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The Six Styles of Live-Action Superhero Costume And What They Mean [List]

There are only six styles of live-action superhero costumes.

Above Image: Superman (1978) (Christopher Reeve), Catwoman (2004) (Halle Berry), Batman Begins (2005) (Christian Bale) Daredevil (2003) (Ben Affleck), Iron Man (2008) (Robert Downey Jr.) X-Men Origins: Wolverine (Hugh Jackman)

Translating a costume from a comic book to a live action movie is hard. It takes a lot of planning and effort to make a costume that both fans will recognize and embrace. But it also has to be a costume that people will believe could exist in the real world.
It's not easy to design a costume based on a comic book. The characters have perfect bodies and only a handful of actors have that. Most of those can't act. Comic books can make sure capes flow and belts always work.
In all the live action appearances of comic book superheroes there are a handful of costume styles. Here they are and what they mean.
1. Muscles
"Drat. I knew I should have done some pushups this morning" - Captain America
Superman (1978) (Christopher Reeve), Captain America (1990) (Matt Salinger)
Stretch fabrics have been used in the earliest comic book adaptations as early as Superman and the Mole Men (1951). This style of costume tries to be as accurate to the comic book costume as possible. Since superheroes are supposed to be muscular, this costume demands the most from the actor. Modern fabric techniques can create intricate costumes, but they all have one thing in common: They show off the superhero's muscles and allows them freedom of movement for action scenes. Spider-Man (2002) was one of the first films to use a combination of an actor's body and some latex sculpting. This costume is used for movies and TV shows going for a direct translation of the comic book source.
Best: Superman (1978)
Worst: Captain America (1990)
Costume Checklist
  • Bright colors
  • Spandex
  • Logo
  • Cape
Notable Examples
  • Superman and the Mole Men (1951)
  • Batman (1966)
  • Wonder Woman(1975)
  • Superman (1978)
  • Swamp Thing (1982)
  • Supergirl (1984)
  • Captain America (1990)
  • Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman(1993)
  • The Fantastic Four (1994)
  • The Phantom (1996)
  • Spider-Man (2002)
2. Neo-Accurate
Sure the leather chaffes, but in a good way.
X2 (2003) Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Halle Berry, Famke Janssen, Elektra (2005) Jennifer Garner
This style of costume tries to be accurate in color and style, but uses non traditional fabrics like leather or latex. It doesn't demand the actor to show any muscles, but gives the impression of muscularity like in Batman (1989). While easy on the actor in terms of training, Neo-Accurate costumes are much hotter and less flexible than other costumes. Recent advances in CGI mean the costume can be virtual like in Green Lantern (2011). Its used by comic book movies trying to do an updated take on an established superhero.

Best: X-Men (2000)
Worst: Elektra (2005)

Costume Checklist
  • Dark Colors
  • Leather or Latex
  • Stylized Logo 
Notable Examples
  • Batman (1989)
  • The Return of Swamp Thing (1989)
  • Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990)
  • Flash(1990)
  • Batman Returns (1992)
  • Barb Wire (1996)
  • Batman & Robin (1997)
  • X-Men (2000)
  • Daredevil (2003)
  • Catwoman (2004)
  • Fantastic Four (2005)
  • Elektra (2005)
  • Superman Returns (2006)
  • Thor (2011)
  • X-Men: First Class (2011)
  • The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)
  • Green Lantern (2011)
3. Warrior
Make sure you protect the most important parts of the body.
Batman Begins (2005) Christian Bale, Judge Dredd (1995) Sylvester Stallone
Beginning in the 1980s with The Punisher (1989), this style of costume takes the idea of a superhero fighting a literal war on crime. The "Warrior" costume takes on military elements. War-time superheroes like Captain America fall in this category, but superheroes that fight intense wars on crime like Batman are here too. This costume is used by superheroes who are heavily armed and tend to blow things up.

Best: Batman Begins (2005)
Worst: Judge Dredd (1995)

Costume Checklist
  • Buckles and Straps
  • Black or Dark Colors
  • Heavy Weapons
Notable Examples
  • The Punisher (1989)
  • Judge Dredd (1995)
  • Tank Girl (1995)
  • The Punisher (2004)
  • Batman Begins (2005)
  • V for Vendetta (2005) 
4. Military-Grade

Who would have thought Shaquille O'Neil would be less impressive than Robert Downey Jr.?
Iron Man (2008) Robert Downey Jr., Steel (1997)
 Like the "Warrior costume," the "Military-Grade" costume takes it to a literal war. Since the hero is fighting against heavily armored or weaponized criminals, they have to wear armor and armaments. It's hard on the actor if he's expected to wear hot and heavy armor, but CGI is changing that. There aren't many superheroes that wear armor anyway. Its a very impressive visual if it's done right. If it's done wrong, it just looks stupid. This is reserved for big budget action movies that enjoy slow-motion explosions.

