The 90’s came in hard and rough on the denizens of the Marvel Universe, and one need look no farther than the characters who turned in their spandex and unstable molecules for harder-edged armor for confirmation of it.
Over 10 years, heroes whose costumes had taken on a pleasing familiarity stared down the challenges facing them and decided when the going gets tough, the tough don shiny metal. Once the strict province of Iron Man and his ilk, the armored look became en vogue for even the most traditional of stalwarts in the 90’s.
The choice to armor up in the 90’s came with a price tag, of course. The armor rarely, if ever, simply supplemented the heroes’ abilities. Instead they came borne of tragedy or forced the characters to sacrifice something about them that made them unique. The acceptance of armor also marked a rejection of some aspect of themselves.
Although often forgotten—or lumped in with his animated costume around the same time—Hawkeye actually stood as the earliest adopter of the 90’s armored look. Following a dustup with a street gang that saw the Avenging Archer get shot in AVENGERS SPOTLIGHT #30, Clint Barton turned to Iron Man and asked for help going metal.
The result: a fairly similar costume that only belied its changes through obviously steel gauntlets and boots and a pair of bubble-eyed purple sunglasses. Hawkeye, a hero who depended on fluid movements, a good eye—hence the name—and nimble fingers, draped himself in a costume that made it harder to move, especially when it came to fine motor skills, and obscured his vision. In confronting the reality of his mortality via a gang members lucky shot, it could be said, Hawkeye blinked and chose the perception of safety over the promotion of his talents.
It ended up being a decidedly short-lived switch, one situational and strategic in nature. When Barton triumphed over the gang and the storyline came to a close, he quickly returned to his more traditional fighting togs—until his next costume change, about five years later.
Captain America’s choice to become a modern knight in shining armor look also came from a rejection of self, but one he did not choose. In the mid-90’s, during the storyline called “Fighting Chance” Cap discovered that the very thing that enabled his body to match his indomitable will—the Super Soldier Serum—had curdled in his veins and had begun destroying him from the inside.
Never one to quit, Steve Rogers refused to spend his last months taking it easy and instead set out to ensure his the continuation of his legacy, via heroes like Free Spirit and Jack Flag, and, to paraphrase a cliché, go out with his boots on. Thus, when he lost consciousness and nearly died only to be revived by Iron Man in CAPTAIN AMERICA #437, Cap turned to a costume upgrade to keep himself upright. Debuting in #438, the armor mirrored his traditional stars and stripes gear, but even on a quick glance one could not miss the changes. Bulkier and more angular, Rogers’ new look made it very clear exactly what he had lost and how close he had come to that final and complete ending.
Eventually, even armor could not stop Cap’s degeneration. So, in CAPTAIN AMERICA #443, the Sentinel of Liberty donned his suit for the last time post prior to succumbing to his disease. Only a blood transfusion from an unexpected source an issue later would ensure Steve Rogers continuing to fight for the American Dream for years to come.
Despite the gear only being donned for a single issue, WEB OF SPIDER-MAN #100, Spider-Man’s first dalliance with an armored costume—a silver and black number that has echoes of Shocker’s “blanket” look—remains an object of fascination for fans.
Most recently seen on a slain other dimensional Spider-Man in SUPERIOR SPIDER-MAN #33, the armor began as a reaction to the so-called “New” Enforcers, an overstuffed team of baddies that battled Spider-Man to a standstill during the four-part “Total War” storyline. Boasting the likes of Dragon Man, Thermite, Vanisher, and many more, the Enforcers took on and picked apart Spidey’s new armor until he had no choice but to burst forth from it and take down the final member with nothing but that well-known Spider-Moxie. Oh and probably super strength or whatever.
As with Hawkeye before him, this armor blunted nearly all of Spider-Man’s traditional advantages like speed and agility in the name of helping him take more damage. Although it did ultimately help the Wallcrawler triumph, it should come as no surprise that even when Peter Parker has returned to a more metal suit—as with the Iron Spider in AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #529, the Big Time armor in AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #656, or the Ends of the Earth costume in AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #682—he has never chosen to revive this particular one.
Lest one think only heroes donned iron and steel, gaze upon Adrian Toomes circa 1994. Beginning in “Lifetheft” in AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #386, Vulture sought to beat the Reaper by creating a device called the Juvenator. Cured of his cancer and old age, the winged villain developed a new suit, this time of armor, to keep the device close to him.
In doing so, he too rejected himself. Gone was the high flying but ultimately largely petty criminal, replaced by, essentially, a living energy sucking vampire who fed on the youth of others to roll back his own person odometer. While never particularly pleasant or moral in his traditional garb and age, the Vulture became much more a monster as a young man decked out in emerald.
The Juvenator proved to have its own expiration date, however, and Toomes eventually retreated back to his traditional green feathered suit as his aging body lacked the strength to make the armor work for him.
Arguably the most drastic alteration in appearance and reasoning, Daredevil’s armor represented a near-total sacrifice on Hornhead’s part. Matt Murdock, facing down a reporter doing her best to expose him as well as a series of enemies that had left his normal costume— often referred to as the “red pajamas” in the letter columns at the time—in shreds, found both his costumed identity and alter ego having worn out their worth.
With the clock ticking and his enemies closing in on all directions during the “Fall from Grace” storyline, Daredevil hit on an elegantly simple solution: fake his own death, ditch the scarlet duds for an armor derived from some of the hardest organic substances—think spider webs and shark’s teeth—and take on a brand new identity. The new costume kicked off the transition in DAREDEVIL #321 with the “death” and new name, Jack Batlin, following suit in #325 and #326, respectively.
As befitting of such an unmistakable costume change, DD’s rejection of the man he had been seemed total. He gave up being a lawyer who, despite his vigilante leanings, held the law above all else to benefit humanity to become a con man who twisted and circumvented the rules to benefit himself at the cost of others. Murdock’s rejection of who he was became so total that he even “stopped” being blind, living as sighted throughout his time as Batlin.
It proved too radical a change for Matt Murdock to maintain and, over time, he became unraveled and ended up, in a dissociative episode, destroying his armor and forcing himself to re-embrace the “pajamas.” His true identity and occupation soon followed and, with it, mental stability for several years, something of a record for the Man without Fear.
Today, armor still holds its appeals. Take, for instance, Spider-Man’s willingness to utilize it now and then. Still, no such choices match the fervor and hype with which characters put on shiny new duds that clanged and whirred while they walk. Additionally, there’s a less a whiff of a devil’s bargain when a hero or villain briefly changes the outfits in their closet. We do not see a hero forced to sacrifice his name and his morality or a villain reduced to a forever energy hungry human monster.
Today, armor represents strategy. During the 90’s, armor meant power and pain, fortification and sacrifice. During the 90’s, there was no such thing as changing to armor without accepting you must also change yourself.
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