As Hollywood continues to adapt superheroes to the big screen, the rise of superheroines is inevitable. Now there have been attempts before, but like the rest of the previous waves of superhero films, they came and went within a fairly brief window, and the examples are few and far between. But in our current era, in the wake of Marvel’s linked cinematic universe and DC’s reactions to it, comic book characters are being adapted with a never before seen level of accuracy to the source material, and superheroines are about to begin being adapted for what essentially amounts to the first time. And a discussion that needs to be had is about what they will wear. Specifically, the question is: which is more important, accurately adapting their comic book costumes to live action, or updating them (possibly to the extent of creating new ones) to modern sensibilities?
Adapt or Update?
There are arguments to be made for both points. One the one hand, comics are a visual media and costume design is an integral part of the expression of a character’s character. Artists put just as much effort into the creation of a character as the writer does, and failing to properly adapt the costume of a female character can amount to the same as missing key portions of their personality.
On the other hand, most of the female characters who have been around long enough to warrant a live action adaptation were created by male writers and artists, and the personalities and costumes both often express a man’s perspective rather than a female’s perspective. The ‘default’ design for male costumes tend to be a body covering suit that leaves little more than the head exposed, but the ‘default’ for female costumes tends to be the ‘swimsuit cut’, often leaving the bustline and up exposed as well as portions of the legs. While it’s true that freeness of sexuality is a legitimate aspect of a character to be expressed, the sheer volume of female characters who express that aspect (both in character and costume) is unbalanced, and not nearly as omnipresent in male costume design.
So the question arises on how to treat the act of adapting these characters. Do we consider the source material the proper version of the character’s essence and adapt it as close as possible, or do we take the films as an opportunity to alter the character to be more respectful to the gender they represent? Considering there are two heroines in particular who we know will be seen in live action movies soon, let’s focus on them. Let’s start with...
Scarlet Witch will be making her first full appearance in Avengers 2: Age of Ultron. Over the years, mainstream Scarlet Witch has had a very similar appearance, with minor changes according to different artists and time periods. What remains consistant is that she has a swimsuit style body (with or without shoulder straps), cape, gloves, boots, and... head thing (the technical term is “wimple”, although it certainly is not a traditional one). The color red is pretty omnipresent and illustrations oscillate on the addition of pink tights (they also change on whether the tights only cover her legs or cover everything from the neck down). Now, the Marvel movies are notable for adapting to an unprecedented level of accuracy comic book costumes, and given that Scarlet Witch’s costume history allows for a decent amount of leeway while also providing some iconic visuals, it’s somewhat surprising that what we’ve seen of her Avengers 2 appearance looks like this:
Aside from the red in the jacket, there is literally nothing here that even resembles the comic book counterpart. Now, the photos in question are reportedly from an early sequence in the movie, so it’s possible that this is what she wears in her first appearance and gets a full costume later in the film. But her brother Quicksilver is also visible in set photos of the same sequence, and he is wearing an outfit that includes lighting bolt insignia, so either he gets a costume before her, or this is both of their outfits for the film. And whether or not there is another costume for her in the movie, it has already been confirmed that she does not wear the iconic wimple of her traditional design, which is undoubtedly the single most unique aspect of her costume. Obviously, updating was on the minds of the film makers.
So is this respectful to the character? Well, no. While the depiction of the cut of her outfit has been altered over the years, steadily growing more and more revealing, the early design is not a particularly exposing one, and even includes shoulder straps that most ‘swimsuit cut’ superheroine costumes don’t have. The most potentially objectionable parts of Scarlet Witch’s comic costume are the cleavage and bare legs, which this outfit’s plunging neckline and skirt do not address. While the pink tights under the ‘swimsuit cut’ are typically illustrated as translucent, an adaptation that aimed to be less exposing could easily have altered the material to make it opaque, while still maintaining a faithful design. The replacement of a cape with a jacket seems to be a common alteration lately among female characters in realistic settings, but in the context of the Marvel Cinematic Universe it feels unnecessary. And lastly, the loss of the wimple is the most egregious change, removing the most iconic aspect of the outfit and (so far) replacing it with nothing. One could also mention that her traditionally curly hair (representative of her Jewish/Romani heritage) is missing, but that strays into the territory of another essay entirely.
What makes this design unsatisfactory the most, however, is in the context. The Marvel Universe has been adept at translating their comic book costumes to live action quite faithfully, but in this instance they have not. The question of why not remains present, considering there is nothing about the comic design that is any more ridiculous than Thor’s winged helmet and spinning hammer move, Loki’s yellow and green color scheme and horned helmet, and Captain America’s bouncing shield and giant capital A on the forehead, all of which were faithfully rendered. If toned down had been the goal, they could have used her Ultimate outfit for inspiration, as they did with Hawkeye and Nick Fury, but even that outfit has no resemblance here (also, considering the most “unique” aspect of Ultimate Scarlet Witch is the incest, the further they veer from that version, the better). Furthermore, what she is wearing here is not a costume; it is an ensemble. She is striding into battle wearing civilian clothing, while everyone else, her brother included, is wearing a uniform with personalized touches. Scarlet Witch is Marvel’s first true superheroine to be adapted into live action, and they have made almost no attempt to visualize her comic book costume.
