by Brett White
It’s impossible to talk about a Superman movie without talking about what he’s wearing. Superman’s costume has become one of the most easily identifiable in all of pop culture, and his symbol has now appeared on literally everything you can imagine. The guy’s a legend. So costume designer Michael Wilkinson had his work cut out for him when he signed on for director Zack Snyder’s Superman reboot, “Man of Steel.”
Thanks to an extraordinary opening weekend, it’s a sure bet that Wilkinson’s interpretation of Superman has become the interpretation for a whole new generation of superfans. We got a chance to talk with Wilkinson about taking on the project, working with frequent collaborator Zack Snyder and – of course – Superman’s red underwear.
Splash Page: Superman is maybe the most recognizable character in all of fiction. Was it a daunting task to redesign him? And did you take any cues from any previous superman designs?
Wilkinson: It was a thrilling sensation to contribute to the legacy of Superman. The process of designing his suit was continually fueled by the respect and awe we felt for the character. It was fascinating to explore the history and social context of the various incarnations of Superman over the last 75 years. Our goal was to design a Superman that acknowledges the past, but is relevant to today and resonates with contemporary audiences.
Splash Page: Do you have a personal history with Superman, or any previous interpretations of the character that mean a lot to you?
Wilkinson: There’s a little piece of Superman inside everyone, I think! My own connections with the character started with the  Richard Donner film that I saw as a kid growing up in Australia. I remember the film really set my imagination on fire. Then I started reading the Frank Miller graphic novels – they blew my mind because they presented a completely different superhero universe which was gritty and dark. A few years later I discovered the Alex Ross illustrations, which have such an absolute strength, clarity and beauty.
Splash Page: Echoes of Superman’s uniform can be seen in much of Kyrptonian culture, from the crests to the textured body suits. Where did the idea to link Superman’s superhero look to his home planet’s traditional dress come from?
Wilkinson: Our director Zack Snyder wanted to ground the Superman suit in the story of the film, so that there was a logic and a context for the look of the suit. I explored that idea with the look of the clothes on Krypton, giving them a family “glyph” or crest, and using the details of Superman’s cuff, side trim, boots and belt. The audience learns that the Kryptonian skin suit is an alien form of chain mail, a protective layer that is worn under heavier robes or armor.
Splash Page: You’ve worked with Zack Snyder on a number of films before, including his previous superhero film, “Watchmen.” Did “Man of Steel” present any unique design hurdles that “Watchmen” didn’t? Or vice versa?
Wilkinson: It was an honor and a source of great pleasure to work with Zack again. [He] has a truly inspiring point of view. We were used to designing characters that are very important to a lot of people out there, so we already had a design process in place that had the goal of being respectful to the characters, and at the same time taking them to new places that audience hasn’t seen before. With “Watchmen”, “300” and “Sucker Punch,” we had to deal with similar issues – stunts, cross-overs with digital effects, actors’ comfort in their costume, etc. But the scale of “Man of Steel” took it all to a whole new level!
Splash Page: Since you frequently collaborate with Zack Snyder, do you now instinctively know what designs he’ll gravitate towards? Does knowing that you’re working with him affect how you design costumes?
Wilkinson: I think subliminally I have Zack’s aesthetic preferences in the back of my mind when I’m designing for him – but he always likes to be challenged and stimulated by different points of view. Zack is incredibly non-judgmental and has such an active, inquiring mind that I always feel encouraged me to push the envelope with him, and explore outside of our visual comfort zone. Hopefully that keeps our work fresh.
Splash Page: As the film’s leading lady, Lois Lane could have easily been overly sexualized. Instead, she’s thankfully presented as very put together and professional. What was the inspiration behind Lois Lane’s look?
Wilkinson: I’m glad you enjoyed our take on Lois. It was extremely important to us to present Lois as an intelligent, highly educated contemporary woman. Amy Adams is the perfect choice for this character because she brings her own razor-sharp mind and sense of humor to the table. We researched real-life investigative journalists, who show a certain fearlessness both in the field and in the office. Her clothes are confident, and aim to be both practical and stylish without seeming overdone.
Splash Page: “Man of Steel” shows two drastically different cultures with Krypton and Smallville. Both of those cultures also have to share the screen for big chunks of the film as well. How did you make the two styles work together, keeping them both different but still within the defined aesthetic of the film?
Wilkinson: We wanted the audience to ask themselves the question, “What would happen if an alien presence was really discovered on earth?” and to create a level of detail and logic in the film where you believe that could really happen. We went deep into the visual language of Kryptonian life so that it would feel as complex and rich as our own world. The aesthetics, textures, colors, materials of the two worlds are, by definition, very different, but the approach to the realism of both worlds was the same.
Splash Page: Lastly, here’s the question everyone’s been asking: how many designs did you do that incorporated Superman’s red briefs?
Wilkinson: Before I was available to start on the film, Zack worked on some initial concept designs with the amazingly talented James Acheson. We did our due diligence and incorporated them into our process, but in the end, we felt that we should move on. The exciting thing about a character like Superman is that he exists in so many different universes – video games, toys, films, cartoons, graphic novels, TV shows – that there is endless interpretation of what he looks like. I think the suit that we created for our film works makes sense in the universe that we created for the film. I’m very proud of it.
What do you think of Superman’s new look? Let us know in the comments below or hit us up on Twitter!