RM: This is 99% invisible. I’m Roman Mars.
When you’re a comic book fan. There’s always a surge of excitement when they announce a film adaptation of the character you love. The chance to see your hero punch and twist and leap through the air just makes you giddy. But there’s always that fear that Hollywood is going to screw it up. That the screenwriter won’t get the character the way you get the character. Because you know how it’s supposed to be.
You know Mary Jane came after Gwen Stacy. It doesn’t make sense the other way. But the first indication whether you’re going to be buzzing with eager anticipation while you’re in line on opening day, or dreading each step while you’re in line on opening day because let’s face it, you’re going to go to matter what.
But that first indication of how good or how bad it’s going to be happens months before. When they reveal the design of the suit. Superhero suits made real with the real fabric and real people are very hard to design. But we will judge them none the less. That is our job. Either I’ve got much more mellow over the years or the suits have gotten much much better. Eric Molinsky has noticed this too. Eric has done a couple of great episodes for us at ninety nine PI over the years, but now he has his own podcast called Imaginary Worlds, about Sci-Fi and other fantasy genres, how we create these worlds and why we suspend our disbelief. This is an episode he produced in twenty fifteen about designing comic book costumes for movie screens, and I really like it and I know that you’re going to like it too. It’s called Fixing the Hobo Suit..
(voice) Bane. Let’s not stand on ceremony here. Mr Wayne.
EM: If you haven’t seen The Dark Knight Rises, Tom Hardy plays the villain, Bane and for some reason the voice is a cross between Sean Connery and Darth Vader. Given that the character is supposed to come from a fictional Latin American country, it was a very weird choice.
(Bane) Oh you think darkness is your ally. You merely adopted the dark.
But it was so weird, It was kind of amazing, and led to all these really great parodies.
EM: But for all the buzz around the voice, I was surprised more people didn’t talk about the costume, which I thought was ingenious.
So in the comics, Bane looks kind of like a Mexican wrestler. He’s got a black hood over his face with a white design the middle that kind of looks like a skull with red eyes. His strength comes from tubes going to his back that pump him full of liquid steroids. In fact his shoulders are so huge and bulked out, artists like to draw his head below his neck. There’s no way could do a literal version of that, but that didn’t stop Joel Schumacher from trying. In his nineteen ninety seven catastrophe, Batman and Robin.
(voice) Behold! The ideal Killing machine! I call this little number…Bane.
EM: Of course Christopher Nolan’s Batman took place in kind of this semi-realistic universe. So he and Lindy Hemming his costume designer turned Bane’s liquid steroids into a gas and he inhales. But it doesn’t make him super strong, and actually dulls physical pain. His breathing apparatus is the same shape as the design on the hood in the comics but the breathing apparatus is black and the design on the hood was white. Of course he’s not wearing a hood in the movie, instead we see the actors bald head. So if you squint, Bane’s head in that movie looks like the exact same design of the comics but the negative image of it.
Of course they couldn’t give Bane like, cartoonishly huge shoulders. So instead he wore coat. That had a very high, round wool collar. That gave him the same silhouette as the comic books. Like I said it was a brilliant design solution.
Superhero costumes used to be cringe worthy.
Even the cool ones, like you know, Batman from the Tim Burton films. The costume was so bulky, Michael Keaton couldn’t turn its head or fight unless the bad guys basically ran into his fists. So what happened? How the costumes get so much better?
MW: I’m Michael Wilkinson and I’m a costume designer for films.
Michael worked on Man of Steel, and the upcoming sequel Batman vs Superman. He got a lot of heat for the new Batsuit because the first images it looked like Ben Affleck was wearing a thick rubber cowl and wouldn’t be able to turn his head which would feel like a step backwards. But newly released images show the Dark Knight turning his head.
MW: I feel like hopefully when the world has a really good look at the Cowl that Ben wears I hope people like it because a lot of work went into the construction of that. There’s all sorts of amazing things going on inside that cowl that make it easy to move in and have a full range of expressions.
EM: Superhero costumes used to be just standalone works of fashion which over time became dated or cringeworthy. Even if they were designed by a genius like Edna Mode in The Incredibles.
EM:It’s just a hobo suit darling, you can’t be seen in this, I won’t allow it.
MI: What do you mean? You designed it!
EM: I never look back darling, it distracts from the now. It will be bold. Traumatic. Heroic!
MI: Yeah, yeah something classic like, uh, Dyna Guy! Aw, he had a great look, the cape and the boots…
EM: No capes!
One of the big changes is that costume designers are now looking more closely at the source material. When Michael Wilkinson and his collaborator James Acheson worked on Man of Steel, they researched
the history behind Superman’s costume.
