When lifelong comic book fans get together they are prone to go down rabbit holes, like, “Name the best X-Men artists of all time” or, “Give me your best Batman stories ever.” I’m as guilty as any comics geek when it comes to this tendency to go list-crazy. Recently I was thinking about a comics topic that’s actually tied to movies and television: best live-action superhero costumes. I mentally make this list at least once a year, so this is nothing new. It’s just the first time I’m actually jotting it done for posterity.
As you’ll see from my list, I’m not overly enamored with contemporary superhero cinema or TV, so most of my selections are of the old school variety, which is fitting for this blog. I prefer the live-action costumes that skew closer to their spandex forebears from the pages of comic books. Modern superhero costumes are stuck on this drab, militaristic armor fetish. I’m sorry, there’s nothing super about that to me. Fans of “realistic” superhero costumes seem to suffer from an ailment that legendary comic book writer Grant Morrison summed up succinctly:
Adults…struggle desperately with fiction, demanding constantly that it conform to the rules of everyday life. Adults foolishly demand to know how Superman can possibly fly, or how Batman can possibly run a multibillion-dollar business empire during the day and fight crime at night, when the answer is obvious even to the smallest child: because it’s not real.Grant Morrison
Classic costumes might seem out of fashion these days but they’re still special. Why? Because they retain that original, hopeful sense of wonder and endless possibilities that the best superhero stories (used to) evoke. Sometimes you can’t mess with a classic, right?
My top five live-action costumes might not be your five favorites, but they are the five this blogger thinks are the best to ever be sewn together and slipped into by various actors playing comic book characters. Let’s stop wasting time and get on with the action—to the Batpoles!
5. The Greatest American Hero (The Greatest American Hero, 1981–82, 1986)
Airing on ABC from 1981–82, The Greatest American Hero was one of my favorite shows as a six and seven year old. I was crazy about the hilarious misadventures of William Katt’s reluctant hero, who inherits a costume and powers from aliens but promptly losses the suit’s instruction booklet. Trial and error—and lots of comedy—ensue.
This costume actually debuted on television, as the series wasn’t based on any existing comic books. It’s a simple, yet memorable outfit. Dominated by bright red from neck to toes, with black and silver accents and a cool black cape, it always looked great on the lithe Katt, whose skinny frame is downright refreshing compared to all the overly jacked movie and TV superdudes of today. And few heroes ever sported better hair than Katt. For peak Katt curls though, you must of course check out his flowing blonde mane in one of the greatest movies ever made, Carrie (1976). One of these days I’ll finally post about that film here.
In 1986 the network produced a TV movie meant to kick off a new version of the series, this time with a woman (Mary Ellen Stuart) taking the mantle from Katt. The Greatest American Heroine was shelved though, and later edited down and added to the syndicated reruns of the original series as a bonus episode. It should be noted that Stuart looked just as hot in the alien duds as Katt did, plus she too rocked blonde(ish) curls, with a hairstyle reminiscent of every girl I went to school with in 1986. I was utterly charmed by Stuart—she was bubbly and adorable, and I really wish this relaunch had taken flight.
4. Supergirl (Supergirl, 2015–2021)
This is a rare case where I actually prefer the more recent iteration of a character’s costume to the older, more classic look. I have no complaints with Helen Slater’s comics-accurate look in the so-bad-it’s-just-bad Supergirl (1984). I simply prefer Melissa Benoist’s snazzier costume from the recent Supergirl television series, which ran from 2015–2021 on the CW. While I would prefer the colors more vibrant, so they looked like royal blue and cherry red, the overall look of the costume she wore for the first five seasons (before switching to pants in the final season) is excellent and perfectly tailored for Benoist’s body.
She looks strong and powerful while also looking pretty damn sexy too, thanks in no small part to those leather (pleather?) thigh-high boots. Yowsa. A miniskirt and stockings might be rather impractical for superhero work but that’s always been part of the fun of comic book costumes; they’re absurd! Their primary function is to look cool—comics are a visual medium, after all—and Benoist looked as cool as the other side of the pillow as Supergirl.
3. Superman (Superman: The Movie, 1978, and sequels)
First of all, let’s establish one thing. Christopher Reeves is Superman. Always will be. You whippersnappers and your Henry Cavill infatuations can step off my lawn now, thank you very much.
