Designing 'The Defenders:' Costume Designer Stephanie Maslansky on How Classic Comics are Adapted
In the wake of The Defenders, I spoke to Stephanie Maslansky, the costume designer who's worked with the House of Ideas on all the Netflix shows to date.
Marvel's Netflix shows have been a remarkable success. They're darker than your standard MCU fare, edgier and more brutal, adapting some of the most intense comic book stories of all time, such as the Punisher's bloody rampage in prison and Jessica Jones struggling to deal with the manipulative Kilgrave. Some of the most powerful comic book characters have been faithfully adapted for this dark corner of the MCU, and fans are loving it.
But how does Marvel adapt these characters and concepts for Netflix? In the wake of The Defenders, I spoke to Stephanie Maslansky, the costume designer who's worked with the House of Ideas on all the Netflix shows to date.
The Weight Of Fan Expectation
Comic books are a visual medium, and as a result fans react to the optics more than anything else. Maslansky completely understands that, describing fans as the first thing she thinks about. She considers it vitally important to pay homage to the "historical illustrations," drawing on everything from Matt's lawyer suits in the comics, to designs for Luke Cage that date from the '90s.
Always interested in fashion and history, Maslansky finds the Netflix shows to be tremendously enjoyable. As she notes:
"I love how creative the Marvel/Netflix superhero jobs are. The work is especially rewarding due to the array of genres covered throughout the stories: period, fashion, fantasy. I enjoy the challenges of re-interpreting illustrations of historical characters for live-action in the current era. I also love the collaborative nature of the work. I have a great team. We experience great joy in working together to help build these worlds inhabited by NY street-level superheroes."
Take Daredevil as an example. His superhero costume was created and sketched by Joe Quesada, Jeph Loeb, and Josh Shaw; it was built in Los Angeles by Hargate Costumes. Maslansky points out that it's been a work-in-progress, tweaked to make it increasingly comfortable, and both actor and film-friendly. The helmet was changed for The Defenders, with a matte surface replacing the original shiny look.
Maslansky, however, has had much more impact on Matt's out-of-costume look. As she notes, in the comics Matt Murdock tends to wear the same thing when not "in costume." He's typically dressed in a "rat pack" style of suit that dates from the 1960s, with slim lapels and ties. Fashion's changed a lot, though, so Maslansky found it necessary to update that look. She explains:
"In 2017 the overall silhouette of men’s suiting is much slimmer, due to evolving fashion and the fact that people care much more about being in shape now than before. So, we incorporate that."
Essentially, she says, "Matt Murdock has a "uniform" whether he's in-costume or not." Maslansky continues:
Shirts are also textural — made of Oxford cloth in white, light grey or pale blue, all with button-down collars. His ties are not trendily slim, but on the slim side. The patterns are of grays, black, white, and shades of red. This is his ‘uniform’ in live action. And as a blind man, he doesn’t have to worry about mis-matching; every piece in his closet works well together. He recognizes his suits and ties by touch."
It's a smart, considered design that works as both an homage to the original comics and a creative reinterpretation for the present day.
The Other Defenders
Although Maslansky notes that all the character designs are challenging, she clearly views Iron Fist as a work in progress. As Maslansky notes, this one's particularly difficult because there's actually a lot of disagreement among fans over how Iron Fist should look. She sums up her attitude quite simply:
"I strive to keep fans satisfied with our results. It’s going to take a bit more work in the long run."
Reactions to Jessica Jones and Luke Cage, though, have been far more positive. Maslansky points to Brian Bendis's Alias comics as inspiration for Jessica's look, pointing to the leather blazer she wore in that arc. That's been replaced by a motorcycle jacket, chosen to represent an extra barrier between Jessica and the rest of humanity, signifying her withdrawal from normal human relationships.
"So, her jacket, jeans, boots, scarf and fingerless gloves become a protective superhero costume in that sense."
Meanwhile, Luke Cage is designed as what Maslansky calls "a working man's hero." His brand of choice is Carhartt, which classically represents the working man; according to Maslansky, they're thrilled with the collaboration.
Reflecting on Luke Cage, Maslansky notes just how topical the season became. I'm left impressed by how carefully she monitors the conversation, and how well she understands the cultural importance of the superhero shows she's working on. As Maslansky explains:
"Season 1 of 'Luke Cage' was made around the time of Trayvon Martin’s death and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. It was a tragic time that sadly shows no evidence of abating. Our show became emblematic with the struggle and offered up a symbolic alternative: a bullet-proof black man in a hoodie."
Creating A New Character
Of course, it's one thing to adapt a fan-loved character; it's another to create a whole new villain. The Defenders introduced us to Sigourney Weaver's Alexandra, a fascinating character whose fate left us shocked. I couldn't resist asking how Maslansky designed this original character, and again she stressed the collaborative nature of the work:
"The conversation starts, as always as a collaboration between the Marvel execs, the showrunner, the production designer and myself. Together we create the environments she occupies, as well as the clothing she would choose to wear."
I love the sense that character designs begin as a "conversation" between all the different parties. As the creative team hone in on the vision underpinning the character, Maslansky develops mood boards made up of images or sketches to help clarify the design. In the case of Alexandra, everything needed to create a sense of intrigue, power, and conviction. Maslansky notes:
"I wanted her clothing to convey mystique and history. It has an ancient quality to it. There are a lot of metallics and natural colors. Is she a warrior? Do the clothes convey a perception of armor or protection? Is there a metaphorical sense of being rooted to the earth for her? I hope so…"
It was a real honor to interview Stephanie Maslansky, and to get a sense of just how seriously Marvel takes their fans. They know they're dealing with classic heroes, characters who have a weight of history behind them and who have been loved since back in the '60s. In light of that, the shows we get are fascinating, modern reinterpretations of designs from some of the greatest figures in comic book history. Given the success of the Marvel/Netflix shows to date, that approach is clearly paying off!