Best: Iron Man (2008)
Worst: Steel (1997)

Costume Checklist
  • Metal
  • Armor
  • Heavy Weapons
5.  Accidental

Halle Berry's costume stretches the definition of "clothing" to the breaking point.
Batman Returns(1992) Michelle Pfeiffer, Catwoman (2004) Halle Berry
The "Accidental" style of superhero costume is slightly more realistic than the traditional costume. It uses multiple techniques to create a costume. The feel is less sophisticated than other costumes and is used when the hero is intended to be a DIY type with no sewing skills. It's also used when the superhero is a joke or parody like Blankman.

Best: Catwoman Batman Returns (1992)
Worst:  Catwoman (2004)

Costume Checklist
  • Over-the Counter clothing
  • Over-the Counter items
  • No cape
  • No logo
Notable Examples

6. Casual
"Sure Wolverine's got the leather jacket, but the fedora is much more fashionable."
X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009) Hugh Jackman, The Spirit (2008) Gabriel S. Macht

This style of costume assumes its almost unnecessary. The "Casual" costume is easier for the actor, but can be tough for the audience unless the comic book character has a casual costume like The Spirit. Some superheroes have casual costumes, but very distinctive looks, like the Hulk's purple pants. Sometimes its used as a transition point to an accurate costume like Spider-Man. Its usually reserved for comic book movies that try to be "real world." It's a very effective costume with the right director.

Best: X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009)
Worst: The Spirit (2008)
Costume Checklist
  • Over-the Counter clothing
  • Jeans or slacks
  • Jackets or long coats
  • No logo
Notable Examples
  • The Green Hornet (1966)
  • The Incredible Hulk(1978)
  • The Shadow (1994)
  • The Spirit (2008)
  • X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009)
Now that you know the most common styles of superhero costumes, here are the most popular and least popular based on box office gross.
10 Most Successful Costumes (Based on box office)
  1. Marvel's the Avengers (2012)
  2. The Dark Knight (2008)
  3. Spider-Man (2002)
  4. Iron Man (2008)
  5. The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)
  6. Batman (1989)
  7. X Men: The Last Stand (2006)
  8. Superman Returns (2006)
  9. Thor (2011)
  10. Captain America: the First Avenger (2012)
10 Least Successful Costumes (Based on box office)
  1. Steel (1997)
  2. Barb Wire (1996)
  3. Tank Girl (1995)
  4. Punisher: War Zone (2008)
  5. Supergirl (1984)
  6. The Phantom (1996)
  7. The Spirit (2008)
  8. Electra (2005)
  9. The Shadow (1994)
Which costume style is your favorite? Which do you think works the best?

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  1. Halle Berry in Catwoman was an accident all right.
    Military grade would be safest, but neo-accurate is coolest.

  2. From that list there were a lot of terrible costumes in the 90s. I don't really have a favorite; it depends on the character.

  3. My favorites are Spider-Man (either version) and Green Lantern, which also happen to be among first favorite superheroes. Their looks are timeless to me. Michael Keaton's Batman is also a favorite, even with the famously immobile head. It gives him a classic look.

  4. I should have asked, would you consider the Scarlet Knight's armor to be military grade? Very old school military grade maybe. The Sewer Rat's costume would definitely be homemade though.

  5. My favorite is Superman. I like Christopher Reeves Superman because he epitomizes the fight of good against evil. That determined look of steel has become one with the superman costume. Hes become a legendary symbol of hope for hopeless humans everywhere, lol. It doesn't matter the costume has aged over time because I believe in Superman.

  6. I'm pretty much down with all of them, actually,

  7. Oh man, I forgot all about Steel. That was so bad. Speaking of which, the old Flash movie should be the worst on this list as well.

  8. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  9. Somehow, Chris Reeves pulled off the most authentic Superman costume possible and made it believable (more impressive than making us believe a man could fly). On everyone else, spandex just looks silly (except on Olivia Newton John in the "Physical" video)

  10. Reeve had an amazing form He Geek She Geek. It's hard to top that.

  11. Although there were many changes from its comic incarnation, the uniform Karl Urban wore in Dredd was brilliant IMO.


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