But what about the other superheroine on her way to the silver screen? This is where things get more complicated. Let’s talk about...
Now, Wonder Woman is in a different situation entirely than Scarlet Witch, for a number of reasons. First, the context: Scarlet Witch is appearing in a world where scrupulous efforts have been made to visually adapt the comics on which it is based. Wonder Woman’s appearance will take place in DC’s shared film universe, where those same efforts have not been made. Superman’s costume of Man of Steel is not a very faithful adaptation of any version of Superman’s costume, even including the New 52 version with which it shares the lack of red trunks. Furthermore, almost no character in Man of Steel, superhero, supervillain, or civilian, appears close to their comic book counterparts either. Lois Lane (normally dark haired with a purple motif) is strawberry blonde; Lana Lang (normally redheaded) has black hair. The villain, Zod, while having appeared in comics previously, was originally created for another film, and this version does not in the slightest resemble any previous version of the character. In short, faithfulness to the source material is not as strong a concern for DC’s live action adaptations, and as a result, they’ve built up a stronger possibility of Wonder Woman’s costume not being at all accurate either. This sort of works to their favor; if Scarlet Witch’s lack of accuracy is disappointing in light of all the other costumes Marvel got right, Wonder Woman’s outfit being potentially inaccurate would be no more disappointing than anyone else’s.
Even more importantly, however, is the placement of Wonder Woman in her universe, and in the field of comics as a whole. Scarlet Witch is but one of many superheroes who happens to be female, and she doesn’t hold any particularly high place of recognition within the Marvel world; Wonder Woman, however is not just a superheroine, she is the superheroine. She’s the first major independent female superhero character, and remains the most famous to this day. As a result, the writers and artists involved with her adaptation have a greater responsibility. How they treat Wonder Woman is (whether this is fair or not) a statement of how they treat women in fiction as a whole. The need to be respectful towards her design is greater than with any other female character.
So what about her traditional costume? Well, suffice it to say, there’s some debate. If the ‘swimsuit cut’ is the template for female costumes today, Wonder Woman is likely the reason. While, like Scarlet Witch, the cut itself has grown more exposing in recent years, the fact that the world’s most famous superheroine has always had bare legs and cleavage strikes many as disrespectful, especially considering her equals, Superman and Batman, expose nothing more than their face and hands, and chin, respectively. The realities of a strapless top on an action oriented character also need to be taken into consideration, especially when discussing live action adaptations. However, the subject of expression of character remains an aspect to consider. As noted by Mark Waid, it’s important to recognize the aspect of sexual freedom that was being expressed in the original stories. The swimsuit cut expresses that. The character is also not merely a superhero, she is a Greek mythological hero as well. The exposure fits with that time period, and the classic design manages to simultaneously evoke superhero and Greek armor in roughly equal portions. So what will she look like in her first film appearance in next year’s Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice?
Well, we don’t know, but rumor has it she might look like this:
Again, this is merely rumors, and even then we cannot expect it to be a straight adaptation of this design. But what has been rumored is a leather jacket and pants, and regardless of how true this rumor is, pants or leggings have a very high likelihood this time around. There have been numerous redesigns of Wonder Woman’s costume, be they by amateurs, professionals, or by DC Comics themselves, and I personally have one consistent complaint regarding most of them: they express a darker, more violent Wonder Woman. Chalk this up to lack of consistency in expressing the character, but Wonder Woman’s original intent is a far cry from how a lot of people see her today. Originally intended to represent a nurturing and understanding approach to fighting evil contrasted against Superman and Batman’s propensity towards punching evil, Wonder Woman was a figure meant to demonstrate strength through archetypal feminine traits. The modern approach to the character is essentially Xena Warrior Princess. When attempting to give her a modern update, most variations tend to do two things; cover her legs and give her a sword. Extensive Greek or medieval armor and a leather, pleated battle skirt are also common details. Now, this is not to say that Wonder Woman cannot use a sword or wear armor, (indeed, she is depicted as having quite an armory, and a full body golden eagle armor set), but these details should not be a part of her normal costume. Yes, Wonder Woman is trained in classical warfare, but the fact that she can and chooses not to only reinforces the idea that she would rather resolve situations peacefully when possible. She is a character who is willing and able to resort to violence, but will only do so as an absolute last resort. Adding a killing weapon and armor to her regular costume expresses a more threatening Wonder Woman, and that is absolutely out of character.
