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Man of Steel? Underwear of Steel More Like

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.

Man of Steel_Henry Cavill full boots_Image credit Warner Bros Pictures

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.

Superman III_Christopher Reeve bad mid_Image credit Warner Bros Pictures

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.

Man of Steel_Michael Shannon Zod mid_Image credit Warner Bros Pictures

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 – 2014, Lord Christopher Laverty.


  • K. Anna

    I definitely didn’t see it as underwear but more as the first layer of the armour. I do agree that the CGI did take from the costuming at times but overall I liked the direction that they took for the most part because the other Superman costumes I couldn’t take seriously at all. Now, if only the story was better…

  • Steve

    …Who care about the costume…this review the guy is juste mad about the costume lol

  • Andrew

    Forgetting the suit for a moment, I do agree with the comment about the movie being chaotic and unfocussed.



  • A Linoge

    This movie was disappointing. The moment Jor-El jumped on a winged beast and rode it like Buckbeak the hippogriff, I knew things had taken a wrong turn in Super Land. From there the mistakes just kept piling up. It didn’t suck, but it wasn’t a very good movie, and it was nothing like the reboot it could have been.

  • Josh Broma

    I love the costume review LOL! Snyder and Nolan were terrified to use bright colors, or to have the external briefs because they aren’t Superman fans. When something so iconic as Superman’s costume is overhauled in a sort of bland way with muted colors and CGI cape, it’s almost a harbinger of the film itself. Superman does stand for hope, but hope doesn’t have to be dull and repetitive. The destruction was overkill, no pun intended. It went on and on and on. How many humans died? Maybe a quarter million? I’d like some humor in the next movie for crying out loud. It sure didn’t harm Iron Man LOL!

    • Chris Laverty

      ‘Superman’s costume is overhauled in a sort of bland way with muted colors and CGI cape, it’s almost a harbinger of the film itself’ – I like that idea. Man of Steel is heavy on symbolism but the filmmakers can’t rig our interpretation. What they perceive as sincere can equally be read as dreary.

    • Josh Broma

      What’s really sad is that only the Superman costume of all the superheroes’ costumes out there, has a backstory. It’s true you can find stories where the costume wasn’t made by his adoptive mother, but the vast majority of tellings, whether comic book or TV shows (including Kirk Alyn as Superman in the movie serials, George Reeves’ series The Adventures of Superman and all the way up to the ’90s with Dean Cain’s costume on Lois & Clark), were all made by Ma Kent.

      Best of all, it gives Superman an “out” if anyone says the costume is corny or old fashioned, or not some hi tech mess, he can say to critics what Superman said to a villain making fun of his costume on Lois & Clark “My mother made it.” LOL!

  • Bonnie

    Without the cape they wouldn’t have had that scene straight from an ad of young Clark dressing up as…Superman?

    • Chris Laverty

      I do see your point, though that scene really didn’t sit right with me. It felt like young Clark was doing what all little kids do – dress up as Superman. But Superman doesn’t exist, or at least he didn’t when Clark was playing dress up. It was too clunky; too on the nose.

    • Bonnie

      That’s my point. How can he be dressing up as Superman? It was the cheesiest moment in the whole film.

    • Kal Tourette

      there were caped heroes back then. Shouldn’t have been a red cape. They should have shown Clark being into an old comic book

  • Kal Tourette

    I prefer the MOS costume over any other rendition to date. Always HATED the silly Victorian wrestler influence. Burton had the right mind about Batman, why didn’t Superman catch on earlier?

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