-advised hair choices like his rocker mullet. The costume he wore post-Crisis is about as true to the "traditional" Superman look as one could imagine.
In the DC-wide New 52 reboot, Superman's look was updated pretty handily. Kal was still most definitely Superman, but the outfit looked more battle-ready and military. Most importantly, though, he finally learned to wear his bright red underwear on the inside of his clothes. The high collar, the way the cape looked pinned on, the red pointy belt, the gauntlets, and everything else you can point to was criticized once the costume was revealed. People tend to not take kindly to someone monkeying with the classics (despite the fact that this classic had been monkeyed with dozens of times over the last 70+ years). With the DC re-re-reboot, or whatever 're' this is, Superman has adopted yet another look to be picked apart (after a weird period where he just wore a t-shirt and jeans).
Plantman is a villain from an era where comic book creatives would just close their eyes, point, and slap the word "Man" to the end of whatever word they pointed to. Boom! New hero or villain! So it should come as some surprise that the early Plantman costumes actually looked kind of neat.
We just wish we could say the same think about his costume from the '80s. Exposing Samuel Smithers' face to the sun was just about the worst move that could have been made. His plant-like costume really just looked like a guy dressed up like a bat covered in moss. That his costume re-design was the result of some messed-up bet behind closed doors in the Marvel bullpen is all but a sure thing.
Mutating is almost never a way to make yourself look better, but Plantman's costume was so bad that his ongoing mutations were a dramatic improvement. Smithers first went through a couple iterations of guy-made-out-of-plants rather than guy-in-a-plant-suit, including a strange one where he looked to be made out of wood. Eventually, the folks at Marvel settled on his current ghastly iteration. To call a body made completely of plants a costume is a bit of a misnomer... but if you want to get technical, mutating your way out of that horrific cheeseball costume counts as an upgrade, even if you wind up naked. The look worked for Swamp Thing for decades; it's amazing that it took this long for Marvel to catch on.
Peter Quill was introduced to us in the 1970s via the book Marvel Preview. Unfortunately for Peter Quill, who goes by the amazing moniker Star-Lord (the hyphen comes and goes as it pleases, by the way), the 1970s was largely a decade where good taste had a hiccup. Star-Lord started out looking like Elton John in space, with his silly solar flare hat and bug-eyed sunglasses. He was given a gun that shot out blasts of each of the elements, and a sword... because at some point all Marvel space characters have a sword (despite how tough a sword would be to swing in space).
Flash forward to the Dan Abnett reboot, the savior of the Guardians of the Galaxy, and just an all-around great series to read. Quill finds his way to the lead of a team of galactic misfits and cosmic beings, and the whole team adopts uniforms with a touch of retro military sameness. Star-Lord was the biggest beneficiary of the team costume concept, however. While there's nothing wrong with his current movie-inspired duster jacket/gas mask combo, the WWI-esque helmet over the intimidating mask is a truly inspired work of classic costume design. Add to that the near-perfection of his dark blue-and-red military jacket, right down to the flaming star motif on his chest.
Betsy Braddock joined the X-Men in the '80s in an outfit that looks both unwieldy and unflattering. Looking like a cross between a Renaissance Fair waitress and Studio 54 reject, it appears as though creators Chris Claremont and Herb Trimpe used Psylocke's costume to see just how many shades of pink they could put into one outfit.
We won't get into the ridiculous storyline that made this possible, but we'll let you know what you need to know. Betsy Braddock was kidnapped by the evil ninja organization known as the Hand, in the late 1980s. She was brainwashed, trained to be a ninja assassin, and physically modified to look like an Asian woman. The premise, though completely ridiculous (even by comic standards), gave rise to the character Psylocke as we know her now. The '90s Psylocke costume is definitely on the skimpy side, but isn't altogether impractical when being used by someone who relies on athletic ninja fighting techniques. The straps that she has everywhere are a bit funny and don't have any practical use. But when put together with the flowing sash and her katana, few heroes look as cool and dangerous.
The Mandarin has been around as one of the primary villains of Iron Man's rogues gallery since the 1960s. While many of his costumes have been atrocious, none have been so comically heinous as his costume (or lack of costume) from the '80s. The Mandarin had always been portrayed as a master schemer, scientific genius, and expert combatant. It's a source of great puzzlement, then, that someone as smart and tough would ever think to put himself in his '80s costume. His outfit consisted of a helmet that looks conspicuously similar to Magneto's, a large green and red cape, a statement neck piece, and mismatched gauntlet-and-bracer combo. While you can't see it in this particular picture, there is a bright red dragon tattoo right over his belly button. Completing the ensemble is his strappy gray loincloth. It is possible that his real superpower was getting bricks to function as underwear.
