Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Trenchcoat League (Heroes Who Dress Like Whitesnake)

Wesley Snipes straps on the guns, throwing stars and silver nitrate once again in “Blade: Trinity.” Will the Daywalker and his band of vampire killers (including Jessica Biel!?!??) be able to defeat the undead again, this time including the resurrected Dracula, or as he’s known now, “Drake?”

Actually, we think you know the answer, but that’s not the question of the day. What we really wanna know is, who first decided that the ultimate fashion choice for battling evil was long black trench coats? Why is this particular garment as ubiquitous on action heroes as ponchos are on bridge and tunnel gals?

While the long, double breasted overcoat has been worn by detectives in films since the forties, even the most hard boiled dick didn’t do a lot of wirework in those bygone days of noir. At most, Sam Spade chased a bad guy down a dark alley at a sprightly jog.

Today’s gun-toting good guys are a more active lot. Even the ones without super powers somehow manage to easily leap a twenty foot alley expanse or successfully dive through a hail of semi-automatic machine gun fire. Knowing your line of work will require this kind of physical exertion, why on Earth would one choose to wear such a cumbersome garment?

Blame it on “Blade Runner.” Ridley Scott’s 1982 sci-fi film correctly predicted the future in many ways, from its theme of the ethics of cloning to robot pets and omnipresent invasive advertising. But those shots of Deckard (Harrison Ford) leaping across rain soaked rooftops in his flowing trench may have been the most prescient aspect of that movie (despite the coat’s brown color).

In the years since, that particular article of clothing has adorned heroes in “the Matrix,” “Darkman,” “the Crow,” “the Punisher,” “Black Mask,” “Highlander,” “Underworld,” “Van Helsing” “Mystery Men,” and “Hellboy.” Spike and Angel shared that fashion sense on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” John Cusack wore one in “Say Anything.” Oh, wait... he didn’t battle evil in that film (unless Ione Skye’s dad counts). The list goes on and on.

Of course, it’s not just the good guys who love the look. Villains dig it, too. Witness Bullseye in “Daredevil,” Doc Ock in “Spider-Man 2,” Mr. Glass in “Unbreakable,” and at least half the villains who squared off against the protagonists mentioned in the last paragraph! It’s not like the old white hat / black hat days when you could easily tell the hero from his adversary!

In the comics, Blade wore a shorter brown leather jacket with green pants, a costume that probably wouldn’t translate to live action. With more iconic heroes like Spider-Man, Batman and Superman, audiences can accept the costumes because they have that image in their head already. But lesser known characters like the Punisher or Blade or the X-Men give Hollywood costumers more leeway.

Making superhero outfits from leather is sensible; It’s protective, sturdy and sleek, while remaining flexible. When Bryan Singer decided to clothe the X-Men in matching leather jumpsuits instead of their individual, multi-colored comic book costumes, it was the right decision. The in-joke line where Cyclops asks Wolverine if he’d prefer doing battle in “yellow spandex” (which Wolvie wears in the comics) effectively silenced every fanboy’s complaint about not remaining faithful to the source material. (Of course, why Storm wore high heels remains to be explained, but that also applies to Catwoman, Trinity, Barb Wire, Wonder Woman and pretty much every other female action star since Barbarella... but that’s another column).

Putting heroes in modified street clothes not only seems less dorky, it solves another storytelling problem. The toughest suspension of disbelief in “Spider-Man” wasn’t that Peter Parker could climb walls and shoot webs from his wrists... it was that he made the incredibly complicated Spidey suit by himself! And we won’t even get into the ramifications of Alfred designing the nippled, fetishistic Batman and Robin outfits in “Batman Forever...”

The issue of tailoring to superheroes was dealt with brilliantly in “The Incredibles.” Superhero stylist Edna Mode’s treatise on the dangers of capes could certainly be applied to the trench coats, which would seem to be even more unwieldy and bulky, especially with all those belts and loops. The only mitigating factor is pockets, but they rarely seem to be used in films; crimefighting accoutrements are far more likely to be housed on a utility belt or a hidden harness (or just appear out of nowhere).

On top of that (and this is purely subjective), unlike capes, trench coats just don’t look cool. They bring to mind bad eighties metal or insurance salesmen. They’re a pushy style that tries way too hard, like a bad toupee, a Tag Heuer platinum watch or a Trans Am. It’s kinda sad to think that Whitesnake set the template for futuristic crime fighting attire. And while we’re fully aware that it’s a trend that’s not going away any time soon (see next year’s “Constantine”), we’re waiting for the forward thinking super powered do-gooder who will follow the couture lead of Andre 3000 or the White Stripes. Y’never know... maybe Brandon Routh’s Superman outfit in Bryan Singer’s new film will be red leather pants and a white T-shirt with a simple red \S/... Okay, probably not. But at least he won’t be wearing a trench coat.

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