Super Couture

by Chris Randle

Earlier this month, publisher/critic/gadfly Dan Nadel went on Comics Comics to rant about the costumes from Marvel Studios’ upcoming Thor movie, which are still trickling out in press releases and breathless exclusives. (The specific production still that set him off is above.) Vacillating between drab Tolkienism and Jack Kirby’s original “Norse gods as space aliens” aesthetic, they’ve only duplicated that house style of superhero adaptations, Generic Steel. The colossal weirdness of Stan Lee and Kirby’s source material seems shriveled; you’d never guess that Thor was a series where deities exclaim “Verily!” and “Forsooth!” mid-fight, or where the protagonist temporarily became a frog, or where a villain named Ego the Living Planet debuted. A leaked trailer suggests the filmmakers have added plenty of army men and black-ops intrigue, like so many other superhero movies, as if to stress the obvious butchness of a character first seen in winged helmets.

It’s disappointing, since Thor is one of the first Marvel adaptations made by the publisher itself, but unsurprising. The handful of superheroes that most North Americans would immediately recognize – Superman, Batman, Spider-man, perhaps a couple of others – have already been successfully licensed and franchised. Their iconic costumes were longstanding brands, so there was no commercial motive to alter any of them, especially with hordes of fanboys waiting to be outraged. But the typical characters spinning off from Marvel and DC Comics now are second-tier at best, faint outlines in the public consciousness and niche concerns even among nerds. For example, a Doctor Strange film is apparently in development, which means someone will be obliged to merchandise this:

I actually like that outfit. I’ve always thought there was a touch of Noel Coward in the Sorcerer Supreme; if he’s not searching for camply named artifacts or battling the Dread Dormammu on another plane, he should be chilling at his Greenwich Village pad in tights and a pointed cape. But I don’t see how it gets past a table of studio executives intact. Even more popular figures have been heavily made over for their film introductions – in next year’s Green Lantern movie the classic, clean-lined GL costume will be replaced by some sort of all-CGI, radioactive-looking bodysuit. Myriad cartooning aesthetics are being flattened out into a single cinematic one.

Occasionally, stylistic changes in an adaptation filter down to the comics themselves. (This happened more often in the days before the film industry hungrily farmed pamphlets for new intellectual properties, and before many cartoonists conceived entire works as pre-storyboarded Hollywood pitches.) When X-men ditched spandex for black leather ten long years ago, the characters did the same on paper. The forced convergence ended up fitting neatly. Writer Grant Morrison was taking charge of the X-books, and shifting their decades-old allegory of minority persecution (complete with an analogue of apartheid South Africa) to a story about human evolution and mutanthood as the ultimate modish subculture. He made the uniforms even more punkish and brutalist as part of his project. It was fitting in a cosmic sense too: the ’80s X-men, with Storm channeling Grace Jones, must be the most fashion-forward superhero comics ever. As Bryan Lee O’Malley once noted, they were au courant by decades. Style is a mutant power.

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