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Hey, here’s classic Superman:
The mythology, themes, and symbolism of his story have been written about for decades. We know all about that. But have you ever wondered why he looks the way he does? Not in the sense of “he’s an alien that looks completely human”. I mean the tights, the outside-underwear, the boots, the whole thing. Why choose that?
The answer is as obvious once you hear it as it is a little boring. It’s because of the circus. Specifically the strong men.
That’s right, Superman — essentially a super strong man in his original form (merely able to jump instead of fly, just outrun a train, etc) was originally designed after circus performers. The bright colors, the flashy cape, the big ol’ boots, it’s all in classic 30s-era carnival tradition. In fact, such attire, while thought of as goofy now, was seen as representing raw masculine power back in the day.
And so, since Supes became the template for what would become the superhero genre, you get tons of tights-wearing, underwear-on-the-outside having, be-caped super heroes. Everyone from Batman to Captain America owes their designs in some way to the choice to base Superman on the circus performers of the day.
But this led me to thinking… what if superheroes were just now being created? The circus performer looks is considered stupid today as is, so surely it wouldn’t get used.
Of course it’d be hard to tell for sure, but I think I can give it a pretty good guess. First, lets take a look at a little redesigning that has already been done. When DC rebooted their universe with the Nu52, they scrapped the old costumes and redid them for a hip, new generation:
Obviously, they’re still based off the original designs, but what can these new costumes tell us about our modern sensibilities (besides the fact that you can either have pants on Wonder Woman or crazy cleavage, but you can’t have both)?
Armor. Five out of seven of the characters up there seem to be wearing armor (even though it looks skin tight, but more on that in a bit). Hell, they put armor on Superman. The last person who needs a protective layer. It’s not just DC either, it’s happening on Marvel’s side too. Venom now sports a flak jacket and blast collar and they’ve put armor on the Hulk. We seem to believe, maybe just in the social subconscious, that these characters are no longer strong men, but warriors, and warriors wear armor.
But I think there’s a bit more to it. Specifically the skin tight issue. Most of the time, though armored, the characters are still drawn almost naked. I think it’s partly for sex appeal and simplicity of drawing, but mostly it’s due to the tradition of spandex.
If we were to invent a superhero today, I think they would wear actual heavy armor. Why? Because it would hearken to actual warfare (fighting a war on crime seems less dramatic when you can do it in a leotard) and because it’s more ingrained in our culture.
When Man of Steel redesigned Kryptonians, they gave them advanced, almost medieval-knight looking armor with Superman’s costume being little more than Kryptonian casual dress or underwear. As many problems as you might have with that movie, I think that’d be more or less what you would get if you designed a superhero like Superman today. No one would think to have him in ab-hugging tights, they’d put him in the armor of his god-like people.
However, that’s just for the heavy hitters like Superman. If you designed a character like Batman or Spider-man today, they’d wear much more technology-driven armor, far past what we’re seeing in the comics. It’s simple. Technology is such a bigger part of our lives compared to the 30s, it wouldn’t make sense if it wasn’t there.
It also fits the characters more. Peter Parker successfully designs and manufactures web shooters, but stops there? No, if he was created today, he’d either have the whole creating gadgets thing scrapped or be much more gadget driven. As for Batman, the newest Arkham Knight trailer pretty much captures what kind of costumes he and other superheroes like him would wear:
But of course, not every character is a billionaire or incredible genius. Yes, characters like Daredevil wouldn’t have advanced battle armor and be relegated to what they could find. But without the tradition of circus performer-based superheroes behind them, I think you’d find them in less custom spandex costumes and more grounded, cheaper outfits using things like Kevlar, for instance.
One last point: body type.
Since Superman was designed after a circus strong man, he’s a more muscular dude. It’s understandable. But it seems that throughout the years, they ramped up superhero’s body sizes more and more until they became inhuman muscle-monsters.
Why was this? I would guess it’s because the superhero genre is as much power fantasy and wish fulfillment as it is modern mythology and super ripped bodies just go along with it. So you find as the power fantasies got larger, from beating robber barons and gangsters to alien gods and time traveling conquerors, the portrayal of the human form followed suit.
But free of that tradition, I think more superheroes would have less muscular frames and there would be far more variation. Daredevil, as an acrobat, would be much more lean than body builder. Flash would look like a runner, not Mr. Universe. Ant-man and the Atom — two scientists — wouldn’t just have super athlete bodies because… you know. Health?
But let me know what you guys think. What would superheroes look like if created today?