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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

Tag Archives: Flash

Remember when the end of summer meant the end of superheroes? If you could get past August you were free of the masked and superpowered until spring. Six months. That’s the minimum period of regenerative hibernation required before the next explosive, power-punching, evil-thwarting onslaught of hyperbolic do-goodery. This past year Captain America: The Winter Soldier opened in April,

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followed by Amazing Spider-Man 2 in May,

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before X-Men: Days of Future Past spilled into June.

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July offered only the semi-superheroic duo Lucy and Hercules, but August made up with Guardians of the Galaxy.

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I admit to seeing all but one of them, but something changed for me this year. Maybe it was the death of Gwen Stacy. It felt like Hollywood’s way of punishing an uppity girlfriend. How dare Gwen figure out how to defeat Electro when Peter couldn’t—and imagine if he had actually followed her to England. Superhero as trailng spouse? Obviously the woman had to die. The seventh installment of the X-Men franchise restored me a bit, with its mildly complex characters making occasionally unexpected choices. Sure, the cast members from the original 2000 film are looking a bit gnarled these days, but we can’t all have anti-aging mutant powers. And, hey, who didn’t have an absolute ball at Guardians? Funniest superhero movie yet. A week later I could barely recall a scene, but that’s normal. It was August. My superhero processing systems were cycling down already. Time to tuck the capes and cowls away for a well-deserved cryogenic nap.

Except, wait, why do I still hear the thumping of a bombastic soundtrack? Superheroes aren’t hibernating this year. They just shrunk down a bit. September has already brought the TV premiere of Gotham

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and season two of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

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October promises Flash

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and season three of Arrow.

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 Add Constantine, Agent CarterSupergirl, Teen Titans, and the four Marvel shows in production at Netflix, and the power nap is over. We’ve seen plenty of superheroes on primetime before—Batman, Wonder Woman, Hulk, and Greatest American Hero all boasted multi-year runs in the 70s and 80s—but never so many simultaneously. I can’t resist them any more than I resisted their summer siblings, but I do worry how long the onslaught is going to last.

I requested a show like Gotham two years ago. The Fox production isn’t exactly what I described, but I won’t quibble. And I named every supervillain-in-his-youth cameo for my son and wife as we watched. Though was it really necessary to film the Wayne murder scene yet again? Imagine arriving at the crime scene with Gordon and glimpsing little Bruce for the first time. Cut three minutes from the script and that opening could have been dynamic just through a POV change. Instead we get a repeat, something closer to Nolan’s Batman Begins than Burton’s Batman.  The WB has managed to throw in some bare-chested goofiness into Green Arrow’s character, but DC is keeping its dark and dire palette for the bigger network.

S.H.I.E.L.D. had a firmer grip. Last year’s series premiere was flawed but hopeful—and then the follow-up episodes were some of the worst TV I’ve ever sat through. I don’t know how they made it to mid-season, but I’m glad they did, because the final season arc was one of the best long-term plotting coups a series ever pulled off. This year opened at a sprint, with the expanded cast and juggled originals introduced with gloriously little exposition—a huge trick given the upheavals in status quo the last Captain America film forced on the show. Though my favorite moment was a narrative sleight-of-hand employed for the new characterization of an old but radically altered returning character—one of those look back and reevaluate a half-dozen scenes when you realize brain-damaged Fitz is only hallucinating Simmons. Oh, and bad Ward grew a beard and lives in the basement now—just like the dragon in the first season of the BBC’s Smallville-inspired Merlin.

So, yes, I guess I can’t complain about the superhero’s autumnal shift to the small screen. I’m their audience. But what happens next spring? Will we have recovered enough for The Avengers 2: Age of Ulton in May? Or Ant-Man in July? Or Fantastic Four in August? Or the following year when have to go see X-Men Origins: Deadpool and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Captain America 3 and X-Men: Apocalypse and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2 and Doctor Strange and Shazam! and Sinister Six? All that after having just watched Daredevil, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones, and Iron Fist combine forces on Netflix’s The Defenders? Plus the other seven planned superhero shows airing fall and winter?

It’s not quite genre domination–there are still more cops and doctors and lawyers on TV than I can list–but have two publishing companies ever generated so many simultaneous franchises? Marvel and DC are spreading their genes faster than the zombie plague. The superhero apocalypse is here. Will we survive it?

 

 

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“The trend in uniform design is more toward making costumes for superheroes than uniforms for athletes.”

