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The Very Best (and Worst) Superhero Movie Costumes

Written by . Published: July 26 2011


With the on-screen adaption of the Marvel comics’ iconic mainstay, Captain America, currently gracing the silver screen, it felt like now was the perfect time to critique Hollywood’s superhero fashion sense. Thusly, here’s my top-10 list of the best and worst superhero costumes in cinematic history.
Let’s start with the best, shall we?
Oh, but before we begin, let me offer a small explanation of my superhero fashion grading scale: The outfits I deemed “best” were mostly chosen for their realism, their ability to exist in reality, and function exactly how they would in the comics. The outfits I deemed “worst” are exactly that – they’re ridiculous, overly campy, poorly designed, or completely unlike the costumes of their literary counterparts. Okay, here we go . . .
BEST (in ascending order)
7. The Red Skull (Captain America, 2011)
The previous on-screen adaption of the Red Skull in the 1990 Captain America film was, for lack of a better word, horrible. Simply horrible. That version of Cap’s arch-nemesis was created through the unique (and not in a good way) combination of red face paint and cheesy-looking head veins; plus, he wasn’t even a German Nazi – they cast him as an Italian! WTF?! Fast-forward to 2011’s Captain America – starring Chris Evans and Hugo Weaving – and you’ve got a legitimately frightening, true-to-the-comics criminal mastermind of epic proportions. His “red skull” looks like a red skull; his Nazi gear looks and functions as legitimate WWII Nazi gear; his nose is entirely nonexistent, an empty hole bored into the face of one of the most diabolical comic book villains of all time. Cheers, 2011’s Captain America – you got the Red Skull right!
6. Kick-Ass (Kick-Ass, 2010)
Alright, so this superhero’s outfit isn’t cool and flashy; it’s not streamlined or loaded with a sweet utility belt full of expensive gadgets and weapons. But it makes up for its lack of style in its functionality and accessibility. Think about it – if you wanted to be a superhero and you needed an outfit, what kind of outfit would it be and where would you buy it from? Answer: like Kick-Ass, you might invest in a scuba suit. They’re relatively cheap, easy to find, and not overly hard to slip into if crime strikes without warning. I applaud Kick-Ass’s costume for its realism. I doubt any of us “real world” people have the technical skills to sew some awesome, crazy-material suit out of whatever’s laying around the house.  This costume brings superheroes out from their fantasy world and into reality.
5. The Penguin (Batman Returns, 1992)
Extremely pointed nose, sharp teeth, gross purple-black spit, pasty slimy-looking skin – DannyDeVito’s Penguin in the second installment of Tim Burton’s Batman franchise is exactly how you’d want him: despicable and downright dirty. Plus, don’t forget his webbed, three-fingered hands. Put this “monster of a man” in a suit, give him a monocle and a top hat, and you’ve got yourself a pitch-perfect super villain straight out of Batman’s infamous rogue’s gallery.
4. Captain America (Captain America, 2011)
The costume designers who worked on Cap’s suit for the 2011 reboot of everyone’s favorite star-spangled hero did an excellent job of blending the traditional superhero mythos with 1940’s-style army gear. He’s able to pin the shield to a harness on his back, he’s got other hooks and harnesses strapped across his body like an airborne ranger, legitimate army boots (not some dorky, unrealistic pixie boots – the kind superheroes tend to wear), a utility belt for all manner of excess weapons and gear, even a traditional army helmet painted blue and marked with matching wings and a giant “A” across the forehead. This version of Captain America looks like he could actually survive and succeed in fighting a war against the Third Reich. Guess we’ll have to wait and see how the design team updates this classic outfit for 2012’s upcoming Avengers film.
3. Hellboy (Hellboy, 2004)
Seems like Ron Perlman always gets picked for the “ugly” roles – first in the TV series “Beauty and the Beast,” in which Perlman plays the noble man-beast, Vincent, then in Enemy at the Gates, where he was cast as Koulikov, the sniper with a gruff exterior and a mouth full of false, metal teeth. His casting as Hellboy seemed like a no-brainer, as Perlman donned the red skin, horns, and stony “Right Hand of Doom” of the Dark Horse Comics’ icon. With his arsenal of weapons and tools (rosary, the “Samaritan” gun, other occult objects), his classic beige trench coat (meant to hide his tail), and his filed-down demon horns, this on-screen adaption of the otherworldly “devil” couldn’t look any better.
2. Batman (The Dark Knight, 2008)
In the comics, I’ve always wondered how Batman’s costume could be so form fitting, and at the same time so bullet-resistant. It looks like he’s got body armor that perfectly form-fits to his outrageous six-pack – no way is that possible! The cinematic adaptations of Batman, however, have always made his outfit seem more realistic.  If you’re going to dress up as a giant bat and fight crime, then you'd better be adequately prepared to get shot in the chest – i.e. have a bulletproof vest of some sort.  While the Michael Keaton costume was terribly clunky and rigid, and Clooney’s version gave us the infamous “bat nipples” that nerds love to hate (we’ll come back to that later), Christian Bale’s batsuit in The Dark Knight is functional, bullet resistant, stylish, and allows him to turn his head without moving his entire body in similar fashion. This is the penultimate batsuit as I’ve always imagined it. I wonder if they’ll update it for 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises . . .
1. Iron Man (Iron Man, 2008)
In this case, the suit most definitely makes the man. Case in point – without the Iron Man armor, there’d be no such thing as Tony Stark’s Iron Man. And how sweet is that armor – come on, really. It’s just plain awesome. In the film, Iron Man’s got state-of-the-art tracking systems, computer readouts, online databases, anti-tank missiles, steering and retro-thrust jets in the suit’s palms that can double as short-range repulsors, anti-personnel guns mounted from its shoulders, flare launchers, and a uni-beam projector in the chest piece. The technological wonders of this suit and its battle-time efficiency and functionality make this an obvious candidate for best cinematic adaption of a superhero’s costume. ‘Nuff said!
