Agent of S.T.Y.L.E. - SUPERMAN Goes to the Movies

Agent of S.T.Y.L.E. - Movie SUPERMAN

You've got to love a good movie leak. Once again, the Internet is buzzing about new photos from the set of Man of Steel, the Superman movie directed by Zack Snyder (Sucker Punch, Watchmen) and starring Henry Cavill. Everyone's got an opinion on the design, the material used, the colors. And naturally, folks are comparing the outfit to those worn by movie Supermen of the past.

Not long ago, we looked at the evolution of Superman's uniform in the comics. And months back, we looked at how the TV series Smallville gave us new designs for Clark Kent's heroic alter ego. Now, let's take a look at how the different movie adaptations have tackled what is perhaps the most famous superhero costume in the world.



Superman had shown up in movie theaters before. There were the famous Fleischer cartoons and the serials starring Kirk Alyn. But it wasn't until 1978 that the world got a true feature-length adventure featuring the Man of Tomorrow. Superman: The Movie was directed by Richard Donner (The Goonies, Lethal Weapon) and starred Christopher Reeve in the titular role, an actor so unknown at the time that he didn't even get top billing.


The costume designer for this film was Yvonne Blake, who also worked on Jesus Christ Superstar and What Dreams May Come. The Superman suit worn by Christopher Reeve is possibly the most accurate superhero costume adaptation for a film. The belt, the cut of the boots, the symbol, the cape. All are the same as the classic Superman costume that the Last Son of Krypton had been wearing since the 1940s. The colors are nicely saturated and the cape is simple, not so long that it looks operatic or simply ridiculous. It's clear that Blake and Donner did not see a need to disguise what Superman was, a superhero in a costume. They embraced it and did the best translation to live-action they could.

The final touch was Christopher Reeve himself, whose performance in the role was so natural that he was able to pull off the costume as work clothes for his superhero career rather than seeming clownish. Reeves himself commented in several interview that he focused on not seeming as if he were larger than life while wearing the costume, that he would let the suit take care of that and he would just act at ease and naturally confident as he would in a business suit. It definitely worked and for many people still to this day, this is the true live-action vision of Superman.



Christopher Reeve starred as Superman in four movies. Then years later, in 2006, director Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects, X-Men) brought us a new film starring the Last Son of Krypton, Superman Returns, one that picked up some time after Superman II had left off (Singer wisely ignored the events of Superman III and Superman IV since just about everyone agreed they were bad films). This movie starred up-and-coming actor Brandon Routh in the lead role, wearing a new version of the famous suit.

Christopher Reeve's outfit was very clearly a cloth costume. Brandon Routh's outfit looked a little more serious. Designed by Louise Mingenbach (X-Men, Starsky & Hutch), the fabric used for the blue body suit is a very fine synthetic milliskin that hugs the body like a diaphanous wetsuit. The cape is made from a plastic, rubber-like material. This definitely gives a different feel to the character. You can believe that someone might consider this a "uniform" rather than a "costume." The outfit has a webbed texture to it now and looks like it may be able to take some damage. While the material may be okay for the rest of the uniform, I don't think the cape should be of the same substance. The cape now seems heavy and that word should not be connected to a character whose most famous power is flight. The cape should be cloth and give a sense that this character belongs in the sky.

Also, if this movie was following the idea that Superman made at least the cape from the blanket his mother had wrapped him in before sending him to Earth, it doesn't quite make sense. Unless women of Krypton wrap their babies in rubbery, leather-like sheets rather than cloth. Just saying.


The S-shield was also reduced in size and given a sharper design. Bryan Singer wanted to give the shield a more modern look and saw no problem with altering the design of the symbol slightly since it has gone through a few minor changes over the decades of its evolution. He wanted it smaller because he believed that Christopher Reeve's shirt made the symbol so large that it resembled "a billboard." He believed that by making it smaller, it seemed more like an official seal worn on uniform made from alien materials and whose design was emulating an alien culture. This connects to the comic book idea that Superman's costume was loosely based on the clothing styles worn by many people of Krypton.

This costume also had the S-shield as a raised piece rather than a design stamped or silk-screened onto the shirt. Because of this, the symbol couldn't be any larger or else it would have interfered with Routh's movements. The final touch on the S-shield was that it was stamped with the imprint of hundreds of tiny S-shields. And complementing this, the boots now actually incorporate the shield design as well.

There are four other changes from Reeve's suit. First, there is an extra S-shield now acting as a belt buckle. Second, there is now no yellow S-shield on the cape, leaving it plain and undecorated. Third, the neckline of the shirt has been changed from a wide scoop neck to a crew-neck cut. Finally, the red is quite noticeably a different shade than Reeve's uniform.