That’s ESPN reporter Paul Lukas. He’s also the editor of Uni-Watch.com. A website devoted not to sport teams but their uniforms. Lukas is not a fan of U of Maryland’s new string of high fashion helmets and jerseys. Under Armour (they’re designing all of Maryland’s varsity uniforms) is championing the new menswear trend of garishly bright colors.

But it’s not new for comic books. Joe Shuster’s Superman made the first superheroic fashion statement seventy years ago. And comic book heroes are still working the runways.

George Perez and Jesus Merino just retailored the Man of Steel’s skintight threads with a Kryptonian armor design (the red briefs have, mysteriously, vanished). And Sara Pichelli stitched a sassy new suit for Ultimate Spider-Man (the black and red is almost as bold as the brown skin underneath it).

In Hollywood, superhero costume design is its own industry. Look at just this year’s super fashion:

Designer Anna B. Sheppard trashed the spandex and went with a looser fitting cut for Captain America. The leather straps and metal buckles say “1940’s.”

Alexandra Byrne was thinking “ancient modernism” for Thor. The biggest challenge was the cape, which had to merge “completely believable” with the “sublimely magical.”

Ngila Dickson abandoned real-world fabrics. The Green Lantern costume is entirely motion-captured computer graphics.

David E. Kelley recently shot a Wonder Woman pilot for NBC, but his Amazon’s costume make-over didn’t make it into the fall line-up. Despite all the film fashion fun, the only superhero costumes on TV are on ESPN. Primetime heroes won’t touch them.

Syfy’s Alphas launched last summer. The team of superpowered government agents fight evil mutants in their street clothes. There’s not as much as a logo on their lapels.

Across the Atlantic, the BBC’s Misfits sport matching orange jumpsuits, but only because the characters are juvenile offenders clocking community service hours.

NBC’s Heroes solidified the trend in 2006, but it was the CW’s 2001 Superboy adaptation, Smallville, that first scissorsed the costume off a superhero.

The 1993 Lois and Clark, the 1988 Superboy, and the 1990 The Flash series all still featured their hero’s iconic wardrobes. Which was part of the problem.

“The appearance of realism in a super-hero costume,” explains Michael Chabon, “made from real materials is generally recognized to be difficult to pull off.” In fact, he goes on, it’s “hopeless” because the true superhero costume exists only on paper.

This is most obviously and hilariously true in the earliest attempts to move superheroes from comic books to screen. If you don’t admire Anna B. Sheppard’s Captain America, take a look at the 1944 film serial.

Adam West’s Batman could get away with leotarded camp in the 60’s. William Katt’s Greatest American Hero still could fifteen years later. The goofiness of their costumes was part of the appeal. But Tim Burton raised the bar with Batman in 1989. Low-budget leotards no longer cut it. Michael Keaton in Bob Ringwood’s award-winning batsuit changed the playing field. The 2000 X-Men said it outright: leather is better.

At least on the big screen. Responding to the same challenge, TV designers opted for a simpler solution. If it’s hopeless, why try?

Stan Lee never liked costumes anyway. “I always felt if I had a superpower,” Lee says in Confessions of a Superhero, “there’s no way I would wear a costume. I’m a show-off; I’d want everybody to [know]–I wouldn’t wear a mask, conceal my identity. And I wouldn’t want to look like some idiot in a costume.”

When he and Jack Kirby posed their first superhero team on the cover of a Marvel comic book in 1961, the Fantastic Four were no more fashion forward than the Alphas. The Thing made his debut in a men’s clothing store (“I’m sorry, mister, I just don’t have anything big enough for a man your size!”). It’s not till issue three that Invisible Girl reveals her secret superpower:

“Susan! You designed a costume for yourself!”

“And for you, too! It’s time we all had some colorful costumes!”

But now the anti-fashion fashion is filtering back into comic books. When Grant Morrison and Rags Morales revamped Action Comics, they made the most radical costume choice imaginable: Superman in work boots, blue jeans, and a t-shirt. There’s still an ‘S’ on his chest and a cape on his back, but the iconic unitard of the original comic book superhero is gone.

These surface changes are more than just surface changes. In comic books, costume is character. A change in tights is a change in meaning. The spandex look has marked superheroes as exotic outsiders since the 30’s. They fight for humanity, but their second skins separate them. They remain alien and so alienated.

Or they did. When TV’s Alphas or Misfits or Heroes perform extraordinary abilities in ordinary clothes, they are also performing their humanity. They are just people. People with really freaky skill sets, but at their core (which is a product of their surface) they are human. While their big screen brothers want to remain larger than life, the 21st century TV superhero is dressed for small-scale integration. We all pull our pants on one leg at a time.

So if you’re a costume connoisseur, stick with college football.

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