MW: The genesis of that idea was you know, that the circus performers, the weight lifters and the strongmen had this look of wearing, you know, early wool jersey tights with their sort of shorts over the top.
EM: So the Superman suit was kind of like a combination of the weightlifter and the ring master who wore boots and a cape. Also swashbuckling heroes like Zorro wore capes. So James and Michael thought. “Okay that still communicates strength, power, adventure. But…”
JA: How are we going to resolve those silly red underpants? So we went through Dozens and dozens of drawings.
MW: and I remember they pretty much just got smaller and smaller and smaller until one day they just kind of weren’t there on the illustration and that was the look we decided to go with.
(voice) What’s the S stand for?
(Voice) It’s not an S, In my world it means Hope.
Sammy Sheldon-Differ had a similar experience working on X-men First Class. Now in the previous X.-Men movies, the mutants were wearing these sort of black leather outfits with just a few distinguishing characteristics. But the director of First Class, Matthew Vaughn told Sammy that he wanted to go back to the original comics when the X.-Men wore yellow and blue jumpsuits.
SS: And so given that obviously it’s a very simplistic drawing that was on the first cover, I just started researching into the period of the time. Why they would draw in the way they were, what the colors were representing. And what immediately came out was in 1963, Dupont discovered Kevlar. It felt to me like maybe that’s what they were trying to represent in the comic. So we kind of went down this route of seeing if that would work for us and also what NASA were up to.
(voice) The advent of the nuclear age may have accelerated the mutation process. Individuals with extraordinary abilities may already be among us.
She pulled it off the costumes looked cool.. Very sixties. But honoring the source material is tricky.
SS: Comic book illustrators, not that they don’t understand, but they don’t need to make a logic of the lines that they’re drawing. Where it goes from the front to the back of the body and round over the shoulder. It’s just what looks cool on the page and sells the dynamic of the character. But when you put that into reality, you’ve got to follow those lines around the body three sixty.
EM: And those characters are wearing skin tight clothes to show off their ridiculously well defined muscles which for some reason is completely believable in the comics.
MW: One thing we discovered is that no matter what incredible shape an actor is in, once you put a leotard on them, then everything is kind of smoothed out and all that fantastic definition that they’ve been working so hard at is kind of negated.
EM: The next big leap away from cringeworthy costumes, was texture. Now in the old days, comic books could only be printed in a few limited colors. That’s why the costumes were usually just one or two, maybe three colors which looked good, I mean they kind of leapt off the page.
EM: But for a movie like Man of Steel when you get rid of Superman’s red underpants, and the yellow belt, the suit is very blue. And that’s boring to look at in H.D. So, they created a silver layer that went under the blue to give a metallic quality, and they 3D printed texture to give it muscle definition, and a pattern of ridges which creates visual interest for lighting and cinematography. And they created a backstory to explain that texture. It was chainmail, that went under the armor people wore on the planet Krypton. Another trick which Sammy Sheldon-Differ likes to use is mixing and matching materials on the same costume.
SS: With the X-Men costumes there were layers and layers of fabric all worked into and pieced together and then you know, connecting things one on top of the other so, if you stand away from they just look quite blue with yellow bits, but actually when you go in close it’s all kind of intricately stitched to make it textured in the panels and then let the pieces and then leather pieces and the Kevlar in the middle.
JA: Part of design, If it’s going to be interesting is you have to take risks. And the thing about superheroes is it’s a fabulous arena to take risks. The problem is that these films cost a huge amount of money. So you better make…, you can take the risks but you better make sure that you come up with the goods. Because it’s an awfully expensive process to get it wrong.
EM: Yeah, a lot of very angry fans that will let you know if they don’t like it.
JA: Not so much the fans, it’s the producers who are still waiting on the on the set saying well, where is it?
EM: Finally it needs to move. James Acheson had a devil of a time working on the first Spider-Man film, The one with Tobey Maguire in 2002. He spent three months making nearly seventy versions of that suit, trying to get the colors right, making sure the textured webbing stayed on. When it was finally ready they took it for a test run.
JA: We had a stunt man, on a wire and they flew him straight into a tree and the whole suit, I mean half the webbing unglued from the suit. I mean it was like, It was sort of like a terrible waffle hanging in the trees. It was a disaster.
EM: It’s funny superheroes are supposed to seem indestructible. And maybe there’s that scene in the very end we’re like, after the superheroes been roughed up his costume is like a little bit torn. But in real life these costumes are extremely fragile. So the solution is to create twenty or thirty versions of the same costume. But each one is tailor made for the specific needs of each scene. When Sammy Sheldon-Differ worked on Marvel’s Ant Man, even that wasn’t enough.
