Maybe it’s the Gotham City in me…
We just have a bad history with freaks dressed like clowns.
As important as it is to be in shape to play a Super Hero, it’s perhaps even more so to dress the part. Costume designer Michael Wilkinson, who designed the Superman suit from “Man of Steel,” was eager to revisit it and to have the opportunity to work on both Batman and Wonder Woman as well.
Without necessarily going back to the drawing board, Wilkinson says, “We wanted to keep developing the Superman suit. Zack liked the idea of it becoming even more streamlined, so we tried some new technologies and changed the side detailing. He had this great idea to incorporate some Kryptonian script into the suit this time, so through the bicep, the S glyph on his chest, and the belting on his wrists, there’s some very delicate text woven into the chainmail pattern. It’s a Joseph Campbell quote that is meaningful to Zack.”
The quote from Campbell that Wilkinson integrated into the costume speaks to the film’s themes with respect to the character: “And where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find a god; where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves; where we had thought to travel outward, we shall come to the center of our own existence; where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world.”
“Of course, to decipher it on the suit, you have to be able to read Kryptonian,” Wilkinson smiles.
Superman’s cape, too, has evolved. “With Superman’s cape, we were aiming for the sense of impossible perfection,” says the designer. “We found a great new fabric that has an unearthly metallic sheen and blends beautifully with the blue of his suit. The fabric was cut with a hot knife and welded together to avoid any stitching lines. Superman’s cape is an extension of his extremely graceful lines, and it is a remnant of the cape culture on Krypton.”
On the other hand, the Batsuit was inspired by the very down-to-Earth costume illustrated in Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. In the graphic novel, Batman’s suit is less high-tech and more analog, interpreted by Wilkinson as “something that Bruce Wayne has prototyped and put together in his workroom. It looks unfinished and raw and brutish.” The design served to emphasize the differences between the two Super Heroes: while Superman possesses a streamlined silhouette and an almost Grecian perfection, Batman is burlier and rougher around the edges.
While the Batsuit may at first glance appear to be low-tech, the designer declares, “The technologies that went into achieving that look are actually cutting edge. We started off by scanning Ben so we could create a mannequin of him. Then we sculpted a layer of anatomy and skinned it with a layer of digitally printed fabric. For the cowl, first we sculpted it in clay, then it was put into the computer using this amazing hand-held scanner. Once it was inside the computer, we applied a beautiful leathery texture to it. And then the real engineering started.
“We hollowed away the recesses within the bulk of the cowl so it would become more flexible, to move like regular anatomy,” he continues. “You can see the beautiful neck muscles, and it became one with Ben. It was a huge achievement in costume engineering to have a bat cowl that is comfortable and has a full range of movement. It took us maybe six to eight months to develop the full Batsuit before we committed it to camera.”
Also in contrast to the pristine quality of Superman’s costume is the battle-scarred look of Batman’s suit and cape. There are scratches and bullet holes, and bits of crud encrusted into the fabric from years fighting in the streets of Gotham. And while Superman’s cape is part of his Kryptonian culture, Batman’s is part of his disguise, hiding the man and adding a dark, sinister edge to his already menacing physique.
“Zack wanted our Batman to be incredibly physically intimidating, an expert fighter, a brawler,” says Wilkinson. “His power isn’t through his armor but the brute strength of the man inside, so you can see his muscle definition from head to toe, even through the boots and gloves. You get this impression of a tower of strength.”
The story also required a second Batsuit, with an entirely different function. In addition to the Batsuit that Batman wears for the better part of the movie, there is the more armor-like “mech suit.” Into this suit Bruce Wayne and Alfred pour all their mechanical know-how, hoping it will be impenetrable enough to give Batman a fighting chance against Superman.
Just as Henry Cavill’s suit turned him into Superman, Ben Affleck credits the Batsuit for turning him into Batman. “When I read the script,” admits Affleck, “I was like, ‘How do I do this? How do you play Batman?’ But then I put the suit on and looked in the mirror and thought, ‘That’s it.’ As it turns out, you don’t really play Batman, you play Bruce Wayne, that’s where the character gets complicated. Batman himself is stoic and dark and if the suit looks great and it’s photographed well, it’s iconographic, almost a painting of this avenging character. It’s a mistake to try to overact Batman. You let the suit and everything else that is going on around you do most of the work.”
Perhaps the biggest challenge for the costume department was the new design of Wonder Woman’s costume. A few attempts to update it from the iconic 1970s design had been made elsewhere, but director Snyder did not want merely to update. He wanted to start from scratch.
“The first thing that Zack and I talked about was that we wanted it to appear like she’s been wearing this costume for her entire history,” relates Wilkinson. “She wears a gladiator-style breastplate, a split skirt and leg armor, with centuries of wear from battle. The leather is crackled and antique-looking. All her weapons are distressed and they have a fantastic sense of age.”
