behind the seams

The Boys Is a Microcosm of Modern Supersuit Design

Photo: Amazon Studios

Amazon’s The Boys portrays a world in which superheroes aren’t selfless role models who embody the best of what we could be. Instead, the gory, R-rated actioner, based on the comic book of the same name, by Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson, imagines a bleak but all too plausible world in which the superheroes are mostly figureheads for Vought International, a shadowy corporation all too happy to lobby Congress to turn its star heroes (the Seven, a riff on the Justice League) into contract soldiers for the U.S. Army. The various heroes we meet may look familiar, echoing as they do well-known figures from the beloved Big Two franchises, DC and Marvel, but they have been refracted by the show’s warped vision.

Only don’t for a second think that means the likes of Homelander, Starlight, and the Deep look like cheap knockoffs. Part of what makes Eric Kripke’s adaptation of The Boys work as a biting dark satire on the corporatization of superhero culture is its commitment to creating a truly believable roster of supes.

“It was important to Kripke that we create a legitimate superhero universe,” the show’s costume designer, Laura Jean Shannon, tells Vulture. “We have other cinematic superhero universes that have been in existence for generations. But he wanted us to create a cinematic universe with our suits that could really play with the big boys. Like, it had to be legit. It wasn’t a joke.”

Shannon was more than happy to take on that challenge. Her filmography looks, on first view, decidedly eclectic (she boasts Requiem for a Dream, Elf, and 2008’s Iron Man among her credits), but as of late she has zeroed in on a lifelong passion, creating some of the most eye-catching supersuits on television. In addition to The Boys, she has worked on HBO Max’s Doom Patrol, the CW’s Black Lighting, and DC Universe’s Titans as a “supersuit designer.” It’s the kind of novel TV credit that speaks to the superhero boom that has dominated the early 21st century on screens both big and small.

The specter of those blockbuster movies hangs over Shannon, who has seen firsthand how they’ve trained audiences to set an increasingly high benchmark for superhero fare. We’re far from the time when a pair of tights on Christopher Reeve (or on Tom Welling, for that matter) could pass muster as acceptable superhero fashion. Moreover, to work on The Boys, she had to figure out how to bring that cinematic feel into a television project that was not only based on a highly beloved comic-book property but that skewered the well-known supes we’ve known for decades.

Homelander’s supersuit, in comics and live-action form. Photo-Illustration: Vulture, Comixology and Amazon Studios

Take Homelander (Antony Starr). With his dark-blue bodysuit, red boots, and U.S.-flag cape — not to mention his superstrength and his ability to fly and to shoot lasers out of his eyes — he’s obviously meant to stand in for a certain son of Krypton, only darker, both literally and figuratively. Indeed, as the show has stressed over and over, Homelander is little more than a craven narcissist. He’s all too happy to let a plane full of passengers fall to their death when he botches their rescue, he turns a blind eye to the sexual-assault allegations against one of his own, he intimidates women in power into doing his bidding, and he eventually creates “Super Terrorists” to make sure foreign threats force Congress’s hand to sign him and Vought into a military contract to keep America great and safe again. The red, white, and blue color combo of his suit is less inviting than Superman’s, evoking instead a guarded rigidity that feels, quite aptly, militaristic.

“The way superhero suits are inked in books is oftentimes very exaggerated and dramatic,” Shannon adds. “You know, like Homelander has this ginormous eagle on one shoulder and this light, sort of cross-body thing.” For the show, she streamlined his suit by reducing that shoulder eagle to some very dapper golden epaulets that still hark back to the all-American symbol. Moreover, if you look closely at the costume’s custom-made fabric, you’ll notice it’s made up of a recurring pattern of small eagles — just one of the many subtle references Shannon included throughout her designs.

Making sure her supersuits could exist on their own while paying tribute to the pages of Ennis and Robertsons’s R-rated comics meant Shannon and her team of engineers and specialists did plenty of research. When designing the suit for A-Train (Jessie T. Usher), for instance, the team not only researched other speedster supes in established universes, but delved deep into the science of what would work best for such a superpowered being.

A-Train’s comics look got some speed-friendly upgrades on its way to the screen. Photo-Illustration: Vulture, Comixology and Amazon Studios

“We did a ton of research on aerodynamic shapes,” Shannon says. “And just like how golf balls have little indentations on them to be more aerodynamic, we created custom fabrics that replicated that for his suit. And then his armor is made out of this sort of clear urethane to protect him from friction as he is slipstreaming through the world.”

Such science-based designs go a long way toward making the gritty world of The Boys feel grounded in our own reality. Which is also why the Deep, Vought’s resident “Aquaman” (who is mostly used for photo-ops with fans at water parks) doesn’t sport his signature outsize diving helmet.

