Great films rely on immersion, and superhero flicks certainly aren’t an exception. If the audience doesn’t believe that they’re watching a billionaire in a super-suit beat up a green mutant, they’re going to storm right out of the theater.
That’s why great costume designers are so crucial. They’re tasked with making superheroes look believable—a tall order when you’re dealing with superpowered folks flying around in tights.
To make films as immersive as possible, superhero movies costume designers focus on the tiny details that reference history, world cultures, and, of course, comic books. Here’s a few of the coolest recent examples.
1. The Wonder Woman costume is designed as a completely functional piece of armor.
Wonder Woman (2017) is a rare film: It’s unapologetically feminist, it has a strong female lead, and it was enormously successful at the box office, grossing $412 million domestically while drawing rave reviews from critics.
While we can’t credit the costume design with all of that success, it certainly played a role. Go ahead and picture how ridiculous Gal Gadot would have looked prancing around the screen in the classic Wonder Woman costume:
Academy Award-winning costume designer Lindy Hemming was determined to create a suit of armor that was a little more functional. She drew on the work of designer Michael Wilkinson, who’d borrowed from Greek and Roman warriors when creating Wonder Woman’s suit in Batman vs. Superman. Hemming wanted to take those concepts farther and give them their own story.
“For me, the costumes should have a credible story as to why the character looks like they do in everyday life and when they transform into superhero mode,” Hemming told British Vogue in 2017.
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“As with most superheroes, Wonder Woman’s costume has evolved over the decades, and is influenced by the social culture of the period, and by feminist ideas,” she said. “Her look has caused much controversy with dedicated comic followers.”
The design might be controversial to some, but for women looking for battle-ready garments in their superhero movies, it was a breath of fresh air. Historical novelist and Broadway costume designer Amanda Weaver took to Twitter in late June 2017 to gush about Hemming and Wilkinson’s work.
“That skirt? The shape is Roman, cut high over the thighs so it doesn’t impede movement,” Weaver wrote. “Those aren’t sexy thigh-high boots. They’re Roman greaves. They’re protective and buckle on. Again, ARMOR.”
Weaver also tracked down photos of real leather Roman armor to show where Hemming got her inspiration.
This is a piece of preserved leather Roman armor made out of a crocodile hide. pic.twitter.com/9Wpghyt7Q1
— Amanda Weaver (@AWeaverWrites) June 25, 2017
The attention to detail is pretty incredible; Hemming’s Amazon warriors bear special breastplates on their left sides, a reference to the Greek myth that the Amazons cut off one breast to improve their ability to battle with bows.
Lindy Hemming gave them a metal breast plate on the left side. WARRIORS. pic.twitter.com/UFgeMS1E2b
— Amanda Weaver (@AWeaverWrites) June 25, 2017
“With Wonder Woman’s costumes, the starting point, the INTENT, is everything,” Weaver tweeted. “The reason I literally cried watching the Amazons fight is that FINALLY someone started at the right place. That design showed respect. The intent was to portray these women as warriors first and foremost.”
2. The Black Panther costumes have something in common.
Just as Wonder Woman proved that America was ready to embrace a female superhero, Black Panther showed that diversity is welcome in the Marvel Universe. Designer Ruth Carter drew from traditional African patterns and colors to create a cultural link between the futuristic superhero and the real world.
That triangular pattern covering T’Challa (or Black Panther, if you’re not up on your Marvel mythology) is especially important.
“That triangle is the sacred geometry of Africa,” Carter told NPR in February 2018. “I call that pattern the ‘Okavango’ pattern.”
The Okavango Delta is a prominent area of Botswana, and geometric patterns (triangles in particular) are common in the region’s art.
“I felt that [the triangle] made his suit have this character that would, in the wide shots, make him this superhero,” Carter said, “but in the close-up, you see this beautiful pattern that is consistent with a lot of the art of Africa and would turn him into this African king.”
For the warrior women of the fictional country Wakanda, Carter drew inspiration from indigenous tribes like the Ndebele of South Africa, the Himba of Namibia, and the Maasai of Kenya. Look closely, and you’ll see the Okavango triangle pattern on all of the warriors’ clothing.
