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The Marvel Cinematic Universe represents world-building on a massive level. Even the most passive cultural consumer is no doubt aware of movies like The Avengers and Iron Man, the billion-dollar tentpole franchises that dominate weeks of blockbuster season every summer (and, with at least nine more releases on the way, will do so into the next decade).
But the MCU also relies on smaller releases on different platforms to keep fans satiated, drive revenue, and build narratives around less popular but hopefully exciting characters. In 2013, Bob Iger, CEO of MCU proprietor Disney, announced that Netflix would host individual shows featuring Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist, and that a subsequent a miniseries called The Defenders would see them team up as one Avengers-lite unit. Three of the four had successful debut seasons, with Rotten Tomatoes scores above 90 percent — Iron Fist season 1 debuts March 17th — and the second seasons are either already out (Daredevil) or on the way.
The plethora of shows creates a bit of a dilemma. Not only do all four characters exist within the same universe, they are all based in New York City. The programs need to look similar enough that switching from one to another isn't visually jarring or confusing. At the same time, each one needs to be its own distinct entity, with strong lead characters who are visually and emotionally independent. The shows should track with the ethos of the MCU — Iger said feature films could be in the works if the characters prove popular enough — while playing well on a television screen or mobile phone, and within the constraints of the smaller Netflix series budget. That's a serious ask, and, given the relentless and obsessive focus of MCU superfans, one that's vital to get right.
Enter Stephanie Maslansky.
As the costume designer for all of the Netflix series, there's perhaps no one more involved with creating the look of each character. “It's about marrying the absurd to the authentic,” she says over coffee in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn. “These are street-level heroes. That's what binds them together. They all struggle with their identity and their ability. They want to consider themselves normal people.”
Maslansky continues on the same theme: “They are all dark. Each of these characters are struggling with their past. They all had tragedies strike when they were young or when they were young adults in which they were unfairly incarcerated or their families died in horrible tragedies.” The costume choices reflect their respective paths.
Malansky found her way into the Marvel Universe in May 2014, when she signed on to costume design for the first season of Daredevil after previously working on shows like Black Box and Zero Hour. She collaborated with showrunner Steven S. DeKnight to nail down the look of blind lawyer-turned-superhero Matt Murdock, his friend and partner Foggy Nelson, Karen Page, Rosario Dawson's Claire Temple, and other characters. It was a long process, one that also included conversations and meetings with the producers, the director of photography, the visual effects team, and the hair and makeup crew.
Additionally, Maslansky needed to work within the bounds of an already-existing world, one that's both well known by fanboys and a part of the multibillion-dollar Marvel machine. Daredevil wasn't just a television show; it was a series of action figures, posters, and other collectables, and the costume had to fit into those worlds. “The Marvel Cinematic Universe is a very strong universe,” she says. “We're carrying these characters that were created in the 1950, ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, or ’90s and then bringing them into the modern era, making them badass, but also making them pay homage to the traditional characters. They have a lot to say.”
As a costume designer, Maslansky needs to be aware of not just where the characters are going, but also where they’ve been. Although she couldn’t say much about the Iron Fist costume because the show hadn’t debuted and Marvel has “very strict” policies about releasing information, she did offer a teaser: “There's going to be a wonderful easter egg in the show where you might get to see something that is sort of a throwback, a little bit of origin story.”
Translation: The force is strong when it comes to MCU intellectual property, and a costume designer only has so much input on some of the higher-profile pieces. Maslansky didn't have much say in the initial design of the Daredevil costume. This was in part because she came to the project after it had already started, but mostly due to the fact that Marvel's corporate team had ideas about how it should look, how it should function, and how they could sell other items associated with it. As limitations in the costume became apparent, however, she and her colleagues made some alterations. They transformed the uniform from a one-piece to a two-piece suit, while making the pants a bit looser to facilitate movement. They also changed the helmet. “I think [the whole process] would have been smoother if there were a custom designer involved,” she says. (Maslansky didn't work on Daredevil season 2, when some of these changes were made, because she was busy with other MCU projects.)
Maslansky has more flexibility to impart her vision on other characters, both individuals and groups. “They have to be grounded in this gritty New York City that we've created,” she says. “Even though it's changed, I think people still think of New York as a place where nefarious things happen in dark corners. That ties our shows together, whether I'm dressing people who have a lot of money or who are dark and flawed.” The higher-ups at Marvel have also learned to trust her instincts. Unlike showrunners, who work on specific shows, and directors, who work on individual episodes, Maslansky works across all five of the MCU Netflix series and has a wide body of knowledge. “They trust me and they encourage me to pitch them ideas,” she said. “They listen. I think they are happy that I have some thoughts on my own, and they are happy to hear them. They don't always fly, but it's been really quite good.”
Jessica Jones, the streetwise hero played by Krysten Ritter, often wears a simple outfit of jeans, a sweater, and a beat-up leather jacket. It's the type of costume Maslansky has worked to bring to all the Marvel shows: a distinctive look that borrows from previous source material, like the comic books, but also one that wouldn't be out of place on the streets of the real Hell’s Kitchen circa 2017. Jones's limited clothing selection helps build out her character's down-on-her-luck narrative. She wears thrift-store chic well. There are, of course, some cheats, most notably the leather jacket. It's not from a thrift store and it didn't cost $25. Instead, it's from Acne and sells for $1,800 on Net-a-Porter. The reason: Maslansky needed multiple versions for Ritter and her stunt double. “I can't just go and buy a really awesome aged jacket at a thrift store,” she says. “We need about 16 of them. But it has a certain look to it. We distressed the hell of out of.”
Maslansky took a similarly unflashy approach to the costumes for lawyer-turned-Daredevil Murdock. At the beginning of the first season, the hero and his friend, Nelson, are launching a law practice and struggling for money. Her choices reflected their reality, as well as the fact that Murdock has no sight. “The suits weren't high-end, and given that he's blind, I restricted the palette to black, gray, and navy blue, and every once in a while a little shot of red and white,” she says. “That way, he could never make a mistake. Whatever suit, tie, shirt he chose, he could never make a mistake.”
Trickier was Zebediah Killgrave, Jessica Jones' adversary. He's also known as the Purple Man, and appears in dramatic shades of purple in the comics. But that wouldn't work on a Netflix show, as he'd draw too much attention and overwhelm viewers who may be watching on something as small as a smartphone. After speaking with the lighting crew, who planned to light the set with lavenders and purples whenever Killgrave was in a scene, she decided on a more muted approach. “I avoided bright lavender or anything that popped,” she says. “We'd mix in navy blue or maroon.” The idea worked. The result is subtle but effective, a costume that stays true to the Marvel world while advancing the Netflix story.
When it comes to world-building with costumes in the MCU, sometimes less is more. “My motto is ‘never distract,’” Maslansky says. “I don't mind if my costumes sing if they are good, but I don't want them to be a distraction if they are wrong. I never want to distract from the dialogue.”