It’s ironic that director Zach Snyder was against using those famous red pants for the outside of Superman’s new costume when the suit itself is underwear. This bizarre notion actually makes sense as all costume choices in Man of Steel are intended as functional, at least contextually so. There was no need to wear pants over pants as it were; Superman is already half-undressed as it is.
When M. Night Shyamalan’s sci-fi thriller After Earth was released a few weeks ago it received a critical bashing for, among other things, poor special effects, weak acting and clunky dialogue. After watching Man of Steel these feel like unfair assertions. In many ways Man of Steel is the antithesis of After Earth: sprawling, caffeine paced, caked in mythology, yet no more satisfying to watch. There is so much going on that it lacks clarity, and to some degree this extends to the costume design. Not to say Michael Wilkinson and James Acheson haven’t excelled in recreating Superman for a new era, merely that because Man of Steel is so chaotic and unfocused sometimes their work is lost.
Henry Cavill as Superman. The Superman suit is now a Kryptonian foundation garment. In this respect it is exactly like a bra.
Amy Westcott’s costumes for After Earth are perfectly in sync with the film’s overriding theme. The idea of nature having evolved against us is conveyed via an organic/synthetic mesh. Spacecraft resemble stingrays, interior sets twist and curve like body contours; this is not just man against his environment, but intrinsically linked to it too. The ‘life suit’ worn by cadet ranger Kitai (Jaden Smith) alters colour depending on his situation. Westcott based this concept on certain beetles that change colour in the same way. This idea (her own) functions as a narrative beat and reflects After Earth’s pro-green message.
Zach Snyder may have less respect for costume in Man of Steel. Apart from a consistently subdued colour palette, they do not always blend comfortably with the film as a whole. It can be difficult to appreciate what Michael Wilkinson and James Acheson were trying to achieve when their work is often hidden behind so much CGI and moody lighting. General Zod’s (Michael Shannon) spacecraft is so dark and grey we can barely make out his impressive yet similarly coloured armour. Snyder has moved so far from camp that he is terrified of any colour at all. With all this murkiness the film works better when taken back to basics, such as the excellent tornado sequence, where it’s actually possible to comprehend what’s happening. So too does the costume design – literally.
The muted colours of Kal-El’s new suit resemble the ‘bad Superman’ costume worn by Christopher Reeve in Superman III.
Rather than Kal-El’s (Henry Cavill) Superman suit being constructed from the material he was wrapped up in and sent to earth as a baby (typical for the character), instead it is the underlayer worn by male Kryptonians beneath their robes or armour. Essentially, then, Superman is saving the world in his underwear. This is nothing new as Superman has always worn underwear, but this is usually in the form of red pants outside the suit itself. Dropping the red pants from his costume was something that Snyder and co debated for a long time during production. It was definitely the right choice. Although considered by fans to be an integral part of the suit, there is simply no place for the red pants here. What would their function be? Backstory did not matter in previous incarnations because beyond symbolism as a hero costume the suit had no actual reason for being. In Man of Steel, Superman dons the suit because it belonged to his ancestors.
For all Kryptonian men the under-layer is what they wear to get stuff done. It’s their action attire, like Bruce Willis’ white vest in Die Hard or Rambo’s headband. Jor-El (Russell Crowe) strips down to his underwear to steal the codex on Krypton. Free of those hefty robes he is able to jump, swim, and hitch a ride on the back of a flying monster. Zod too is useless trying to fight Superman until he removes his cumbersome armour. Sci-fi costume is much more interesting when it incorporates a backstory. However we should add, quite emphatically, that this ‘underwear’ concept is not endorsed by either Michael Wilkinson or James Acheson. As far they are concerned the suit is a protective layer, nothing more.
Michael Shannon as General Zod. All Kryptonian men wear the underlayer. Zod’s suit, like Superman’s, displays his own personalised glyph.
The blue, red and yellow suit is no longer Superman’s costume; the plaid shirt and sports jacket for alter ego Clark Kent is his costume. Wearing underwear to save the world is just a man from Krypton in his civvies. Superman’s cape is now a somewhat fanciful touch. Krypton are a cape society, but it’s not attached to their underlayer. Really if Zach Snyder, Wilkinson and Acheson wanted to go all the way in making Superman plausible they could have removed the pants and the cape. Yet in the end his suit has to be more than functional but symbolic too – something for kids to dress up in at birthday parties. And is there any comic book character in the world more symbolic than Superman? Pants, there is.
Man of Steel is currently on general release.
© 2013, Christopher Laverty.