And now, the worst Hollywood-inspired superhero costumes of all time . . .
WORST (again, in ascending order)
7. Spider-Man (Spider-Man, 2002)
Woah, woah, woah, give me the chance to explain myself before you start going all fanboy-crazy! Yes, this costume looks awesome; yes, it’s functional and kick-ass and totally impresses the babes. But according to my fashionable superhero grading scale, it’s completely unrealistic. Here, let me break it down: Tony Stark is super rich and a genius designer; it makes sense that he could design and produce multiple Iron Man suits. Likewise, Bruce Wayne is super rich and intelligent; it makes sense that he could fund and develop the batsuit, along with all the other high-tech gadgets he has in his arsenal. Peter Parker, on the other hand, is traditionally depicted as a relatively poor high school/college student – how does he pay for a costume like that, and what futuristic-looking material is it made out of? Did he go to Jo-Ann Fabrics and buy that crazy-impossible material with leftover lunch money? Furthermore, does young Mr. Parker have any sewing skills? I just don’t understand how he’d have access to a costume like that, let alone how he’d stitch it all together. Give me a plain Spider-Man in a spandex suit with cool overlaid webbing. I actually have a friend who made that exact costume; it was relatively inexpensive and still looked great, so I know it can be done. Too bad Andrew Garfield’s suit for The Amazing Spider-Man looks like it came from the same futuristic, crazy-no-way store as Tobey Maguire's. Oh well, guess it makes Spidey look cooler on the big-screen . . .
6. Batman (Batman & Robin, 1997)
On the "Howard Stern Show" on March 20, 1998, George Clooney gave the following quote:  “I think I buried that [Batman] franchise single handedly . . .”  Thank God he was wrong and that Batman movies have been made post-Clooney, but the accomplished actor did have a point. Not only was his acting relatively unimpressive, but the outfit they put him in . . . oh, that poor man. His Batman from the 1997 film Batman & Robin had nipples. NIPPLES!!! Who wants to see Batman’s nipples? No idea what the costume designers were thinking on that one.
5. Steel (Steel, 1997)
Not only did this film stray from its comic book roots – Steel in the comics is Dr. John Henry Irons, who took over for Superman after he was “killed” by the monster Doomsday – but the outfit itself just looks clunky and outdated. Oh, and it gets worse – they decided to cast Shaquille O’Neal as the brilliant weapons engineer who created the Iron Man-esque Steel armor. Bah. Blasphemy. That outfit makes him look like an awkward cross between Robocop and a medieval knight. What a waste.
4. The Phantom (The Phantom, 1996)
For those of you who don’t know (and don’t be embarrassed if you don’t), The Phantom is an American adventure comic strip created by Lee Falk in 1936 that stars a purple-clad, costumed crime-fighter from the fictional African country of Bengalla. Apparently, the mantle of The Phantom has been passed down from father to son for approximately 20 generations, all because the father of the original Phantom – British sailor Christopher Walker – was killed during a pirate attack. Get over it already!  Anyway, in the 1996 film of the same name, Billy Zane sports a purple spandex unitard with dark squiggles that form the outline of a skull. Oh, and they gave him a black mask and a black leather belt. Ta-da! Here’s a one-piece spandex suit with a lame skull design; now go out there and be a superhero!
3. The Punisher (The Punisher, 2004)
They took Frank Castle, one of the most badass characters in the Marvel universe, and put him in a T-shirt. I mean, yeah, the T-shirt’s got a skull design on it (again with the lame skull design), but it’s still just a T-shirt. How big was this film’s budget?
2. Two Face (Batman Forever, 1995)
Don’t get me wrong, I love Tommy Lee Jones – he’s an excellent actor. But his getup in Batman Forever was horrible. In an effort to showcase his split personality, costume designers made Two Face look like some ridiculous cross between a leopard, a cheetah, some kind of zebra-thing, and a purple tiger. Honestly, I can’t imagine whose closet he ransacked for that mish-mash of outfits; “Which says psychopathic ex-district attorney better: cheetah, purple tiger, or zebra-thing? Oh hell, let's just take ‘em all!"
1. Catwoman (Catwoman, 2004)
Another comic book movie that doesn’t at all follow comic book mythology. In this film, Halle Berry plays Patience Phillips (not Selina Kyle), an employee of Hedare Beauty cosmetics company. Patience is killed by several of her boss’s henchmen after she discovers that the company’s new cosmetics line has dangerous side-effects. Somehow, Patience is mysteriously brought back to life by an Egyptian cat named Midnight – acting on behalf of the Egyptian goddess, Bast – and resultantly develops catlike abilities and an insatiable desire to fight evildoers. Halle’s costume is almost as bad as the film’s plot; the outfit is composed of tight leather pants (with claw-themed tears in the thighs), a skimpy leather bra, and a leather mask that makes her head look twice its normal size. Smokin’ hotness aside, how is Halle Berry meant to fight crime in an outfit like that? Her skin would get scraped and scabbed every time she fell to the ground, her chest would undoubtedly spill out of its makeshift covering with every punch she threw, and don’t forget about those heels -- fighting in high heels definitely wouldn’t lead to a broken ankle or anything, so no prob
Although I’m sure some of you will disagree with a number of my choices, we can still all agree that The Phantom’s outfit was dumb, right? I mean, come on, purple spandex skull shirt, am I right, guys??
Guys... ?
(Photo via WENN)
- Myles Sanford, YH Staff