The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom

Thoughts on Justification, Retconning and Superhero Costumes

Written by: Tony Lazlo, CC2K Staff Writer

ImageWith the unveiling of Captain America’s new costume and movie trailer, we comic-book fans once again have to take a long, hard look at one of the fundamental eccentricities of our chosen genre and ask ourselves: Why the hell would anyone dress up like that?

Over the years, we’ve seen dozens of comic-book movies, and in most of them, we’ve seen different techniques and strategies for how to deal not only with the spandex thing, but with the larger question of why these characters dress up in costumes and adopt secret identities period.

The standard line from the world of comics is simple: These characters want to be able to fight crime in secret and protect their loved ones at the same time. That makes sense, but it still doesn’t quite fully support the notion that these people would adopt such … shall we say, colorful personas while fighting crime. Early comic-book readers were content to accept the basic explanation at face value, but as time marched on and readers became more savvy, we demanded slightly more believable explanations.

This problem became more complicated with the advent of serious comic-book movies, where filmmakers had to justify the whole “dress up in tights” thing to less genre-friendly audiences. But at the same time, comic books themselves also started to address the problem head-on – with mixed results.

For my money, a comic-book writer or filmmaker should only go out of their way to justify the tights if they can do it in a way that enhances the character or the overall experience. Or in other words, the artist should only justify the goofy comic-book trope if they can do it in such a way that you couldn’t imagine any other way.

Let me explain.

In Frank Miller’s immortal The Dark Knight Returns, one scene follows Batman as he tries to make a high-altitude escape from the Gotham City police. During the melee, a cop fires at Batman and hits him in the chest. In his interior monologue, Bruce Wayne remarks, “The armor took the shot. And people wonder why I wear a target on my chest.” (Side note: I can’t remember the exact quote.) With this simple line of dialogue, Frank Miller deftly justifies one of the goofiest tropes from the comic-book canon – The chest symbol – and he does it in such a way that you can’t imagine Batman any other way.

The art of justification I’m explaining here shares some DNA with the idea of retconning – a distinctly comic-book phenomenon, I submit, where writers delve into the past and retroactively justify an oddball event or choice in a character’s history. (For the uninitiated, the term is a mashup of the phrase “retroactive continuity.”) But I submit that the art of justifying a classic trope from the world of comics is a slightly different animal than retconning. When a writer retcons, they’re very often dealing with a story element that’s widely seen as a mistake – Geoff Johns’ retconning of Hal Jordan’s madness springs to mind – but in justification, a writer has to sell the readers on a story element that’s woven into the very fabric of the genre itself, like costumes and secret identities.

Let me offer another example of this kind of justification. In the movie X-Men 2, Magneto asks a fellow mutant what his name is.

“John,” the mutant replies.

To which Magneto asks, “What’s your real name, John?”

And John says, “Pyro.”

I cite this example, because let’s face it: Superhero names are pretty silly. But in X-Men 2, Bryan Singer and his team showed us that for some superheroes, the codenames they choose are points of pride; symbols of their removal from society. And once you start thinking along these lines, it gets hard to imagine a superhero without a codename. Lots of groups use goofy nicknames, from air force pilots to street-gang members. Why wouldn’t costumed crimefighters?

ImageAnd this brings me to the recently revealed design for Captain America’s new costume.

Just to recap: got a first look at the costume and published an extensive description along with some fan sketches of Cap’s new look. Then Ain’t It Cool News got ahold of more official artwork.

When I look at Cap’s new costume, I see the concept of justification all over the place – and I’m impressed. I don’t count myself the biggest expert on Cap, but I can imagine the challenge of trying to place one of Marvel’s more eccentrically garbed heroes into the same cinematic universe as Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man. With Iron Man, the filmmakers didn’t have to do any work to justify his costume – he wears a suit of armor, and it looks awesome.

But as characters like Thor and Captain America enter the scene, the filmmakers must find ways to put these characters onscreen in such a way that they won’t get laughed at. And hopefully when they do this, they’ll find ways to justify the costumes in a way that draws on the character’s own history. Again, ideally they’ll pull it off in such a way that we couldn’t imagine it otherwise.

With Cap’s new look, I don’t see a costume so much as an elaborate combat outfit designed for a guy who was originally something of a mascot for the armed forces (a story element from the comic’s early days). The costume looks versatile, comfortable and battle-ready. Furthermore, in a heightened reality where the U.S. military might deploy a walking propaganda symbol, I could imagine him wearing something like this.

The costume, which performer Chris Evans will reportedly wear for most of the film, also bears some satisfyingly old-fashioned touches, such as classic combat boots, 1940-influenced helmet, and old-school utility belt. When I myself thought about a possible Captain America movie, I figured I would probably place the movie’s action around World War II and go for an overall retro tone. I see that in this costume, and I hope that director Joe Johnston (The Rocketeer) can deliver on the amber-toned Americana I imagine when I think of this movie.