Carter admits that she didn’t know much about the Black Panther character before working on the film, but through her research, she was able to create the art that filled out the world of Wakanda with respectful real-world references.
“I learned that I was an artist, that I could communicate and tell stories through this wonderful medium of adornment,” she said. “The adornment of Africa has always been a part of their beauty from scarification to beadwork to woodwork, and I fell in love with it even more.”
3. Chris Pratt’s t-shirt from Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 has a hidden message.
Pratt’s character, Star-Lord, wears a stylish graphic tee through most of the adventure. The shirt has some text, written in an alien language, and we honestly never gave it much thought. We assumed it was gibberish, since it’s a minor detail in a movie with a talking raccoon.
Fortunately, the internet’s superhero fans are a bit more curious. In the first Guardians flick, a quick shot of a keyboard gave fans a way to decipher alien text. To make things a bit easier, the keyboard’s in alphabetical order (rather than the QWERTY format found on most Western keyboards).
Since we’ve basically got the Rosetta stone of the Guardians galaxy, we can quickly determine most of the shirt’s hidden message. However, a few letters are missing; apparently, the aliens don’t type with a full alphabet. Reddit user OooChimpanzeeThat solved the puzzle by substituting letters until she was able to substitute the remaining text, leading to the reveal of the shirt’s first two words.
Drumroll, please. The message is: Gears Shift.
That’s…slightly underwhelming, and the rest of shirt’s text isn’t much more interesting. The words surrounding the molecule-like graphic on the tee read “dust,” “cement,” “stone,” and “ash,” while the message at the bottom reads “A Teneyck Galaxy Invention.”
None of those terms really lend any insight into the Guardians universe; it’s basically just a branded graphic t-shirt. Still, it’s pretty impressive that the costume designers went out of their way to create something realistic, rather than simply throwing some random alien gibberish onto a shirt and calling it a day.
SlashGear has a complete write-up on all of the work that Guardians fans did in order to decipher the message, although we’ll warn you: It gets really complex, and the payoff is pretty lackluster. That doesn’t mean that it’s not an impressive amount of sleuthing.
4. Ant-Man’s costume is the vinyl to Yellowjacket’s MP3.
The debut of the smallest Avenger (sometimes) in 2015’s Ant-Man posed some serious challenges to costume designers Sammy Sheldon and Ivo Coveney. Luckily, they didn’t actually have to make Paul Rudd’s suit shrink into the Quantum Realm or expand to Godzilla-like proportions. But that didn’t mean their task was an easy one.
“The challenges were probably more on a technical scale than anything, because the design of [Ant-Man’s costume] is so detailed in terms of hardware,” Sheldon told fan site HeyUGuys.
Not to nerdsplain here, but in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, original Ant-Man Hank Pym designed the suit in the 1960s. By the time Scott Lang (Rudd) slips into the outfit, it’s certifiably vintage.
“With the Ant-Man suit, it was made out of leather and it was in the ’60s and very much analogue,” Sheldon said.
When the villainous Darren Cross uses Pym’s designs to create a modern version of the shrinking suit, he has all the circuitry of the digital era at his disposal. The distinction between the original Ant-Man suit—mechanical, analog, natural—and the Yellowjacket costume—cutting-edge, full of gadgetry—is what Sheldon tried to bring out in her designs, she said.
“[The Ant-Man suit] was meant to look like a little old suit that you pull on and zip up, and then you’re off, whereas the Yellowjacket is a whole different concept in terms of it’s meant to be a suit that’s used as a weapon to fight,” Sheldon explained. “It’s protective, it’s digital, it’s very high-tech. All the surface textures we used were along the ballistic nylon and kevlar and carbon fibre route with high-tech digital things going through it. It was quite easy to define the two of them.”
But don’t be fooled; there was plenty of high-tech movie magic that went into Ant-Man’s retro costume in the 2015 film. Sheldon and her colleague Coveney built a whole fleet (or should we say swarm?) of helmets for Ant-Man, each with different functional mechanisms.
“We built that helmet for real and had 18 of them,” Sheldon said. “They all had to have different mechanical parts which move, open, and close, depending on the shot.”
There’s a story Pym would appreciate: Not everything is CGI these days, even in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.