Stuck in a revolving door: Why costumed heroes don’t work in the 21st Century


By Art Schmidt

I was having lunch with a friend the other day and we were talking about comic book movies and the slow transition of the formulas for the ones which have succeeded to television format. My friend was grumbling about the lack of costumed heroes on popular shows such as Arrow or the new Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.  I have to admit, I hadn’t really noticed the lack of costumes in those shows, loving the first season of Arrow despite very few folks with traditional comic book costumes, and enjoying the first couple of episodes of A.O.S. (can you acronym an acronym?).

But the more I thought about it, the more puzzled I was.  Why weren’t there more costumes in Arrow?  Certainly Deathstroke’s mask was a pivotal prop in the series, and the Dark Archer had a cool getup, but they weren’t costumes so much as work attire fitting the villain’s nature.  And of course A.O.S. is a show about normal people, super spies and highly-skilled to be sure, but not superheroes.  And certainly without costumes outside of May’s black leather suit, akin to Fury’s normal wardrobe and the attire seen by many personnel aboard the Heli-carrier in The Avengers.

Speaking of which, The Avengers is a perfect case in point.  The evolution of the superhero sans costume.  I’ll get back to that in a minute.

The X-Men movies made light fun of super hero costumes with lines like “What’s with the dorky-looking helmet” in reference to Magneto’s thick helm, to Wolverine’s questioning of the X-Men flight suits.  “Would you prefer yellow spandex?” responds Cyclops in one of the movie’s funniest lines.

Side Note:  To all the hating fanboys who still to this day think Wolverine would have looked “bad-ass” in his yellow and blue costume from the comics, you have to understand that “actors” play these roles, and no “actor” is as bulky and chiseled as the average super hero is, with very few exceptions (Schwarzenegger and Stallone come to mind, but I personally would not want to see either of them in skin-tight clothing, thank you very much).  Stretchy skin-tight costumes look horrible on almost everyone, and that’s just reality.  How many episodes did it take people to get over the semi-tight uniforms on STNG?  Those arguments went on for most of the first season, and then lingered.  The new trend of creating the costumes with ‘built-in’ bulk might look seamless one day, but that’s still a work very much in progress (RE: Man of Steel).

But I think the demise of the super hero costume really got (steam-) rolling in 2004 when Pixar came out with The Incredibles, an unlikely story from an animation powerhouse built on unlikely stories.  A family of superheroes forced underground, sworn to hide their super nature among ordinary folk.  The dad, Mister Incredible himself, yearns for the glory days, and when opportunity presents itself he grabs at it and commissions a new costume.


“No capes!” admonishes the costumer-designer to the stars, Edna Mode.  She gives us a long litany of examples as to why capes are impractical, unrealistic, and down-right deadly (to the good guy!).  “No capes!” she bookends the conversation, and our hero, seeing the light, agrees.  It’s a really funny bit in the movie, making playful fun of super hero costumes while paying homage to all of the super heroes that The Incredibles were modeled after.  In the back of our minds, we nod along, thinking “Yeah, capes wouldn’t really work, would they.”

The following year Christopher Nolan gave us Batman Begins, his intelligent, well thought-out take on the Batman, churning out an origin story that both honored the time-worn tale of a young Bruce Wayne witnessing his parents’ untimely demise and a fresh, updated take on the child Wayne’s growth from scared little boy to recklessly vengeful youth to focused, driven soldier.  And he contributed to the demise of the Costumed Hero by creating intelligent reasoning behind Batman’s arraignment. Kevlar soldier’s body suit.  Blade-snapping gauntlets. High-tech helmet. And a cape that serves as wings for flying (or, really, controlled falling).  And colored black with demonic attributes to create fear, as he had been taught, to use against his enemy.

“Okay,” we thought in the back of our minds.  “The costume is okay because it makes sense.”  It had a purpose, and not just the old “keep my identity a secret” schtick, either.

Then Heroes took television by storm, at least for a season or so.  A group of unlikely people with wild super powers coming together to battle evil (and occasionally each other) over the fate of the world.  They were fantastic, and had mind-bending adventures… all while wearing clothing suited not to protecting their identities but to allowing them to perform their tasks.  No masks, no bright colors, and no capes.

Then, in 2009, the costumed hero was dealt what might prove to be a mortal blow, at least on-screen.  Zack Snyder’s Watchmen tore the modern mythology of the Superhero apart.

Watchmen Group

In the movie based on Alan Moore’s classic deconstruction of the Superhero, no comic book trope was spared including the need for costumes.  From the old Minutemen hero Dollar Bill getting gunned down with his cape stuck in a revolving door to Doctor Manhattan’s penchant for not wearing a costume (or any clothing at all, for that matter), Watchmen the graphic novel was all about what’s wrong with superheroes.  Their psyches, their far-from-altruistic motivations, their dysfunctional  relationships with both their loved ones and each other, and yes, their need for silly colored costumes. In more ways than one, Watchmen the movie turned people off to ‘caped’ crusaders in general.

Side Note:  Want to know what’s wrong with the latest batch of Superman movies?  I’ll give you one big, red, flowing hint.  It rhymes with ‘drape’.  Okay, maybe the writing has something to do with it.  Just sayin’.

Death of Dollar Bill

My seven year-old daughter saw a commercial for Man of Steel last year, and asked me why Superman was standing in an office wearing a business suit and tie.  I told her that was Superman’s secret identity, Clark Kent.  “He is pretending to be a newspaper reporter so no one knows he’s Superman,” I informed her knowingly.  Being an old comic book reader, I took it for granted that she knew what “secret identies” were and understood their importance in the comic book world.