The S-shield belt buckle I don't care for. With few exceptions, I think having your symbol appear on the front of your costume twice just gets repetitive and almost seems to say you don't have confidence people will notice the larger seal on your chest. Also, with the tiny S-shields decorating the main symbol and the boots having shields on top of that, this costume seems more like Superman spent a lot of time thinking about design details rather than just saying "Okay, I need a uniform." It's too much design and not enough editing.


The lack of an S-shield on the back of the cape is a shame but makes sense. These days, Superman's flight (especially when he's in the distance or moving at super-speed) is tackled by CGI. Even on close-up shots of Routh flying, the cape would be added digitally so it could be manipulated to show motion and speed. In all these cases, a CGI cape is hard enough to animate by itself. If you have to digitally paint a yellow S-shield on it at the same time, a symbol that has to move and shift in every single frame based on the movements and folds of the cape, you'd waste tons of extra time and money. This is also why cartoons haven't had a symbol on Superman's cape for quite a number of years.

The altered neckline works for me. It simply makes Superman seem more professional in my mind. There's nothing wrong with the neckline Reeve had, but it definitely called back to the fact that the original costume design was inspired by circus strong men. As for the shade of red, it's not a deal-breaker but I'm not a fan of it. I realize it was to give Superman a more serious look and I have no problem with him starring in a darker story. But Superman himself should not seem dark, I believe. He's the light in the dark, the idealist who is not naive and is here to stand against chaos and evil. I don't want his outfit to be baby blue and cherry red, but the red should definitely be brighter than this. Depending on the light, the cape and boots almost seem brown.



And that brings us to the new Superman, Henry Cavill. Initially, the studio released this official shot of the actor in the new costume. As we can see, the shield is still raised but now back to the more traditional design and size. From this suit, the outfit seems to have a webbed texture like Routh's suit, though the boots are the more traditional design and the cape is back to being cloth. I like the cape being cloth a lot better, but what is with the size of this cape? It's so huge that it makes Superman look as if he's trying to be Batman or a handsome version of the Phantom of the Opera. Superman wears a cape that looks great when he's flying or rising through the air, it shouldn't be a giant cloak that he can use to hide in the shadows.

More recently, we've gotten on-set photos of the Superman suit, many of them without the cape. Perhaps these scenes deal with Superman not wearing the cape. Perhaps they were just rehearsing and they didn't bring the cape in yet. Either way, we get a much clearer view of the outfit now. It's hard to truly judge a movie costume from on-set photos because many costumes look silly until they are filmed and you see them in the proper lighting and atmosphere. However, just based on these photos, I am not crazy about the suit, which was designed by Michael Wilkinson (Sucker Punch, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn) and James Acheson (Highlander, Spider-Man 3).


This outfit is going for a different idea in many ways. Gone are the red trunks and I'm fine with that, I've thought Superman has needed to get rid of that decoration for decades now. But rather than a red belt or something to break the color up, we have a metallic wing stencil decoration on the sides and a belt buckle that really isn't attached to a belt. The belt buckle also looks to be too low, making it an even more awkward decoration.

The stenciling goes down the legs and is also complemented by the metallic bracers Superman now has on his wrists. So this seems to be going for an armored look rather than a costume, as if this were a suit worn by a solider of Krypton's military. I'm personally not a fan of that. Not only is Superman a character who doesn't need armor, but he is not at all a character who operates with a military mind-set. He wasn't like Batman who trained for years under the guidance of fighters, warriors and assassins. He's a farm boy from Kansas who believes that if you have a gift that can benefit others then you should share it and he hates bullies and anyone who looks to harm others.


I hate the color tones. This looks as if Superman washed his costume too many times and just stopped caring. I understand not wanting to seem overly bright or circus-like, but muting the colors this much takes away from a character who is supposed to be inspirational and a symbol of hope. That, along with the other design elements, indicates that this movie and its creators might be trying to play Superman as "alien soldier" rather than "superhero." It wouldn't be surprising. There are several films and live-action show adaptations that have steered away from reminding the audience that the character was based on a comic book. But guess what? This is Superman. He's the reason "superhero" became a household word. We all know he's a superhero. The secret's out. So embrace it already.

Perhaps by the time the movie comes out, we'll discover this will be one of several outfits Superman wears. Perhaps it will look better on the screen. All I know is, looking at this, I'm not impressed.

And that wraps it up for now, folks. But wait, there's more! If you want to hear me discuss this Superman costume further and compare it to recent photographs of the new costumes from upcoming films The Amazing Spider-Man and The Dark Knight Rises, then check out this video where I team-up with Grace Randolph of Beyond The Trailer!

And until next time, this is Alan Kistler, Agent of S.T.Y.L.E., signing off!

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