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6 Rules for How to Design a Movie Superhero’s Costume

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With comic-book movies bigger than ever before, it’s a boom time for concept artists with a very specific skill set: the ability to pluck a colorful superhero costume from the comics and make it faithful enough to please a fan, yet realistic enough to convince your average moviegoer. One of the most in-demand super-costumers is Warren Manser, a veteran concept artist who recently redesigned Superman’s outfit for Man of Steel and has worked on comic-book projects ranging from X-Men to Daredevil to Thor. “To me, the best part of the job is being able to be the blue-sky guy,” says Manser. “I can throw out all these crazy ideas and watch them get filtered down into something real.” How exactly does Manser do it? Here are six rules that help guide him.

Mess with a classic costume at your own peril.

There may be no better-recognized comic-book costume than Superman’s, which made Manser’s Man of Steel gig both a plum assignment and a daunting one. When he took the job, director Zack Snyder gave him free reign to update the suit. “Early on, there were ideas floating around about how to create a sort of non-linear pattern on him that kind of swooshed over the form,” says Manser. “And there was a different idea that the suit could be a little more interactive with the sun.”

Ultimately, though, Manser recognized that making major changes to Superman’s suit would carry the big risk of backlash. “Superman has been around 75 years and everybody knows him, so you can’t deviate too far from the original look,” says Manser. “The main thing here was that Zack had a specific vision for creating the planet Krypton and that inspired me to say, ‘How do we create design lines for the suit that reflect the environment he comes from?’ So that led to all these chain-mail undersuits that everybody wears on Krypton, which alleviated a little of the pressure we had to get away from this general idea of a spandex super-suit for Superman.”

That prompted the most major shake-up: “The biggest change, obviously, was getting rid of the red undershorts,” laughs Manser. “I had done literally hundreds of variations of the costume where they were on, off, faded, or more integrated into the suit. We really explored it, because you can’t just arbitrarily get rid of something like that; everybody loves this character and if you screw it up and push your own agenda on it, people will notice. So we tried all those designs, but in order to modernize him and fit him into the Kryptonian universe, they just had to go. And I’m really glad that most fans, I think, agree with that.”

Sometimes you have to use the costume to pad out an actor’s physique.

Certain superhero costumes come with built-in bulk, adding even bigger biceps to the actor who slips on the suit. There’s a simple reason for that beyond just star vanity, says Manser. “Most people know that if you put on a very tight shirt you generally look smaller, because it’s so form-fitting, and a lot of superhero costumes are drawn skin-tight in the comic books,” he explains. “So, in some cases, there’s definitely some engineering in the suits to enhance what’s already there.” However, these days actors are taking it as a personal challenge to build themselves up enough to fill out the suit on their own. “Frankly, it really helps me, because when I’m creating the artwork for this, you want someone to look like an Adonis. To have the actor take you 95 percent there, it’s really a gift ... and then you have these actors like Henry Cavill, who created his own physique for Man of Steel.

Suspension of disbelief is essential, but tricky.

Superhero films employ scores of talented craftsmen to create these expensive costumes, which raises the nagging question: How are we supposed to believe that the movies’ protagonists are making the suits themselves? Does every superhero have super-secret sewing skills, too? “There has to be a leap,” Manser admits, remembering how that quandary came up on one of his first comic-book jobs, Sam Raimi’s original Spider-Man film. “Peter Parker builds a rough costume and later, magically, this incredible suit appears, but by then you’re already on the adventure and you’re willing to accept a lot of things that are fantastical. There are still great pains [taken] to make it look real, though: There’s a great moment when Tobey Maguire pulls the hood off and it’s so form-fitting that it just kind of slips right off his head, and you can see that it’s just real fabric, it’s not digital effects. It’s something that, granted, he probably couldn’t make on his own, but it was still within the realm of a tangible physical fabric.”

Besides, says Manser, “If Peter Parker, the comic-book character, can fabricate a web shooter, then why couldn’t he create some sort of manufacturing method to make his own fabric?”

Colorful costumes don’t translate well to the big screen.

When Bryan Singer made the first X-Men film, he subbed out the colorful comic-book costumes for black leather, a choice that proved influential: Most screen heroes don’t cavort as brightly in the movies as they do on the page. “Generally speaking, color and texture get dialed down,” says Manser. “There are many angles to look at when you take a comic book into reality, and some people think that you should completely respect the existing material and try to fabricate it identically. But there are inherent problems with that because those were drawings, and there were certain color processes used to create a comic that had limitations in and of themselves.”

That’s why the reds and blues of Superman’s suit are heavier and more muted in Man of Steel, and why Thor wears far less brilliant blue in his movie than he does in most of his comic-book incarnations. “The suit is bigger than life when its projected in theaters, and when you use the color palette that they used in the comics, you’re really going to bombard people,” says Manser. “So we tone it down and dial it down to something that’s a little more acceptable to our eye and has textures that we’re more familiar with in the real world, and I think, generally speaking, that also makes it more believable.”

Your star won’t care how good the suit looks if he can’t move in it.

It might be fun to act like a superhero, but putting on the suit isn’t exactly a day in the park. Robert Downey Jr. dreads the days he has to don the Iron Man costume (he has compared shouldering the heavy armor to “shoving bamboo shoots up your cuticles”) and Michael Keaton had so little mobility in his original Batman suit that he couldn’t even turn his head. “When you want to anthropomorphize something and have somebody actually fit into it and move around in it, there are all kinds of other things you have to consider,” says Manser.

“When we started doing the first Spider-Man, the idea of having a very large foam latex suit — like the one in Tim Burton’s Batman — was rejected very early in the process. Spider-Man needs to be incredibly flexible, much more than Batman does, so we thought, ‘We’re going to have to make a fabric suit.’ But then you have the limitations of most fabrics, which look too simple, or spandex, which everyone will notice right away, so we go through great pains to enhance fabrics, or to work with really great patternmakers who physically sew these suits that are so incredibly precise you would think a machine made it. It’s all in the effort to keep these guys looking like a superhero, but also giving them mobility at the same time.”

It’s all worth it once you finally see that suit in motion.

While Manser loves his job, he’d never call it easy: Developing these super-suits can be an incredibly time-consuming process, and often, designs can be junked after months or years of preparation. “It’s a slow progression because you build these prototype suits as you go,” he says, “but it’s really great fun to see this superhero taking shape. I remember when I was working on Spider-Man, some people ran into the room like, ‘Hey, the stunt guy has the suit on! Check it out!'" Soon enough, the stuntman proved just how much mobility Manser had built into the costume: “He did a backflip, just standing there — just, ‘boing!‘ — and I immediately flipped out. No wires or anything! He was just standing there in my costume and it was the coolest thing. I tell you, it’s a huge rush. It gives you the energy to go all day.”