How superhero costumes have evolved over 80 years in TV and film

  • With the release of “The Batman,” we take a look at how superhero costumes have changed over eight decades.
  • We trace their evolution from the 1940s to the modern costumes of the DC and Marvel franchises.
  • Technologies such as fabric development, 3D printing, and CGI have shaped the way superheroes appear in television and film.
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Narrator: When Batman first appeared on television screens in the 1960s,

– It’s Batman!

Narrator: his costume was quite comic-like. But in the 2022 version, the leotard has become black 3D-printed body armor, complete with a working arm gadget and insignia.

Batman has come a long way from spandex and nylon to practical flying wing suits. And over the years, the mix of practical effects and CGI has created costumes that seem more real and believable to audiences.

In comics, heroes often wear tight-fitting clothes to show off their superhuman muscles and strength. But when superheroes first appeared on the big screen in the 1940s, they were tough shoes or costumes that actors had to fill out in real life. These body types weren’t realistic and neither were the materials.

At the time, the most common fabrics for costumes were wool, felt and nylon, nothing tight like the comics required, so outfits were baggy and ill-fitting, until the invention of Lycra, or spandex.

1978’s “Superman” featured what would become one of the most popular superhero outfits, designed by Oscar-winning costume designer Yvonne Blake.

Wow!

– Sorry.

– It’s a bad outfit!

Narrator: She kept the iconic red underwear from the comics. Underneath, Christopher Reeve wore plastic protection, something normally worn by boxers. But spandex can actually flatten muscles, stripping away definition, so Reeves had to pack over 30 pounds of muscle to look stronger in the suit.

Everything changed in the 80s when robots invaded our screens. The design of C-3PO in “Star Wars”, combined with the physique of Marvel comic book superheroes, quickly paved the way for this armored superhero costume.

RoboCop’s armored suit from 1987 weighed 80 pounds. To make something this bulky actually wearable, the designers started with a flexible undergarment and covered it with a harness, to which they attached a fiberglass exoskeleton.

The interior and black sections were a mix of high-impact plastics and foam rubber, which made the suit so hot that actor Peter Weller sweated three pounds a day.

The designers eventually installed an AC unit inside the outfit. It was also one of the first times hero costumes were somewhat functional. The team had to build seven different versions to show the damage caused by different fight scenes, including one made of special flame retardant fiberglass carried by a stuntman.

Similar tough exteriors have also been used to pump up comic superheroes. Tim Burton upgraded Batman in armor in 1989, swapping spandex and trunks with sculpted rubber muscles.

David Crossmann: It was a brilliant costume. I remember seeing this costume on location. It was a new idea and a new technique.

Narrator: The new idea: use black foam rubber latex to make Batman’s signature protective cowl. Formed in one piece for a seamless look, the hood was connected to the cape, upper bust and neck.

This meant actor Michael Keaton couldn’t actually turn his neck in the costume. Instead, to turn his head, he had to rotate his entire upper body.

The complete outfit weighed just under 90 pounds, with the cape alone weighing 40 pounds. And the extra weight, in addition to the stiff hood, made fight scenes feel stiff and awkward.

A superhero who needed his full range of motion? Spider Man. His live-action debut in the 1977 “Amazing Spider-Man” series was a basic head-to-toe spandex costume.

But 2002’s “Spider-Man” would start a new tradition of combining practical and digital versions of the costume.

Designers spent four months testing different versions of the costume to get the right fit and shape for Tobey Maguire, with the increased illusion of muscle thanks to the rubber lining and shading.

At the time, VFX designers had trouble animating faces, but since Spider-Man wore a mask, he was an ideal candidate to incorporate a CG costume.

For scenes that were just too dangerous for the stuntmen to shoot in costume, they would be recreated digitally.

This final scene was completely CG, but it was the longest shot, taking 18 months to create.

The CG shots still had room for improvement and weren’t yet as compelling as the real thing, so when director Christopher Nolan took “Batman Begins” he opted to shoot things behind closed doors as much as possible and only use CGI to enhance the scenes.

“Batman Begins” found ways to update Tim Burton’s bat costume with more detail practically. The “Dark Knight” trilogy looked at designing indestructible armor.

The designers took inspiration from military technology and materials to make it look flame retardant and bulletproof. The team also redesigned the armor in the sequel, molding over 100 smaller plates in clay before casting them in urethane. These plates were then placed on a mesh underlay, which created even more flexibility.

The neck was also now adjusted for greater movement. The head section of the cowl was eventually separated from the neck so it could twist further. The neck and jaw sections were scaled down and designed as smaller panels connected to the armor panels.

These practical advances paved the way for even more integration between CG and practical combinations. Like in 2008’s “Iron-Man,” which used a practical costume for its first clunky cave suit.

The 90-pound version was made with epoxy armor shells, urethane, leather, and aluminum.

But a burgeoning new technology would make it easier to build lighter, more precise armor.

3D printing changed the way costumes were constructed. Complicated parts were made faster, cheaper and more accurate. Like this blue mesh that was printed to give depth to Superman’s more modern chrome muscle suit.

The Star-Lord helmet in “Guardians of the Galaxy” could be accurately 3D scanned and include features inside such as hidden fans for better ventilation and red lenses that light up without affecting the vision.

Instead of spending hours modeling a costume, designers could quickly scan an actor and create a perfectly-measured costume.

2017’s “Wonder Woman” wanted to stay true to her modern costume, which was created a year before in “Batman v Superman.” Dozens of materials were tested to make the armor lighter and more flexible before adding a special metal plating finish.

The special effects team FB FX has also developed a new technique to use real metal plating without affecting the flexibility of the suit. But it wasn’t just the practical costumes that were updated at this time. CG costumes looked much more realistic thanks to motion capture technology.

Perfecting this led to the incredible realism of digital time suits in “Avengers: Endgame.” This scene was actually filmed right after the prequel, so the final costumes haven’t even been designed yet.

But the technology really shone for characters like Iron Man and Spider-Man. Robert Downey Jr. and Tom Holland wore these costumes on set to track their movements, and FX artists later replaced them with digital versions.

For 2021’s “No Way Home,” Tom wore what’s called a fractal suit, an upgrade that refined and tracked motion even more than regular mo-cap tracking suits.

With all of these advancements, costume designers could now combine CGI, 3D printing, and hands-on methods to bring an even more realistic Batman to the screen in 2022.

Robert’s Batsuit retained the armored look of “Dark Knight”, and it was made up of 3D printed armor pieces. The cowl head and neck were separated.

To create the seamless effect, the neck piece was made up of vertebra-like pieces that eventually tucked under the chest armor and top of the cape.

David: What is good with our combination is that Robert has a lot of head freedom. We were always trying to adjust the tension on that.

Glyn Dillon: But there’s all that clever work underneath with the elastic bands that hold them to certain parts of the chest, so when they move they all spring back into the correct position.

Narrator: For the muscle suit, the focus was on making it as functional as possible.

Glyn: Every part of the suit was practical. The gauntlets, the gun, all the armor and everything, even down to the insignia, the idea that it would be a knife.

Narrator: And that feature paid off in the bigger stunt scenes, like when Batman jumps off the building.

David: It’s actually a real winged costume he wears.

Glyn: We had ones you could fly in.

Narrator: The team worked with parachute gliders to develop this version of the suit.

Glyn: It’s a bit of visual effects, trickery to help him along the way, but the whole process, we did, and there were real steps to turn his cape into a winged suit.

Narrator: Over the decades, each of these advancements led to increasingly believable superhero costumes and changed the way they were worn on screen, making them not only captivating to comic book fans, but also for the general public worldwide.