Reeves’s work in the blue tights and red cape across multiple films, but especially the first two, is legendary for a reason: the man embodied the character like no one before or since. Not only that, but he influenced how we define the character foe the last 45 years now. It’s like he stepped off the page and onto the screen, it feels that seamless. And the costume is classic Supes. It’s bright and colorful, not muted and dull like Cavill’s costumes. It’s how Superman looked in the comics for decades, and it’s still stunning to me that Reeves and the costume department made it look so spectacular in live action. Reeves was an Adonis, of course, so he’d look good in a paper bag, but geez he sure did look the requisite super in this costume.
2. Catwoman (Batman Returns, 1992)
Okay, I hear you already: “Wait, Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman isn’t #1 on this list?? Michael, are you feeling okay?” Thank you for your concern. I know how shocking this must be. If this list was a ranking of characters or actors’ performances, then Michelle is #1, easily. It’s no contest! Y’all know I believe her dual Catwoman/Selina Kyle is the best superhero movie performance of all time. It should have earned her an Oscar nomination—and a win!
This is about costumes, though. Just to ease your minds, my #2 and #1 are practically the 1 and 1A of best superhero costumes. It’s that close. Michelle’s haphazardly stitched together latex ensemble from Batman Returns is still jaw dropping, even 31 years later. The design is so clever and creative. It’s also sexy as hell, fitting like a (very tight) glove all over Michelle’s body. She had to be vacuum sealed into it! That she moves so gracefully—catlike, you might say—in a costume that snug is astonishing. That she displayed pinpoint accuracy with Catwoman’s whip in a costume that snug is just mind blowing. Michelle not only looked cool in that costume, she looked cool jumping and kicking and prancing and slinking around in that costume.
I have to give Michelle bonus points too for her equally iconic look as Selina Kyle in the same movie. Her voluminous tangle of curls is maybe my favorite hairstyle she’s ever worn in any movie. Oh gosh, it’s hard to choose, but Selina’s ‘do is right up there. And her Cat costume is absolute puuurrrfection. I had to say it!
Tangent alert: here’s some supplemental reading to prove how often I’ve gushed about Michelle as Selina/Catwoman here:
Bad Girls We Love: Selina Kyle/Catwoman from Batman Returns
Home I’m Home: Batman Returns at 30
Michelle Pfeiffer: An Alternate Oscar History
Dualing Pfandom: Pfive Pfeiffer Pfavorites*
*I know “dualing” is not a word, but it’s a play on “dual” reviews. “Dueling” would be silly because my pfriend Paul (who co-wrote the piece with me) and I never duel. We enthuse over Michelle. That’s what we do.
1. Batgirl (Batman, 1966–68)
I could easily have included other character costumes from the 1960s Batman TV series in this list. Batman’s (Adam West) and Catwoman’s (Julie Newmar) threads are fantastic—Newmar’s Catwoman is damn-near as perfect as Pfeiffer’s—but one stands above the crowd for me and that’s Batgirl. Resplendent in shimmering deep purple and shiny golden yellow, Batgirl is the perfect live-action superhero costume. An absolute work of art. It sure doesn’t hurt that the costume fit snuggly around the astronomically hot body of the late actress Yvonne Craig, one of the most beloved crushes of my generation. She died in 2015 at 78, and tomorrow is actually her birthday,
Arriving in the third and final season, Batgirl came about because the producers asked DC Comics to create a female hero for the show. Thus Barbara Gordon-Batgirl debuted in comics and TV right around the same time—but with very different costume designs. The basic structures are the same—same mask type, same scalloped cape, etc.—but the color palettes differ. In a rare reversal, the TV costume is actually brighter and more colorful than than comics’ version, which used blackish-gray for the body suit instead of the show’s sparkly and regal purple. The TV garb really pops onscreen, fitting perfectly with the show’s pop art aesthetic. The deep, rich purples offer a gorgeous visual complement to Batman and Robin’s blues and reds, while all three share yellow as an accent color.
As epically great as the costume is, would it be as fondly remembered today as a symbol of adolescent crushes everywhere had another actress worn it? I seriously think not. It was a perfect storm of the right costume design for the right actress. Yvonne Craig was, is, and will always be one of the defining crushes of Generation X. To this day the mere mention of her name fills people my age with complete joy, while the sight of her in the Batgirl costume fills us with ALL THE FEELINGS. Gaze upon this perfection and tell me I’m wrong.
One thought on “Super Threads: Five Best Live-Action Super Costumes”
Cool and interesting list there Michael. Melissa Benoist as Supergirl really was iconic I must say. I really enjoyed the first 3 seasons of Supergirl a lot, but then it lost its edge during season 4, though Jon Cryer did amaze me with his portrayal of Lex Luthor. You can never go wrong with Christopher Reeves’ Superman or Yvonne Craig’s Batgirl, their costumes did help bring their portrayals full circle.
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