Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Anatomy of the Batsuit

When millionaire playboy Bruce Wayne decided to spend his nights fighting crime, he designed a special costume to wear during these proceedings. The original outfit consisted of a form-fitting gray bodysuit, a scalloped cape designed to mimic a bat's wings, a cowl with pointy ears designed to obscure his face from the nose upwards, and a nifty yellow belt in which to hold all his crime-fighting utilities.

For this year's Hallowe'en celebration, I created my own version of the Batsuit. The only piece specifically engineered for a Batman costume was the synthetic leather-ish mask/cowl - the rest I put together from found materials or from scratch, much like the actual Bruce Wayne.

Click on Continue... for some of the things I learned through constructing and wearing a Batman costume of my own.

First, to put my Batsuit in context, let's look at some previous live-action adaptations of Batman's iconic garb.

In the 1960s TV series with Adam West, the costume was basically a fabric bodysuit with a shiny pleather-esque cape and cowl. Nothing about this Batsuit reflects the dark and brooding nature of Batman's character or the savage vigilante nature of his nocturnal mission. But then again, nothing about the show itself reflects these things about Batman either: he was just a guy in a goofy costume fighting against other guys in other goofy costumes. The periwinkle blue suit contributed to the overall comic book feel almost as much as the famous *POW* *BANG* on-screen emphatics: watching West try to act a scene in his mask that completely covers his eyes takes camp to a whole new level.

The 1989 Tim Burton film made the Batsuit at once more and less practical. It's all black, increasing Batman's stealth capabilities. It's armored, which just plain makes sense given the amount of physical punishment he takes. But the sturdy leather makeup of the suit makes movement look constricted and awkward, especially when you see Batman driving the Batmobile and realize that he's physically incapable of checking his blind spots. With selective photography and clever editing, Burton & Co. tried to present the caped crusader as remarkably strong and agile, but in the long shots and long takes you could tell that the stuntman was having a devil of a time working through the choreography.

Christopher Nolan's recent Batman franchise attempts to explain many of the particular idiosyncrasies of the Batsuit. Batman Begins is the first movie where we see Bruce Wayne put together his suit from scratch, and they took full advantage of the 21st century to make it appear as plausible as possible. How can Batman move with all that molded plastic enhancing his physique? It's ultra-light titanium triweave fabric, of course. Why does he have those dumb ears on his costume? Duh, that's where the antenna for his communication device goes. Wouldn't that cape just get in the way? Not when it can transform into a glider, dummy! The latest Batman film even included a joke about the futility of the costumes in the previous films. The actual prop costume still looked rather silly and impossible to move in, but at least they tried to make you think that they wanted it to make sense.

Now let's talk about my Halloween costume. The main part of the suit is just plain gray long underwear (turned inside out to hide the nasty manufacturer's logo that's not quite obscured by the bat-signal on the chest) and a pair of black nylon/spandex briefs over the top. It has the same unenhanced physique look as the Adam West version, but with the black and gray color scheme of the original comics. My co-worker (mother) and I crafted a bat-signal out of yellow and black fabric, and iron-on fused it to the shirt. It has a similar design as Tim Burton's bat-signal, but with the cloth-like consistency and light yellow color of the '90s animated series.

I had the cape from a previous costume - Zorro I believe; we just had to cut the scallops into the bottom. It's made of fabric and doesn't quite fit with the leather(ish) cowl I found at a costume shop several months ago, but it swirls and billows real nice. The cowl was made to coincide with 1997's Batman & Robin: eight years before the Christopher Nolan reboot, and thus subject to all the visual field/head turning shortcomings of the older Batsuits, but it would be just too hard to make something like that from scratch.

I had leather boots, also from Zorro. I picked up some Darth Vader gloves from a Halloween store. For the utility belt, I put all my gear (wallet, keys, glasses, etc.) in a black fanny pack, turned the pouch around so the folds of the cape would conceal it, and strapped a yellow baseball belt over it to keep up appearances.

After I got into my costume, I was ready to hit the parties. At first I was discouraged. Standing around, drink in hand, trying to make conversation proved a difficult task. The mask obscured my vision, necessitating an awkward full-body pivot just to speak to someone not standing directly in front of me, and causing me to constantly bump into things/people. The mask also covered my ears, preventing me from hearing either end of the conversation accurately. And don't even get me started on trying to breathe through the nose, or on the sweat that pools in that damn thing. At least I didn't have to paint black all around my eyeballs. Furthermore, my bat gloves had no bat traction, causing me to drop my drink to the floor (but only once).

But once the party moved outside, where it was mostly dark with plenty of places to maneuver, I found it much easier to embody the character of Batman. Despite being dressed in a light, spottable gray, it was remarkably easy to swirl my cape around me, put my head down, and slip out of sight. More than a few times, people would catch a glimpse of me, shout out, "Hey, Batman!" or something, then return to their conversations. Then when they took a look back to where I was standing, expecting me to have joined in the circle, I would have already vanished into the shadows, just close enough to see their confused reactions without being spotted myself. Creepy? Yes. Effective? Also yes.

This behavior got me to thinking that part Batman's M.O. is that you never get a good, full-on look at him for any length of time. The aesthetics of his costume reflect this fact: he looks great when he's slinking around or moving real fast, but the sight of a grown man wearing tights and a restrictive leather mask with pointy ears would undoubtedly grow ridiculous rather quickly. The practicality of his character also reflects this: if Batman stayed still for too long, he might get shot or, worse, recognized!

Speaking of which, the identity-concealing aspect of the costume worked better than I expected. In my weaker, more sacrilegious moments, I would sometimes wonder why nobody realizes that Batman is really Bruce Wayne - I mean, you can see half his face, for crying out loud! But I was surprised at the frequency of which my friends and acquaintances would not recognize me with the mask on. There's one thing that works the way it's supposed to.

But a lot of the costume didn't work towards practicality. More than a few times throughout the night I found myself cursing my gloves that wouldn't catch hold of a beer bottle or my cape that found its way under someone's foot going down the stairs behind me. "Why does Batman even HAVE these ears!?" became a popular catch phrase that always provoked a laugh from bystanders who happened to witness me bumping my head on a branch or low doorway. Ironically enough, it would be easier to slink around Batman style WITHOUT the most recognizable parts of the Batman costume.

All this got me to thinking that there's no way to create a live-action depiction of Batman's costume that is both realistic and practical. Even the bare bones versions drastically reduce visibility and range of motion, two key abilities for staying alive in the streets of Gotham. The high-tech iterations, while providing more leeway in terms of bells and whistles, look to be heavy and unweildy to the point of negating all the stealth and guile on which Batman depends.

But then again, maybe part of what makes Batman so badass is that he can do everything he does even with the handicap of his costume. And he can do it better than any other non-genetically altered human in all of comics. Sure, it would be easier to see without that stupid cowl, but it would be not nearly as cool, nor would it send the same message. Batman's principles set apart from other comic book characters, and Batman's frightening yet impractical costume, perfectly embodies those principles.