The Unbearable Tightness of Being (A Superhero)
As long as there have been superhero movies, there have been comic fans complaining about costumes in superhero movies. The upcoming Green Lantern film from Warner Brothers has been anything but immune to the discussion. Their controversial decision to completely scrap their physical costume in exchange for showing off actor Ryan Reynolds CGIed physique has been met with concern and criticism, especially after initial images surfaced last year. To hear some tell the story, the production actually had a physical suit, and Reynolds wore it for camera tests before it was all scrapped in favor of the digital alternative seen in the image above. So why the decision to move away from everything we know about superhero costumes from movies past? I couldn’t tell you what Director Martin Campbell’s reasons were, but I can tell you why it was the right choice.
Simply put, the materials that exist in our real world don’t work the way that materials in comic books work. This isn’t speculation on my part. We’ve seen it tried several times. The most famous attempt is likely Superman: The Movie. While cloth suits tend to fit into the “it’s technically the same thing as the comics” category, they also have a tendency to look rather silly, particularly by the standards of todays audiences. When I can pick up a costume for $4.99 during a November 1st clearance that rivals the costume worn on film by Christopher Reeve, it’s clearly time to try something different. For good or for ill, Hollywood has tried. From the rubberized Batman suits to the more subtle leather XMen uniforms, Hollywood has spent millions on outfitting our heroes in cool, practical, and muscular ways.
But Tinseltown can’t take all the credit for costumed expirimentation. Superhero fan films have have been wading in the choppy waters of “accurate” costume design for years, too. Sandy Collara is one of the best known fan film directors out there when it comes to Superheroes. He directed two very fanboy-service shorts – Batman: Dead End and World’s Finest. In each short, he cast large bodybuilders in the roles of superheroes, and he relied heavily on fabrics similar to the 1978 Christopher Reeve costume. While these materials show off the volume of the actors, they do not allow the muscular details to show through. Under Armor sports apparel, shown below, is a popular choice among those who create superhero fan films, but even one of their most superheroic pieces of apparel still has the same problem – bulk, but only very subtle musculature.
Ultimtaely, it’s a question of anatomy. The anatomy of the human body forms a series of peaks and valleys. Some valleys, like the one above the clavicle, are rounded. Some valleys, especially on very muscular people, create sharper intersections. The effect of stretching any fabric over and around these peaks and valleys is not unlike a child using chairs and a blanket to craft their own Fortress of Solitude (or Batcave, if you will). The fabric touches the high points – the peaks – but dips very little, if at all, into the valleys. The end result is a shirt that shows off more mass than muscle.
The Batman films should get some credit for their experimentation with rubber suits. The suits designed for each of the modern Bat-films (from 1989 onward) each endeavored to create something that gave the same muscular appearance as comic books. As a novelty, it worked relatively well, but the suits severely constrained the motion of the actors that wore them, and their overall lack of flexing and movement made it painfully obvious that the muscles were entirely for show. As the Bat-films moved on, the suit quickly began to integrate more armored elements, culminating in the most recent incarnation in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. This suit had armor in groupings over major muscles, but it didn’t really resemble muscle anymore. It was clearly armor.
For the seasoned comic fan, the “muscle averaging” appearance of Superheroes isn’t entirely foreign. Artist Alex Ross, whose depiction of Superman is shown above, regularly portrays his heroes in this more “realistic” fashion. His heroes are large and barrel-chested. Their costumes display all of the wrinkling around the joints and the visual erosion of muscle definition that would really occur using materials we know how to use in real life. As much as comic fans drool over Ross’ ability to make the super seem more familiar, his depiction of heroes is the outlier in the industry. Most other comic book artists opt to rendering superheroes in a way that appears as little more than body paint. They enhance the anatomy to demonstrate strength, athleticism, movement, and power. They show you muscles.
For the premise of the upcoming Green Lantern film, the idea of “real fabric” breaks the idea of the power ring, and we all know that the power ring is central to the plot. In Green Lantern, the costume itself is a construct of the ring. It isn’t made of any fabric at all. The byproduct of avoiding fabric and all of it’s wrinkles is that the suit for the upcoming Green Lantern film is possibly the most comic-book-like suit we’ve seen in any Superhero film to date. The anatomic fidelity the filmmakers have achieved in response to a sea of uninspiring predecessors is not unlike Alex Ross’ uniqueness among his contemporaries – albeit flipped on it’s head. In a world where Ross portrays Superheroes in ill-fitting, detail-losing fabrics, Green Lantern displays them in hyper-detailed, comic-inspired light constructs.
And I’ve got to say, it’s winning me over. Is it photo-realistic? No. In a film about a man who finds a ring that takes him half-way across the known universe to join an alien-filled police force, I’m okay with that.