“That’s dumb,” she informed me in plain, seven year-old talk.  “He doesn’t wear a mask. What difference does his clothes make? Anyone can see he’s Superman.”

She’s only seven. But she’s right.


Secret identities are more difficult to justify to a constantly-connected public where posting things anonymously is quickly becoming a thing of the past.  Iron Man “came out” at the end of the first movie, and it only added to the realism of the universe Marvel was creating on-screen.

We’ve all grown up, as a society.  Costumes and capes worked in the fifties and sixties.  It’s 2013 (and counting).  We’ve had such fantastically intelligent television series as Lost and the remade Battlestar Galactica and huge, sprawling games such as Halo, Skyrim and Grand Theft Auto (yes, I said it) and movies like Avatar and The Lord of the Rings trilogy.  Oh, and 9/11 happened, which literally changed everything, even the way we look at pre-9/11 media and culture, costumed heroes included.

We expect more from our escapism nowadays.  A cool mask or the swoop of a cape just don’t cut it anymore.

Which brings me back to the Present.  One of my favorite lines from the CW’s excellent Arrow series occurred early last season, when the relentless detective hunting vigilante was asked why the police referred to him as “the Hood”, a simple, bland name.

“Well, we could call him ‘the Green Arrow’,” Detective Lance suggests, to which Oliver Queen immediately quips “Lame”.

Funny, and smart.  The writers are being very clever, winking at the comic book fans but making a bold statement: This show will not be about Super Heroes and Costumed Villains in the traditional sense.  But it will be fantastic, and it will be about The Green Arrow, and it will satisfy your hunger for heroes on television.  But it will be smarter and hipper.  And hopefully better.

Better than the comics?  You bet your ass.  There is no doubt that the independent comic book industry is rife with creative, alternative, clever and highly engaging stories, but the mainstream publishers seem to keep falling into ever-deeper ruts of more violence, more sexual themes, and more crude humor to sell what used to be the most popular mags.  I loved comics when I was in middle school.  But now?  I wouldn’t let my ten year-old anywhere near today’s Batman, X-Men or other mainstream titles.  Comics used to be an escape; now they try to maintain their fantastic premises and characters on one hand while inexplicably chocking themselves full of realism on the other.  The two are hard to balance, folks.

Sorry, but I don’t want to read stories about superheroes battling cocaine additions of villains who have some deep-seeded justification for their evil deeds.  That’s so 1990s.

The Avengers pulled it off, despite the odds.  Having the characters be somewhat realistic doesn’t mean they have to be horrible examples of humanity.  They just have to be somewhat normal (outside of their special abilities).  And without costumes.

“Wait just a darned minute!” you say? “The Avengers all had colorful costumes.  Just look at the poster!”

Okay, let’s do that.


First, Iron Man.  He doesn’t have a costume so much as a super suit, which is what makes him a super hero in the first place.  It has a reason for being, from its origin as his initial means of escape from the terrorists who held him hostage to his eventual means of righting the wrongs of his father’s company.  The suit isn’t just a colorful costume hiding his identify, it’s the only reason he’s super in the first place.  Besides being a genius billionaire playboy philanthropist, of course.

Captain America.  His suit is literally a costume; it was his identity in U.S.O. shows and to sell war bonds during WWII.  He was forced to wear it, and had it on when he first went into action to save his buddy from the Nazis.  And the costume is pointed out several times in Joss Whedon’s clever, self-deprecating script.  “Who here is A) of no use and, B) wearing a spangly outfit?”  Tony Stark ridicules Steve Rogers.  And Rogers himself suggests removing it, only to be informed by Agent Coulson that “People could use a little ‘old fashioned’.”  Again, purpose.

Thor?  Seriously, he comes from another planet where everyone dresses the way he does.  That isn’t so much a costume as just his really nice steppin’ out clothes.  Cape included, also ridiculed by Stark in ripe fashion.  “Doth mother know you wearest her drapes?”

And the Hulk?  That’s not a costume, that’s his skin.  He’s big and green not because he dresses that way but because he is that way.  Same for Black Widow and Hawkeye, they’re wearing the S.H.I.E.L.D. issued uniform, tight black leather.  No capes, and no masks.

And really, what is a costume without a mask and/or cape?  It’s just fancy clothes.  Which brings me back to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.


It was developed and marketed as a show about normal people dealing with a world full of super heroes.  Not dealing with the heroes (or villains) themselves.  And officially, it was marketed as a procedural (yes, you read that right) with a fantastic, Marvel twist on it.  Oh, and featuring Agent Coulson, and the occasional character from the Marvel movies (two episodes so far, and two guest appearances, not too shabby in my book).  Whedon, who wrote and directed the at-times preachy, sometimes disjointed but always engaging pilot, made a point of saying that they wouldn’t do anything lame like “Oh, Iron Man?  Yeah, he was just here.”  It’s a television show, with a television budget and television props and effects.  It’s doubtful Chris Hemsworth or Mark Ruffalo will be stopping by regularly to pitch in and help out the team.  And that’s okay.

A few visits by Director Fury, or perhaps fellow agents Hawkeye or Black Widow, and the occasional tie-in to the ongoing movies of Phase 2 will be plenty enough for me.  Make it smart, make it fit in with the movie universe, and make it entertaining.  And Bravo on having Coulson lead the team, he’s the most super non-superhero of the Marvel movies, in my opinion.  That’s all I ask, and so far, it’s been just that.

And no masks or capes.  Please.

Leave a Reply