Literally any costume would be an incalculable upgrade over this dud. That the Mandarin made his way to the green-and-yellow robe is nothing short of a miracle. Though it smacks of Yellow Peril a fair bit, the robe managed to combine the appearance of space-age technology and traditional Chinese aesthetics about as good as anyone could hope. The combination of green and yellow is an all-time great combo, to boot. We don't know who was coordinating his wardrobe in the '80s, but with his robe, the Mandarin finally looked like a true match for Iron Man.
8 Captain Boomerang
It's possible that things are done differently in Australia, and what they find menacing doesn't play in other parts of the globe. If we had to make a guess, however, we would bet that Captain Boomerang's boomerangs-all-over blouse never inspired a drop of fear in anybody or anyone. Boomerang's vintage outfit (when he played foil to the Flash) looks like someone scribbled on a flight attendant's uniform. His long, flowing scarf makes him look as though he's ready to take flight on one of his own boomerangs at a moment's notice. Making matters worse is the red male pattern baldness afro which is pretty inexcusable for anyone not named Art Garfunkel.
It is a wonder that it took comic artists as long as they did to catch on to this, but the concept of streetwear or everyday clothing as a costume for a hero or villain both looking good and aging well is a great lesson to have been learned. When Captain Boomerang joined the Suicide Squad, he kept the scarf (which looks fine), but subbed out his patterned nightmare for a beanie (with a cool metallic boomerang), a bandolier, and a trench coat... making him as cool as boomerang-flinging anti-heroes come.
7 The Trapster
Peter Petruski is a low-grade Marvel (usually) villain that began life as the much worse-named Paste Pot Pete. True to his name, Pete's weapon of choice was a gun that fired a super-sticky glue directly from a pot of paste that he had to lug around with him. Talk about impractical. Terrible schtick and fairytale-level name aside, Petruski cemented (cemented, paste... get it?) his terminal inability to seem menacing by dressing up like a beatnik in a Dutch schoolboy costume. Heroes of the world were surely quaking in their boots at the mere thought of him.
Not long after debuting in comics, Petruski got both a costume upgrade and a name change as the Trapster. Most of the Trapster's future costumes revolved around a purple outfit and yellow canisters containing Petruski's chemical compounds. During the super dumb Spider-Man Identity Crisis storyline, the Trapster received another costume change, that seemed maybe the most menacing of the bunch. While it doesn't take much to seem more menacing than a giant purple bow and sleeping cap, the Trapster wasn't about to take any chances... and he went for what we like to call the "Ninja Doorman look". If you see anyone dressed up like the Trapster, we advise you to run, regardless of the glue.
Time and again, the biggest pitfall for comic book costumes is going for a timely, rather than a timeless, appearance. Sometimes fortune strikes and the components that made a costume hip (or hip-ish) linger and become a part of the fabric of what we call fashionable or heroic or villainous for an extended period of time. Such was not the case for the man called Nightwing. To show that he was not a Boy Wonder anymore, Dick Grayson adopted the Nightwing name and costume, a costume that makes the word 'flamboyant' an understatement.
The plunging neckline and flipped collar should have been an immediate clue the costume wouldn't stand the test of time. Not content to let that and the use of a sky on navy blue color scheme be their only mistakes, the big brains at DC gave Nightwing an eye mask that looks like Kiss makeup and an awkward yellow accent to mimic the appearance of feathers. We're not sure what night this wing was meant to take flight in, but we're sure it's not one we've ever seen.
DC, for all their flash, can do a stripped down costume about as well as possible. There isn't a whole lot to say for the modern Nightwing costume except, maybe, "Thank God!" Dick now sports an eye mask that looks menacing, and complements it with a full-body spandex suit and flowing locks that seem to scream out "Stealth!" (with the exception of the bright blue stripe, that is).
5 Iron Man
We can't really be too disparaging of the original Iron Man costume. The thing looks like it sounds: iron. Brilliant inventor Tony Stark essentially crafted, in Tales of Suspense, a nuclear age suit of armor. And it looked like it would function about as gracefully. While by no means a bad costume, Iron Man in all gray metal looked like a robot monster-- not like a super hero at all.
Very quickly, the tin can costume was given a gold paint job, which helped somewhat. Later still (by Avengers issue 3), Stark's suit adopted the form we more-or-less know as Iron Man today... although his mask came to two points that were eventually ditched for a sleeker look. We don't know why, but every Marvel character for a while in the '60s seemed to have two things sticking out of their head (4 alone on the Avengers #3 cover, if you count Namor's pointy ears).
The Iron Man we'll always hold as nearest and dearest to our hearts didn't actually look like he was wearing a full suit made of metal, but we don't care! Iron Man looked sleek and futuristic and bright and mobile and powerful, and just the right amount of silly. While the modern day, ultra-technological armors he's been wearing the last 10 or so years are fine, perhaps no costume encapsulates the best of 1960s hero inventiveness like the old Iron Man armor.