“I am here to tell you I did try and create a sleek modern version of it,” Shannon admits. “But good luck with that! If anybody can do that, more power to you, because I sure as hell didn’t. Plus, who doesn’t want to see Chace Crawford’s adorable face all the time?”

The Deep’s helmet in the comics didn’t make the transition to the small screen, luckily for fans of Chase Crawford’s face. Photo-Illustration: Vulture, Comixology and Amazon Studios

For Shannon, the Deep’s overall look was a joy to design — not least because it turned on its head decades-long ideas about how to dream up costumes for male superheroes. For those of us who relish seeing Crawford in such a tight-fitting outfit (which The Boys’ marketing department artfully exploited), there’s no missing how it’s a costume that demands you ogle its wearer: When he’s seen from behind, the design of his pants actually accentuates his ass. Shannon was all too delighted to talk about such a cheeky detail.

“I love bringing up this exact point,” Shannon says, “which is that, for generations, it’s just been commonplace that if a woman doesn’t have big boobs, you stick the chicken cutlets in. And if she doesn’t have a great booty, you stick the butt pad on. Like, we’ve got all these tricks that we do for actresses that have been just a part of the process forever. And this was our opportunity to get the character of the Deep and be able to literally treat him in the same way that I’m used to being asked to treat female characters. I mean, I’ve been asked by many a studio executive, like, ‘Can you make her boobs bigger?’ It was pretty fun to be asked, ‘Can you kind of oversexualize him?’”

That such a costume was created expressly for a character who sexually harasses his teammates was no accident. The Boys revels in upending audiences’ expectations and revealing, in turn, the toxicity at the heart of the modern superhero-industrial complex. It also means the execs at Vought in charge of the Seven are not too far from the ones Shannon had to deal with in real life. The kind who force Starlight (Erin Moriarty), for example, to forgo her handmade, quite homey supersuit and embrace instead a much more revealing outfit that’s later used to sell an insidious version of corporate feminism: “Girls Get It Done!”

Designing both “Starlight 1.0” (i.e., what a mom with access to Jo-Ann Fabrics would likely sew for her prim daughter) and “Starlight 2.0” (“an outfit that would make any self-respecting woman’s heart sink,” says Shannon) proved equally challenging. And while Shannon has a soft spot for 1.0, which hews closely to Starlight’s original comics look, she was just as surprised as anyone to learn that Moriarty actually enjoys donning 2.0: “‘I was really stressed out about that suit,’” Shannon remembers Moriarty telling her. “‘But the funny thing is, I love wearing that suit! It’s so comfortable; it’s like wearing a bathing suit all day.’”

Starlight’s original supersuit (left) was replaced with a much more revealing outfit, which is used to help sell an insidious version of corporate feminism. Photo-Illustration: Vulture, Comixology and Amazon Studios

For season two, Shannon had an even more challenging task: Stormfront. Played on the show by Aya Cash, the newest member of the Seven is a cipher for much of the season. And for fans of the comic books, her gender-bent look is wholly new. “Stormfront was, like, jumping right off of a cliff,” Shannon jokes.

But look closely at her dark-hued costume — which, unlike Starlight’s and Queen Maeve’s suits, covers pretty much her entire body — and you’re likely to see clues into who she really is and what she’s really about. Without our spoiling some of the bigger reveals that drive much of the back two episodes of the season, just know that Shannon conceived of this supersuit in a way that would throw audiences off and signal that “there’s something under the surface that hasn’t quite revealed itself yet until it does,” she says. Hint: Look closely at Stormfront’s belt to see why she’s an eerily timely foil for Kripke’s titular Boys.

Unlike Starlight’s and Queen Maeve’s suits, Stormfront’s covers pretty much her entire body. Photo: Jasper Savage/Amazon Studios

Joining a growing genre of shows that questions the cultural reverence superheroes have amassed in the past few decades (see: Watchmen, The Umbrella Academy, and Misfits), The Boys treats its supes as both celebrities and company spokespeople. The heroes in this warped universe spoof the Zeitgeist-influencing power of billion-dollar franchises and the corporations that back them in stories that speak to a growing white-supremacist movement and Big Pharma’s political lobbying power, all the while looking every bit the part of the slick caped crusaders we’re meant to believe will save us.

“It’s such a wonderful kind of lens that we’re telling our stories through that really flips the superhero genre on its ear and gives it a whole new dialogue that we’re sharing with the audiences,” Shannon adds. “It gives us a platform to really explore unique story lines that are poignant and that really can reach people — and not just superhero fans but people from all walks of life.”

The Boys Is a Microcosm of Modern Supersuit Design