(Hank Pym) The suit has power. The man harnesses that power. You should be able to shrink and grow on a dime. It’s your size, always suits your needs.
SS: They want someone to you know of turn over and over and over, I don’t know what you call that.
tumbling! And they put in a rubber floor and then they kinda go well he can’t do it in these boots and you have to go, “Okay we have to whip up a pair of boots that look identical to the hero pair, but almost like barefoot.”
EM:It’s a grueling job. And Michael Wilkenson says, You really need to sort of step back and realize that this is really a conversation. That’s happening across time. Among designers.
MW: You know in Asian art where over the centuries you take the figure of Buddha or something like that and and over the centuries they are refining, their putting their own sort of stamp on on these these cultural figures? It’s kind of like that I feel with without making it too grand with our superheroes because you know, each iteration of a superhero, it reflects a lot about the society in which this the iteration was born.
EM: He’s been giving this a lot of thought because he designed the first movie version of Wonder Woman who will appear in Batman vs Superman. For Michael this was a dream assignment.
MW: Wonder Woman was super close to my heart growing up. She was the one that really captured my imagination and the strongest way.
EM: Really? why?
MW: There’s something about Lynda Carter’s performance. They really crossed into this kind of magical world. I was fascinated by the her backstory, and I was lucky enough to actually work with Lynda Carter on a film called Sky High where she played the principal of a high school for superheroes. I had a kind of seminal experience shopping with her on Rodeo Drive that I’ll probably never really get over it was very exciting.
EM:I mean I think the reason why costumes have gotten so cool is because the designers are now constantly asking themselves, “Why?”
SS:I don’t think you can even get away with doing a unitard with a funny helmet. I think you have to make sense of “Why is that person wearing that suit?” “What does he do with it?” “Does he have a power or is it something that the suit gives him?” And then all of those questions lead you onto to “How does that work?”
EM: That’s one of the reasons why I love the new daredevil series on Netflix. In the first season they’re actually separate episodes to answer all those questions. “Why does he need fighting sticks?” “Why does he need a padded suit?” “Why does the suit have to be red?” “Why does it have horns?”
(Daredevil) My grandmother, she was the real Catholic. She used to say be careful of the Murdock boys. They got the devil in them.
EM: The evolution of Daredevil’s costume becomes the story of the character realizing who he truly is. The costume is like an expression of his real self. The one that he has to dig down and find below the surface of his alter ego Matt Murdock. The best costume designers are storytellers. The fans will nit pick but, I don’t really feel like there are any wrong choices. So long as they make us believe something that’s wonderful and ludicrous at the same time.
MW: I remember spending many, many, many nights in a loft in Manhattan. Trying to get the right color screen printed onto the suit. So um, New York is you know my favorite city in the whole world.
EM: Oh, that’s great. It’s funny too, because of those films when I walk around New York and I’ve lived here now for eleven years, every so often I look up and I just imagine how great it would be to see Spider-Man swinging through those those canyons of skyscrapers.
MW: (laughs) Yeah.
EM:Seriously, it kind of bums me out that we don’t see him up there every so often going (webslinging).
EM: Now go on, your new suit will be finished before your next assignment.
MI: You know I’m retired from hero work.
EM: As am I, Robert. Yet here we are.
MI:I E, I only need a patch job for, sentimental reasons.
EM: Fine, I will also fix the hobo suit.
MI: You’re the best of the best!
EM: Yes, I know darling. I know.
RM: Fixing the Hobo Suit was produced by Eric Molinsky for his show on Imaginary Worlds. Right now he’s in the middle of a five part series about the cultural impact of Star Wars. Of course he is. It’s a really great show find it at Imaginary Worlds podcast dot org.
So Eric and I both really love the music of Melodium a.k.a, Laurent Gerard. Laurent turned forty this year and released a new Melodium electro album to celebrate called Friendly Vehicles. Right now that album is pay what you want on Bandcamp. Or you can get all twenty nine of his albums for eighty eight Euros, which is insane to me, totally worth it. Make sure you let me know if you buy his whole discography because you and I should be Twitter friends at the very least if you do that. Get more Melodium in your life. At melodeon dot bandcamp dot com.
99% invisible is Sam Greenspan, Kurt Kholstedt, Katie Mingle, Avery Trufleman, and me Roman Mars. We are project of 91.7 KALW in San Francisco and produced on the offices of Arcsine, the finest architecture and interiors firm in beautiful downtown Oakland, California.
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Real nerds wait in Qs ;-)
Great podcast. Really enjoyed it, thanks!
Hmmm…Always opening my mind to topics I don’t touch often.