Superman

Superman’s costume has evolved more times than he's come back to life

Contributed by
Mar 23, 2018

It's a bird... it's a plane... it's a guy in blue spandex crashing to Earth!

That spandex hasn't always been blue. In his 79 years of existence — which will officially become 80 on April 18 — Superman has been through almost as many costume changes as he has nefarious villains and epic battles. And in some of these alternate Kryptonian skinsuits, you wouldn't recognize the hero even if he were soaring above the skyscrapers in whatever your version of Metropolis might be.

Can you imagine Kal-El wearing jeans? Crackling with blue radiation? Being copied in purple by his clone? Actually going out in public in a black unitard with a mullet that makes him look more like he belongs in a heavy metal dive bar than the pages of a comic book?

Fly through some of the endless mutations the Super-suit has been through in eight decades of swooping in to save the universe.

early Superman

1934

Superman looked more human than super after he was first sketched into being by Joe Shuster — something like an Ivy Leaguer with a monogrammed sweater who, for whatever reason, just happens to be wearing gladiator boots and a cape.

Superman

1938

Spawning from a capsule that an alien scientist sent to Earth from space, Superman emerges in full color on the cover of Action Comics Vol. 1, #1 in that trademark blue spandex, red briefs and cape that may now scream "superhero" but were actually inspired by sideshow strongmen. The iconic S shield (which would see many more iterations) was added to make him more, well, super.

Superman

1938

The hero gets an upgrade from ankle boots to knee-highs for his very own series, though his bulging calf muscles don't exactly let them come all the way to the knee. The S has also evolved into something a little less country club and a little more Justice League.

Joe Fleischer Superman

1940

The S shield on the Fleischer animated version of Superman is starting to morph into something more recognizable, with a bold letter that's wider at the top — kind of like its hero's physique. The red and black color scheme ended up being left behind, though.

Superman

1941

Not that he ever needed them, but Superman must have gotten into protein shakes in 1941 because that blue spandex now defines every single known muscle on his anatomy (and some you probably had no idea existed). The S is finally morphing into something Super-fans would recognize today. Oh, and expect a recovering fashion junkie like me to notice this, but there are finally belt loops to keep his belt from flying off when he's zooming through the sky.

Superman

1948

When Kirk Alyn first swoops onto Sunday afternoon TV in 1948, he looks like he flew straight out of the comics, except the S takes a much more prominent place on his chest. So what if his suit is straight-up spandex without all the sculpted Kryptonian armor you see in later incarnations? Superman doesn't really need that when his skin is impervious to bullets.

Superman

1950

The back of the hero's cape flashes on the front cover of Action Comics Vol. 1, #143, "The Bride of Superman," emblazoned with his shield (which is finally bold enough to get noticed by aliens above or villains below) in gold. What else would he wear to his own wedding?

George Reeves as Superman

1951

George Reeves saves primetime TV in the Technicolor version of Superman, in which the Kryptonian skinsuit he wears consists of boiled wool that bunches up unflatteringly around the crotch. Intense studio lights overheat the actor so much that he loses up to 10 pounds a day in sweat. The show convinces so many kids they can fly with a bedsheet cape that Reeves is forced to give lectures explaining that humans aren't made to be airborne.

superman9.png

1973

What's with the black briefs? It must be laundry day for Superman when he appears on the animated TV series Super Friends in briefs that would better suit a certain vigilante in Gotham City, but at least the S shield on the back of his cape finally matches the one on his chest.

Superman on Super Friends

1973

In the live version of Super Friends, Chuck Woolery's costume is total Halloween material. I mean, how could you take ill-fitting, off-color spandex with something only vaguely resembling the now-iconic S shield seriously? At least all the kids tuning into this on Funshine Friday while fueling up on after-school candy probably didn't mind.

Christopher Reeve as Superman

1978

Say what you will, but there is no Superman costume that is more Superman than Christopher Reeve's in the Richard Donner classic (which also has the best soundtrack ever), even if he is a bit shiny in that Lycra. He even trained for that Super-bod with Darth Vader.

Bizarro Superman

1986

You know how they say to be yourself unless you can be Superman, then always be Superman? Bizarro takes that one way too seriously. The problem is that his flawed Kal-El clone doesn't really look so much like the original specimen as he does — if I'm allowed to cross over to the Marvel universe for a second here — a mashup of Thanos and the Hulk in a purple bodysuit.

Cyborg Superman

1993

Did Kal-El join the Borg in 1993? This half-android Superman is actually a disappointed Hank Henshaw, who lands back on Earth for vengeance against the Man of Steel only to find out that Doomsday got to defeat the hero first. He's living proof that you should never try to build yourself an upgraded body with someone else's Kryptonian birthing matrix.

Superman, Lois and Clark

1993

The one thing I remember from watching Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman as a kid is the unearthly shine of Clark's suit, with the shield and belt more like molten gold than the bright yellow of previous onscreen iterations. I guess that's just how spandex was done in the '90s.

Blue Superman

1997

Didn’t anyone tell Superman that exposing himself to the Kryptonian Gestation Matrix could make him electric? The need to absorb alien energy to revitalize himself actually led to one of the most badass Superman costumes, consisting of less fabric and more radiation.

Nic Cage as Superman

1998

Close your eyes and imagine what kind of twisted wonderland would come out of Tim Burton directing a Superman movie. Weirder things have been Burtonized. Superman Lives was supposed to star Nic Cage as the Man of Steel, and that long mane would have admittedly looked fabulous streaming behind him as he flew to Lois Lane’s rescue. The suit Cage wears in his regeneration pod glows with fiber-optic lights that make it seem like Superman is going to look radioactive the whole time when its only purpose is to resuscitate his cells.

This movie never happened, whether that's a relief or a disappointment to you, but Cage will be voicing the character he never got to be onscreen in Teen Titans Go.

Superman

2002

You really, really don't want to mess with Superman when the nightmarish visions that are invading his mind disturb him so much that even the S on the back of his cape has turned black.

Clark, Superman, Smallville

2009

The one time Clark gets to rock anything remotely close to his alter ego on Smallville, you could barely get the reference. Blame that "no flight, no tights" thing. Wait, there's also that red jacket and blue shirt later on, but it's still kind of awkward.

Superman by Jim Lee

2011

You have 10 seconds to figure out what's missing in this picture.

Spoiler: It's the red briefs. Jim Lee might have thrown those in the wash to give Superman a more cohesive all-blue look, but somehow it doesn't feel cohesive without that flash of red.

Superman

2014

In the world of comics, it seems inevitable that superheroes must wear jeans at one point or another. Is it to be more like us, or to show just how unlike us they are by lifting an 18-wheeler while pretending to be average? Humanity may never know.

Superman

2017

Henry Cavill's reimagined Kryptonian skinsuit in 2013's Man of Steel, 2016's Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and most recently, Justice League (2017) was a darker, more alien (in the best possible way) take on the Kryptonian get-up that brought him soaring into the future.

Superman

2018

It's a new era for Superman when Action Comics #1000 lands on Earth on April 18. The briefs will resurface.