4 Sam Wilson
We call Sam Wilson's second (and longest tenured) costume as the Falcon "The Deep V". It's difficult now to picture a time where Sam's threads ever looked cool or heroic or intimidating-- or even decent. Most likely, that's because that time never existed. Like many costumes of the era, the Falcon's had a funkiness to it that was intended to resonate with the kids of the late '60s. That the costume held on for so long was less a testament to its greatness, and more a testament to how little Marvel gave a crap about Sam Wilson. A guy who glides and has a trained bird isn't a terribly appealing hero, but that they didn't give him an upgrade or put him out of his misery for far too long.
In the '90s, they finally got the Falcon to put his chest away, and they gave him a more interesting mask... but largely the feel of the costume stayed the same (read: bad). When Steve Rogers was drained of his super soldier formula, opportunity came knocking on Sam Wilson's wardrobe. In an inspired move, Sam was entrusted to become Captain America (causing controversy in the real world). Sam's costume brilliantly combined the Cap aesthetic with the essence of his Falcon costume, and we were blessed with an all-timer. Since comics always reset to zero, we've been given a storyline that seem to portend the end of "Falcap", or at least dilute the character with multiple Captain Americas.
3 Captain Britain
This article could well have been called "Worst Costumes of the '70s And How They Got Fixed" and our pool would have been just as deep to draw from. Helping the case but hurting our eyes, we have the original incarnation of Captain Britain. Brian Braddock was gifted super powers by none other than Merlin himself in order to cause tense international relations between England and the U.S. because of the terrible costume. Actually, that's not true (the part about international relations... at least we think it's not true). Braddock, with his lion chest, full-face mask and tuft of blond hair coming out the top, looks like the mascot for the National Front more than a super hero (the combat staff he's brandishing doesn't help things).
Sometime in the '80s, Marvel got the inspiration for what a real Captain Britain should look like. By superhero standards and patriotic standards both, Braddock's level of pageantry in costume doesn't seem ostentatious. He manages to strike a great balance between tough, heroic, and emblematic of his nation in a way (loathe as we are to admit it) that even Captain America hasn't mastered. Captain Britain's costume is so good that it's almost a tragedy, because the equally amazing Union Jack never gets his proper due as protector of England.
2 Luke Cage
We admittedly have a soft spot for the original Luke Cage costume. We also know, however, that it objectively is an awful costume. Power Man, as he came to be known from time to time, looked about as far from intimidating as a bulletproof super-strong ex-convict could in his early days. The yellow tunic is understandable because of the era and the blaxploitation film feel that Marvel was going for with Cage. What really makes no sense is his little peaked silver tiara. We encourage you to take a pencil or something and hold it up in front of your monitor to block out the crown for a moment. Don't worry, we'll wait. Doesn't his costume look 100 times better just by getting rid of the headpiece? We're also pretty sure, super strength or not, that a belt would be much more effective and less of a burden than a cartoon-sized length of broken chain (not to mention more stealthy).
It's a little unfair to call a suit a costume, granted. But what Luke Cage has for his most recent series, Power Man And Iron Fist, is more like a set. Cage bases his wardrobe around looking all business, and sticking with his classic black-and-yellow palette. Our favorite of the mix is the full suit and tie (as pictured), but he also sports other snazzy looks. We were never fans of the stretchy yellow t-shirt look, so we count this (and the television show's hoodie look) as major upgrades.
1 Moon Knight
Moon Knight has never had a truly bad costume. While the premise of a superhero who fights at night clad all in white is a little silly, it is Marc Spector's duty (as given by the Egyptian god Khonshu) to look over travelers of the night... so it makes a bit of sense. The worst of the bunch is perhaps when Spector added gold to his look... with golden bracelets and a golden ankh that took the place of the crescent moon symbol traditionally on his chest. Again, not a bad look, but not the world's greatest costume.
Moon Knight was re-invigorated by comics legend (and grit master) Warren Ellis in the early part of the decade. In the hands of Ellis, Moon Knight became a much more intriguing character and not just a Batman clone or fractured soul, as he'd been portrayed in the past. Ellis' Moon Knight wore different costumes as different aspects of Khonshu's avatar, but the best of all of them, and arguably the best costume of all-time, is the Mr. Knight outfit. Simple and elegant, but with a great attention to detail (including crescent moon cufflinks and buttons), Moon Knight as a man dressed in an all-white suit is more menacing than nearly any other hero in history. The mask and gloves add to the effect, and the fact that he rides in the back of a white limo (with a moon on the grill) makes us absolutely giddy.