In the 2000 movie X-Men, when Cyclops passive-aggressively shamed Wolverine in front of his peers for questioning the outfits (“Well, what would you prefer? Yellow spandex?”), he cast a smug spell over all of comic movie fashion. Did he know that the reverberations of this would ultimately end in once-colorful characters being relegated to nothing more than black hoodies, t-shirts, and sweatpants? The X-Men went on to battle intolerance and the pains of being an outsider while all conforming to the same standard black leather bodysuits. With its success, the tone was set: more heroes and villains found themselves trapped in lackluster attire. The trope became common enough that when Daredevil went toe-to-toe with Bullseye, the villain was so disappointed with his own grey trench coat and bald head that he actually screamed, “I want a bloody costume!” in the middle of the film. Bullseye knew then what Wolverine knew four years earlier: Without a mask or a costume, you’re just some guy.
In comic books, superheroes and their villains never dress like Linkin Park fans; they wear bright colors and have iconic–if not flamboyant–uniforms that readily identify them as super-powered beings. This part of their identity isn’t a secret. It’s one of the cornerstones of the medium and arguably a big part of their success. They were experts in branding before branding was a thing. The color scheme and symbology of their outfits was is much a superpower as lifting cars or having laser eyes. Being a superhero or villain is wearing a costume. It’s coded into their DNA. Iron Man wouldn’t be Iron Man if he was just a guy in casual wear, and you can hardly call a t-shirt and jeans heroic. As Captain America says to Falcon towards the end of The Winter Soldier: “A soldier needs a uniform.”
The tendency to neuter heroes costumes for their movies is baffling. I understand changing costumes, but not doing away with them altogether. In Winter Soldier, Cap tones down his traditional red, white and blue uniform to a monochromatic dark blue with a grey star on the chest. The outfit is reminiscent of the costume he wore in the first movie and The Avengers. While it’s been scaled way back, at least it’s a costume. Through the course of the film, Cap fights Batroc the Leaper and teams up with the Falcon—both mainstays of the comic who wear costumes. Their translation to the movie resulted in standard issue camo pants, t-shirts and a hoodie. “Standard issue” and “superhero” are two terms that should NEVER go together.
Spider-Man has always gotten his comic duds but his villains have increasingly become guys in shirts and lab coats. Jamie Foxx stars as the newest Spider-Man film’s main antagonist Electro. In the comics, Electro sizzles in a high-energy green bodysuit with contrasting lightning bolt suspenders and a blazing yellow cannabis leaf mask. He’s easily the most recognizable of Spider-Man’s rogues gallery. In the film, the extent of his costume is a black hoodie and black sweats. Perhaps they’re appealing to the laziest cosplayers on earth or the troubled loner demographic. But how many asses does that really put in the seats?
There is an excuse that these costume choices are “grounded in reality.” But no fucking reality looks like these movies. So, let’s talk about reality! It’s not like people in real reality have an issue with the costumes. Cosplay isn’t just for Halloween anymore. In fact, it’s become as big of a spectator sport as it has a pastime. Not to mention that dictators, rock stars and all flavors of celebrity transcended the idea of being “grounded in reality” a long time ago. What superhero movies call “realism” is a cynical, polished look that is anti-fashion and pro-slob. It gets weirder when you consider that we know costumes work. Avengers is the top grossing Superhero movie of all time and it was wall-to-wall masks and tights. But after that came Iron Man 3, where Tony Stark slowly “evolves” his “man cave in a suit” into exoskeletal casual wear.
Batman declared that “Criminals are a superstitious cowardly lot, so my disguise must be able to strike terror into their hearts. I must be a creature of the night, black, terrible…” and his cinematic counterpart stuck to the vow. At least the “black and terrible” part, but hey, it’s a costume. His villains have mostly been pretty half-assed. Scarecrow got a burlap sack but Joker had his trademark purple duds! Things were looking up until the third movie when Bane showed up in a Macklemore coat and black tank top. He did have that goatse mask on but the grounded and real meme had molested another movie, his dirty fingers shredding Bane’s colorful luchadore mask from the comic.
Perhaps I’m missing the bigger picture and we’ve actually all been witness to the rise of an insidious shadow reality which ties together every superhero movie released in the last fifteen years. This shared universe started with Blades Columbine chic makeover and pre-dates Marvel’s Avengers. It transcends publishers, studios and characters. It’s a gritty world where all the heroes have the same costume designer – and that designer hates costumes! We’ve never see the face or learned the name of the stylist. They might be an anti-fashion activist or a master planner whose endgame is yet unknown. Why would they want to take away the colors and icons of the source material and replace it with dreary pseudo goth cyber stylings or hoodies, leather fetish gear and camo pants? Perhaps it’s part of a plot to destroy the heroes symbolic power or enlist Joe Average with his hoodie and sweats into a massive open sourced sleeper cell of terror. We may never know. We can only look upon the standard issue cargo pants, t-shirts and trench coats of silver screen heroes and sigh.