But this is not to say that her costume cannot be redesigned with peaceableness in mind. Joe Quinones, Mahmud Asrar, Daniel Heard, Jemma Salume, Ming Doyle and others have managed costume redesigns that covered her more but did so in a way that emphasized a kinder, gentler Wonder Woman. This is often achieved by making the outfit in question utilize visuals more representative of Greek philosophical thinking or learning, or the more artistic Hellenistic period. Ultimately, Wonder Woman’s place as the premier superheroine of comics makes it more important that she not be hypersexualized, and to that end, a redesign might be in order. But to truly be respectful to the character and what she represents, the new outfit should not express a knee jerk reaction to the purported faults of the old one. It should strive to express the ideals the character stands for in ways that also are respectful to women. The two are not mutually exclusive. Still, there’s more to consider.
Context: Why Other Superheroines Matter
The difficulty in trying to respectfully adapt both Scarlet Witch and Wonder Woman’s costumes to the silver screen lies in the fact that they are sort of the first superheroines to do so. Yes, there have been attempts before, easily the best of which (visually) has been the 1984 Supergirl design.
But this is the first time when either (and in this case both) Marvel and DC are actively creating a fully linked superhero world. The X-men films have not really made any attempt at putting costumes on people, and the Fantastic Four only barely count. Elektra, Catwoman, the Lynda Carter Wonder Woman, the Yvonne Craig Batgirl, and the Caity Lotz Black Canary of Arrow all at least made attempts at costumes but are not connected to a larger network of films as they come out (not yet, anyway). When Wonder Woman and Scarlet Witch appear onscreen they will do so for the first time as part of a collective whole of superheroes. And in being the first entries into their respective universes, they also are the only representatives those universes have of women. If Marvel’s movie universe contained a more or less fully clothed She-Hulk, Invisible Woman, and Captain Marvel, then there would be no reason against Scarlet Witch wearing her swimsuit design, with the tights or without. There would already be an established lineup of fully clothed female characters, and Scarlet Witch could represent a new variety in shape and cut of costume. But in being the first in her world, it becomes more important that she not represent an overly sexualized depiction of women. Due to Wonder Woman’s centralized role in her universe, it might never be truly acceptable for her to don the ‘swimsuit cut’, but the same applies to any other superheroines who might show up. Without an establishment of totally respectful designs already present, Power Girl’s cleavage window or Black Canary’s fishnets wouldn’t feel appropriate for the first or second superheroines present in their world. At the same time, bring those same characters in and don’t feature these aspects, and you’ve lost a distinct element of their visual and personality.
This leads us to Black Widow. The reason I’ve left Black Widow out of the conversation so far is because I don’t qualify her as a superheroine. She is a spy; she is along the same lines as Nick Fury, Maria Hill, and (in the Avengers’ movies so far) Hawkeye, and as a result, her costume reflects this. While the design is still visually distinctive and uniquely hers, it also consists mainly of a non-descript black body suit. This expresses her role as an infiltrator, using understatement in design to tell us who she is and what she does. The simplicity of the black body suit works for her because of this, as it does for Catwoman in The Dark Knight Rises, but it does not work for others. Black Canary and Huntress as they appear in Arrow pretty much wear the same things, and with the exception of some muted color highlights or a blonde wig, they aren’t particularly distinct or expressive. Now, on Arrow this is more because of the show’s leaning towards realism than it is about respect towards women (as evidenced by Canary’s covered legs but ample cleavage, which it should be noted is the opposite of the character’s comic book costume), but the end result is the same. Black Canary, Huntress, China White, Catwoman, Maria Hill, Invisible Woman, Black Widow and almost all of the X-Women are the top female characters from comics adapted into live action and they all wear mostly colorless, non-descript body suits (only three of them dress like this in the comics). The only notable characters who’ve gotten unique outfits in recent years are Lady Sif, Emma Frost, and Ravager. Compare this to how faithful, how unique, and how expressive male costumes like Captain America, Thor, Hulk, Iron Man, Deathstroke, The Thing, and the upcoming Flash and Batman are and you start to see a different kind of imbalance. Hollywood and television, in their adaptations of the female characters, are being, if anything, overly cautious, and in doing so are denying these characters a unique personality and voice.
Superheroine costumes, like their male counterparts, are designed to tell us something about their wearer. However, due to shifting social atmospheres, what used to be considered acceptable (whether it should be or not) may not still be acceptable (whether it should be or not). In adapting the costumes of female characters to live action, there will inevitably be situations where changes must be made for the sake of our more modern sensibilities. But while shape and cut of costume is something that may need to be altered for the sake of fairness to representations of both genders, expression of costume and uniqueness in design is something that needs to remain. The colorful costume is one of the most distinct aspects of superheroes in any media, and it should stay that way. They just wouldn’t be very super without it.