Why Do Superhero Costumes Keep Changing?

Jimmy Kimmel Live! -JIMMY KIMMEL-TOM HOLLAND-Publicity Still-H 2018
ABC/Randy Holmes
Tom Holland's new Spider-Suit continues a tradition for superheroes to change costumes with every movie.

Tom Holland has revealed the new-look Spider-Man costume for 2019's Spider-Man: Far From Home, and it's … perfectly serviceable, as these things go. It's also the third costume Tom Holland’s Spider-Man has worn in four movies, which is a sign of how much things have changed when it comes to superhero movies, or superheroes in general, as it turns out.

Back in the prehistory of superhero movies — which is to say, before the dawn of Marvel Studios and the current incarnation of the genre onscreen — the issue of what outfits heroes would wear onscreen was very much centered around fidelity to the comic book source material. That Charles Xavier's mutant superteam wore black leather in Bryan Singer's original X-Men caused uproar in fan communities, being seen as proof that the Marvel comic books weren't being taken "seriously" or treated with respect. (What could be more respectful than having Hugh Jackman wear a bright blue and yellow costume with underpants on the outside and pointed books, after all?)

By contrast, Tobey Maguire's Spider-Man was seen as the Real Deal, purely because his costume was (mostly) faithful to Steve Ditko's iconic design. It was a sign that the movies would be faithful to the comics, and therefore the character, and fans were happy despite lingering suspicion over the mirrored lenses on the eyes — something that apparently remained a concern all the way up through the Tom Holland incarnation; remember how excited fans were by the eyes in the Captain America: Civil War trailer?

These days, however, that's no longer a concern. Indeed, the reveal of new costumes has become an event in and of itself, with fans excitedly reporting toy details or leaked set photos for clues as to what to expect. Because it's now expected that superheroes — at least on the Marvel side, although it's a tradition that arguably got started with Warner Bros.' Batman movies — will have a new look every movie, it's impossible for characters to have comic-accurate costumes every single time. But that's OK … because the comic book incarnations of the characters don't, either.

That's obviously a contradiction in terms; whatever costumes a superhero wears in the comics is inherently comic-accurate. Over the past decade or so, however, superhero costumes in comic books have stopped being static things, with every major character getting significant new looks, some for the first time in more than half a century. (Superman, I'm looking at you; his classic look was revised into armor with no red pants in 2011, allowing for their high profile return earlier this year.)

In some cases, the changes are minor — Captain America's shifts have, for the most part, revolved around his footwear and how realistically the armor is drawn, or whether his hood gets to keep the wings he started with or not; Batman goes back and forth about his look constantly, but the all-important silhouette stays the same. (That's not the case for all heroes; the comic book X-Men shifted to their own version of the movie outfits from 2001 through 2004, for example.) The characters' looks change slightly, but not too much, for the most part; each hero or villain still manages to look essentially like themselves, despite everything.

That's true for the cinematic incarnations, as well. Holland's new Spider-Man outfit follows the same model as redesigns for Iron Man, Thor or Captain America; it's different, but only a little. In the cases of both movies and comics, it's as if there's an essential truth about the way each character looks that the multiple designs are circling around, trying to find — a platonic ideal visual that's just constantly out of reach.

That ideal is, in most cases, almost certainly each individual fan's initial interaction with a character — whether it's Ditko’s Spider-Man, or John Romita's, or Todd McFarlane's, or even the Spider-Man of cartoons (or even Maguire's first movie, for all we know). It's a different thing for every reader and viewer. As long as the movies and the comics can continue to nod in that direction with each new, toyetic variation, however, things are probably going to continue to work out and excite fans every single time.

Well, maybe not every time.