Every time one of these big budget superhero movies is announced there is a process of fear that fans go through. Will it get a good director? Will they get the casting right? And what is the costume going to look like? This last bit has probably cause more anxiety and grief than any other element. Because the costume of the superhero defines them. In large part, it is what accounts for their popularity, as it is the instant visual hook that initially draws in the reader, garishly jumping out from the cover of a comic book.
It’s odd then that this is the one area where filmmakers keep getting the genre wrong. Over and over we see either wild departures from the comic look, or bad attempts to translates what works on the page into something that has no business existing in real life. And don’t get me started on Warner Bros., who can’t seem to figure out the genre at all if Christopher Nolan isn’t involved. Most of the attempts fall somewhere in between, though. The one studio that seems to have really been nailing it, though, is the one that actually owns the characters: Marvel. Iron Man, Thor, and Hulk have all been very true to the spirit of the character, if not the exact letter. And the Avengers movie looks to continue the trend, with a pretty faithful Ultimate Hawkeye outfit along with Black Widow. Except for one small thing: Captain America, the ostensible star of the picture.
In a movie filled with characters in black leather and military gear, Cap stands out. Not in a good way, though. His Avengers outfit has been described as everything from pajamas to bad cosplay. His World War II outfit, while not remotely “comic accurate”, was a very good design. It felt appropriate enough for the period and cut a really nice figure onscreen. (Personally, I liked his more realistic “temporary” outfit even better). And in that movie the filmmakers even pointed out how ludicrous a straightforward adaptation of a comic book outfit looks on screen. It’s crazy how similar his new costume looks to the “fake” one!
So why is that? What is the difference between the stand alone films and the Avengers? I mean, they definitely share the same producers and concept artists. But they don’t share the same directors. And in my opinion this is the make or break element shared by all of the superhero movies that work or don’t work.
Let’s start by stating the obvious: you need a strong director with a singular vision to shepherd these films through what is a very arduous process even when everything goes right. Sometimes you get lucky and an unorthodox choice really meshes with the material (Jon Faverau on Iron Man, Kenneth Branagh on Thor, Richard Donner on Superman) and sometimes you don’t (Gavin Hood on Wolverine, Martin Campbell on Green Lantern, anyone who isn’t Dick Donner on Superman). But this is what’s needed to just make a good film. To make a good superhero film that satisfies everyone, you need more than that. You need a good designer.
That doesn’t mean just the guy behind the scenes sketching out storyboards. You need a director who is a good designer in their own right or at least one who has a very strong sense of design and can guide the artists who are creating this world. Now, there are many fantastic directors who are not necessarily good designers but are good at surrounding themselves with talent. I would put Steven Spielberg in this category along with Christopher Nolan. They are very much defined by their shooting styles, not by the designs of what is on the screen. However, they are able to collaborate so well with the designers that their vision is carried out exactly how they want it. But the actual look of things varies from picture to picture.
This is not the case for directors who have a very strong sense of their own style and are most often artists in their own right. Think of Terry Gilliam, Tim Burton, Walt Disney, Orson Welles, Jim Cameron, Ridley Scott, David Fincher. The look of their films, and every element in them, are clearly the vision of one person. The one director who possibly straddles this line is also the one most responsible for bringing back fantasy design into motion pictures: George Lucas.
Lucas was himself an artist, but apparently one who stopped creating art early on in his career. He did have a singular vision, however, and he did recognize both talent and good, clear design. I want to point out here that the word “designer” is not interchangeable with “artist”. Today especially, you have phenomenal artists working in the film industry. The advent of digital tools has allowed concept art to be as close to photo real as ever and the ability to change, revise, and complete a design takes a fraction of the time it used to. But I think even a lot of directors get confused by the good art they see into thinking it is also good design.
It is fitting that as I was writing this I found out that Ralph McQuarrie had passed away. One of the most important reasons for the initial success of Star Wars was that the entire universe was a cornucopia of great design. Every ship, every environment, and nearly every character in the film was instantly iconic. Studios and licensors keep wanting each new blockbuster film to sell the amount of toys that Star Wars does, but even now there has yet to be any movie that offers such great designs as the original Star Wars films do. And much of that is due to a handful of people, chiefly among them Ralph McQuarrie (and if you don’t know who he is I urge you to click on that link and go look at his artwork) and Joe Johnston.