Snyder wanted Wonder Woman’s costume to be made of metal, which seemed like a great idea until Wilkinson began thinking about the demands of the film’s battle scenes and other special effects. “Metal is rigid,” Wilkinson explains, “but the choreography and the stunt requirements of our script called for incredible ease of movement. So instead we developed a material that looks like metal but was able to take a paint finish so we could create a wonderfully ancient feel to it, and still have it be flexible. I designed a sectioned breastplate that has expansion joints, allowing Gal to breathe and bend and do all her amazing stunt moves while looking like she’s outfitted in this incredibly strong, metal armor. We wanted to balance her power and intimidation with her grace and majesty.”
As Wilkinson well knows by now, challenges are part of the process of creating complex costumes. “Whenever we work on these Super Hero costumes, we do a lot of research and development in preproduction,” says Wilkinson. “We explore textiles and think about what the suits are going to go through during the shoot. There are always very extensive stunt sequences and wirework and elaborate choreography that these costumes have to withstand. You also have to think about keeping your actors comfortable, whether that means a cooling suit underneath or layers to keep them warm. And the costumes have to last the entire shoot. You need to work out how many multiples to make and what different variations you have to have whether it’s with short capes, no capes, flexible cowls, stunt boots…it’s really quite a jigsaw. But it was really satisfying because it allowed me go to places where costumes haven’t gone before, to explore new technologies that help make these costumes not only look great but be very functional as well.”
Of course, all three costumed characters also appear as their alter egos, Clark Kent, Bruce Wayne and Diana Prince, and Wilkinson and his team had to dress them as well. “For all of Clark’s civilian clothes, we wanted a reminder of the Midwestern boy from Kansas, so we use soft, warm textures—wools, corduroys—and earth-toned browns and plaids.”
Due to Cavill’s physique, everything was made from scratch. “Henry has such an extraordinary shape, you can’t just buy off the rack for him,” Wilkinson notes, “but we were very conscious of using fabrics and design to deemphasize his size and help him—help Clark, really—hide in his clothes.”
Bruce Wayne required rather the opposite style. “The thing that really helped me find out who Bruce was and how he should dress was a conversation I had early on with Ben,” Wilkinson states. “He felt the character would appear very austere, that he’s the sort of guy who, when you walk into his closet, has eight perfectly pressed white shirts and 12 incredible navy and black suits. In fact, maybe that is the uniform, that is the alter ego, pretending to be this wealthy playboy who dates supermodels and drives flashy cars, when in fact he’s really much closer to the character of Batman.”
Once the designer had that imagery in his head, he avoided the urge to go flashy and went instead for an elegant refinement and minimalism for Bruce Wayne. “I designed all of his clothes and chose beautiful fabrics. Bruce’s tailored clothes were made by Gucci’s amazing tailors in Milan, and they fit him like a glove.”
Bruce Wayne, however, is not the only billionaire businessman in the story. Contrasting that character in basically every way, Lex Luthor is a model of a modern-day, entrepreneurial twentysomething in charge of a vast empire but with little affinity for how his father might have run things in his day.
“As soon as Jesse Eisenberg was cast as Lex, I knew exactly where I wanted to go with the character,” Wilkinson remembers. “There was a great sense of freedom in that because the casting was so against type, so against the sort of Wall Street tycoon in the three-piece suits and power ties that one expects. Our Lex is a young, 21st-century IT businessman; I liked that he has a totally different physicality from the muscle-bound Super Heroes. It’s clear that his power is his intellect, not his brawn. Even though he has all the money in the world and, therefore, access to the best clothes, he playfully combines expensive pieces with screen-printed t-shirts, casual bright-colored suiting and sneakers. You can’t quite put your finger on him or his style—that’s how he likes it.”
Wilkinson enjoyed the prospect of dressing two characters who could shop in the same price bracket but who have such vastly different approaches to their wardrobes. “We thought of Lex as maybe Mick Jagger mixed with a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, that kind of vibe. I think it turned out to be a very surprising and provocative take on the character.”
In designing Diana Prince’s civilian attire, Wilkinson says he was careful to resist the temptation to “go too high fashion or over the top. We wanted to create clothes for Gal that were very striking and individual-looking, but also grounded in her persona and the reality of the film.”
The designer strove for European elegance and sophistication, letting the beauty of the actress stand out through the use of minimal color. “She wears a lot of solid colors with confident silhouettes and statement jewelry, all of which convey her intelligence and, somehow, that she’s someone you don’t want to mess with. It was important that the clothes provide a sense of strength, rather than just being ornamental.”
Of course, we all know Wonder Woman is famous for some of her accessories, but neither she nor Batman would be truly ready for battle without their own, individualized arsenals.