Does the Costume Make the Superhero?

Curator's Note

That one-of-a-kind costume is common to many a superhero’s wardrobe. In Spider-Man (2002), the spidey suit hides Peter Parker’s identity and visually separates Parker’s human persona from his superhumanity. Unlike Spiderman, however, Tony Stark in the summer blockbuster hits Iron Man (2008) and Iron Man 2 (2010) doesn’t have any physical abilities like super-stickiness or super-strength that set him apart from the crowd. He’s merely smart enough and rich enough to create a really cool costume that happens to be one of the most highly effective weapons on the planet. This armor offers something other than concealment, especially since Stark’s identity as Iron Man is public knowledge; it functions as a technological interface that enables his body to do and see more effectively. It is the costume itself, the hyper-personalized piece of hi-tech hardware, which elevates Stark to superhero status.

In Green Lantern that will be released this Friday, Hal Jordan finds a magical ring that bestows him otherworldly powers he must use to protect the planet from alien invaders (and Peter Sarsgaard). Jordan’s transformation from an ordinary guy into a superhero is more supernatural than Stark’s, and his costume takes the technological interface one step further.  He becomes a new type of screen that transports the body into a digitally-enhanced alien dimension. To demonstrate its power in the trailer, there is a brief glimpse of the ring amplifying Jordan’s punch by visually extending his fist. As a final teaser, while wearing underclothes, Jordan flexes his muscles and the light source at his chest spreads over his body to become the glowing green lantern attire. In these two instances, the costume works like a screen. The ring enables the body to do things, to go places, that it couldn’t otherwise. The screen suit allows him to experience the world on a completely different plane, expanding his awareness into the bigger universe of which he would be otherwise ignorant. But, unlike a projection screen that physically separates the audience from the onscreen spectacle, the superhero is entirely submersed within it.

Both the Iron Man series and Green Lantern make claims about the potential of the interface as the superheroes become, quite literally, encased within them. The special effects-driven summer blockbusters of the past decade offer a productive arena where newfound connections between the body and technology are currently being explored.



Hi Matt - I enjoyed your post on summer previews, too! 

I’m glad you brought Batman up. It’s been a long while since I’ve seen the Burton versions, but Bruce Wayne as a comic book character is quite similar to Tony Stark and Hal Jordan in that he doesn’t have any “special” powers beyond exceptional skills, training, and resources.

What’s interesting is that I don’t recall any POV shots where the audience is looking through the bat suit in Batman Begins or The Dark Knight, while they are quite prominent in the Iron Man series. It seems that perceiving the world through the iron man suit is central to the audience’s experience of the two films, perhaps creating a sense of intimacy with the technological apparatus. Instead, in The Dark Knight there is that whole plotline devoted to sonar (obviously speaking to his “bat” persona) where Wayne can track people’s movement through their cellphone signals. Rather than being visualized through the suit, the aural process is visually displayed on a massive screen in the workshop. So there is a screen interface in The Dark Knight, but it is external to the superhero’s costume.  Since Jordan’s suit is a depicted as basically a screen interface in the preview, he seems to have much more power and flexibility than Batman when it comes to the superpowers his costume bestows upon him.

The proliferation of screens in contemporary visual culture is changing the way people communicate with each other, and I think these comic book films (as opposed to their comic book inspirations) are really selling the fact there is “power” in seeing through/with new screen technologies as literal extensions of the body. My iPhone helps me better achieve “superhero” status!

Thanks, Katheryn.  I find it an interesting and daring choice by Warner Bros. to create an entirely digital costume for Ryan Reynolds in Green Lantern -- yet somehow, completely logical.  It adds yet another layer to the industrial subtext of the narrative, in my opinion.  It makes perfect sense as a metaphor for contemporary digital technologies, able to conjure seemingly any kind of image at the blink of an eye (though audiences continue to debate how "realistic" they are).  In this sense, I find some early opinions of Green Lantern's marketing/trailers/images a bit confusing -- claims of "not looking good enough" or "real enough" don't quite seem to grasp the premise of the picture itself (and of course the fact that these days, effects are often tweaked up until days before the wide release).  Like Avatar, Green Lantern attempts to introduce an entirely new alien world unlike anything yet seen on screen, filled with numerous entirely digital characters -- and thus has the difficult task of also making this untested world both relatable and enticing to cinema audiences.   Again, like Cameron and Avatar, I think Warner Bros. hopes that much of its R& D for this concept can be applied to a sequel or two down the line.

CG costuming has has indeed been attempted before -- 1997's Spawn was a significant creative experiment in this regard (and kind of overlooked for its contribution, in my opinion), but Green Lantern is indeed a big gamble for Warner Bros. in many ways.  Iron Man worked aesthetically because it was grounded with a pretty coherent mix of real-world practical effects technologies and digital enhancements.  It will be interesting to see if audiences take to Green Lantern's visual aesthetics as well as they did to Iron Man (though that franchise's success is also due significantly to Robert Downey, Jr.'s engaging performance).  I think in Green Lantern's case, perhaps more than any other superhero epic thus far, audience embrace or rejection of the costume in the released feature film will indeed make or break the hero -- and the franchise.


I agree, Michael! It will be interesting to see how the movie is received and what role the visual presentation of the alien world plays into its reception, especially because Jordan’s visual presence functions as the primary surrogate with that world. This is one of the reasons why I think the metaphor of the screen when describing the digital aesthetic of his costume is apt, because his body interfaces, both visually and narratively, between real (human) and virtual (alien) worlds in the movie. Ambitious? Yes, but whether or not it really works is yet to be seen.

Also, Captain America: The First Avenger you mentioned yesterday fits into this conversation by the way Chris Evans/Steve Rogers is “sized down” through CGI. It creates a kind of digitally enhanced nostalgic historicism relating back to your post (rather than functioning as an interface between worlds).


Hi Katheryn. Just wondering what changes will be made to the Green Lantern costume should there be a sequel to the movie. As one of the primary visual demaractions of superheroism, the costume, I think, serves to sum up what the movie will focus upon. In this case, the CGI unreality of it ties in well with the shots of alien worlds and space adventures. Much better than the traditional spandex bodysuit that the Corps wear in the comics. On this note, it'll be interesting to see how The Avengers addresses the visually clashing costumes of its main characters.

Regarding Iron Man, am I the only one who felt that the second movie's entire subplot of Stark needing to upgrade the armour's arc reactor was mainly an incentive to consumers to buy a new Iron Man doll virtually identical to the previous iterations, except now with a triangular emblem on its chest? 

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