I think the Star Wars prequels were hurt by not having designers of the caliber of McQuarrie and Johnston working on them. Arguably, Lucas had a better group of artists this time around. But their designs didn’t have the same kind of impact. Don’t get me wrong, there were incredible designs throughout all three prequels. But that has more to do with George’s vision and less to do with the designers (one exception is Iain McCaig, designer of Darth Maul, Watto, and many of Padmé’s signature outfits). Nearly all of the creatures are perfunctory, the same for most of the alien designs. Where is the Darth Vader? The Chewbacca? The Bantha? So many characters in the original trilogy are on screen for just a few moments, but they live long in the memory due to their design genius. The same goes for the spaceships, and the set interiors.
The other big difference between the original trilogy and the prequel designs is that few of the designs were “final”when they left the artist’s pen. The initial direction was handed over to very specialized designers who they adapted the concepts into their own style as they were fully realized into the real world. The amazing sets and environments were finalized by Norman Reynolds. The creatures and makeup were handled by Stuart Freeborn (with the stop motion ones translated by Phil Tippet). The costumes were designed by military historian John Mollo. All of these elements were necessary to go from a good idea to a great design. Just look at what Freeborn brought to Yoda’s design, to state just one example. These days it is too easy to go straight from the very detailed artist comp straight to the actual creature/costume/prop. And I think something is lost in the lack of translation. Just because art is pretty does not make it good design. And coming full circle, the Captain America film was directed by Joe Johnston, who is responsible for the final design of Boba Fett, the AT-ATs, the Snowspeeder, and the movie Rocketeer. This guy understands what it takes to have design work for the character.
And if you don’t have a director who has that eye for design you are left with nothing to latch on to and take away as you think back to the movie later. This does not necessarily make for a bad film. I think J.J. Abrams is one of those who does not have a strong design sense. I defy you to remember the details of any of the creatures or ships in the latest Star Trek film. But I think the film itself was very enjoyable. It just didn’t sell any toys. And unfortunately, I think Joss Whedon falls in to this category as well. He is obviously a gifted writer and he knows how to clearly lay out set pieces and ensemble casts. But is there anything in his past films that stands out as iconic? I mean, Firefly is fun but the costumes were all derivative western/steampunk. The spaceships were instantly forgettable (contrast that with even McQuarrie & Johnston’s work in TV’s Battlestar Galactica, easily remembered 30 years later).
That Captain America’s costume went through testing and on to film looking like that is insane. Normally, I would be withholding judgement until seeing it on film, but it looks no less goofy in the trailers than it does in still pictures. I’m going to assume that up until the final stages his ears were showing, as all of the licensing art and even some of the toys still have his ears sticking out. But even minor corrections to this design would have grounded the character and integrated him better with the rest of the cast, instead of looking like he popped in from some 80s tv movie. Heck, it already looks better once it starts getting dirty and he loses the cowl. But it could be better from the get go. Check out the picture below to see a few of the changes I made in photoshop in about 20 minutes.
First, drop the cowl if it can’t be one piece, and expose the neck (why is the toughest character the only one whose head is unexposed?). This takes away all that bunching fabric and gives him a cleaner profile. Add a thin chin strap to further define Chris Evans’ jawline. Use a heavier mesh fabric like the Navy Seals assault uniforms to give it more of a texture and some rigid shapes (you know, like Hawkeye has right next to him); it looks like he’s wearing some kind of rayon cloth. Lose those crappy silver highlights on the shoulders that do nothing but break the flow of his silhouette. And de-emphasize the overly sculpted star pin his chest. I also changed the shape of his underarm sections of white- they should be angled downward. At their current angle it makes his shoulder look tiny. Finally, the entire outfit is way too bright (and the helmet color doesn’t even match the rest of the costume!). A dark blue-black will still keep it looking patriotic but not in a clownish way. Desaturate the reds and give him normal gloves and boots while you’re at it.
And the film itself looks fantastic; I’ll be one of the first in line to see it. I have nothing but good feelings about the entertainment value I’ll get out of this. Look, it’s not like other comic fans haven’t fallen into the trap that Joss has. I get that he wants this to look as close to the comics as possible. But Captain America more than any other character doesn’t wear a costume. He wears a uniform. He is a soldier. All the design cues should be coming from the military, not the comics. And the leader of this motley group of heroes shouldn’t be wearing motley himself.