Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy

Special exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through September 1.

Having sat through all four hours and seven minutes of Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill movies once, I don’t feel the need to do so again, but when they show up on TV, I like to drop in and catch my favorite scenes. The Bride’s battle with O-Ren Ishii. Her escape from the wooden coffin to the strains of Ennio Morricone. And, of course, the final sequence with Bill, particularly Bill’s monologue about Superman. I love that monologue. The gist is that Superman is the only superhero whose true identity is, in fact, that of a superhero. Unlike Bruce Wayne and Peter Parker and their compatriots—all of whom must wear superheroic costumes to disguise their true, vulnerable selves—Superman must wear a costume to disguise his true, superheroic self. Bill argues that the “Clark Kent” costume represents Superman’s critique of humanity: Clark is weak and uncertain and cowardly, and that is how Superman sees us.

Delivered by David Carradine, it’s a brilliant monologue. Extrapolating from the Superman/Clark Kent theory helps the movies back away from some queasily anti-feminist, essentialist thinking, which is cool, and on a broader level, the monologue gets at some interesting ideas about identity and costume: what costumes disguise, what they reveal, and who we become when we wear them. It’s a rich vein to mine, which is why the Met’s special exhibit on superhero-inspired fashion is surprisingly thought-provoking. It, too, is concerned with identity and costume and transformation. Bill would feel right at home.