Talking the Fabric of Pain with the Costume Designer of ‘Avengers: Endgame’

Your Avengers are no more. Not the way you knew them. After 11 years and 23 movies, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has seen the introduction of dozens of characters and nearly as many departures. The road to Avengers: Endgame was littered with failures and triumphs for Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, and they were radically altered by the experience. We lost the character who launched this entire endeavor, and as we saw in Spider-Man: Far From Home, the void left by Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) will not be filled easily. Whatever Phase Four offers, going forward, The Avengers must carry that loss on their shoulders.

That’s the mission of costume designer Judianna Makovsky. She’s operated within the MCU since Captain America: The Winter Soldier and her great delight is tracking the emotional transformation of the characters through the outfits they adorn. The costumes of Avengers: Endgame could not have been worn at any other point along the timeline. The fabric of each scene should only exist at that moment, not before, and not after. Whether you’re meant to notice or not, all the pains and all the joys The Avengers have undergone live inside every stitch of their clothing.

I spoke to Makovsky over the phone just a few days before the release of Avengers: Endgame onto DVD and Blu-ray. We begin our conversation with my favorite mighty Avenger and use his anguish to discuss the strategy behind her storytelling techniques. We talk about the challenges of uniting all the characters together for the funeral sequence, and how she had to dress the actors without spoiling the scene for them. Makovsky also explains her role in designing the attire for completely digital characters and the collaboration between the many departments required to get Hulk into shape.

For their entire time at Marvel Studios, Makovsky has worked alongside Joe and Anthony Russo. She understands their process as well as anyone. They’re massive comic book fans, but their goal has always been to ground the fantastic into a recognizable reality. The Winter Soldier and Captain America: Civil War were a challenge, but nothing compared to the collision of character, color, and tone seen in Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame. Thankfully, Makovsky also had plenty of experience working in the wilder side of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (which she’ll continue on Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3). Naturally, I had to close our chat with Makovsky by putting her on the spot: The Russo Brothers vs. James Gunn – how do they compare as directors?

Here is our conversation in full:

I was watching the film again last night, and well, we gotta talk about Thor.

Everyone wants to talk Thor!

I’m sure. His whole story arc can be found in his attire. From his Infinity War Asgardian armor to the gray hoodie he’s wrapped himself in while he’s munching on biscuits before lobbing off Thanos’ head, and then the sweatpants and sweaters. How did you balance the tones of his story through his costume changes?

Well, it was pretty detailed in the script. In our first meetings about who Thor was and where his story was going, we kind of knew it from the beginning, when we started Infinity War. So we wanted it to be fun but believable. That this guy would turn into this, and there has to be a fun factor because it’s such a surprise. But keeping the clothes pretty real for the most part, except when he goes to Asgard, which is a little homage to old Thor. We wanted it to be absolutely real. That you could believe that this was a fat guy who let himself go.

How do you know when you’ve landed on the right look for the tone of the scene?

A lot of it is palette. You know, costume designers want to go crazy and do something bold, but pulling back and not being the center of attention at times is what the script calls for. So when I read the script, if it’s something that I don’t want the clothes to be noticed, that’s what I do. I will pull back and just simplify it so that you’re really watching the scene.

Then there are other times where you just want to see Thor, like our original sketch where I had him sitting in a chair, with half his belly hanging out in a sweater, and they actually did that shot right around our first sketch. The script will tell me where it needs to go, and rehearsals with the actor, where that scene is heading, when I need to just pull back and not have it be about the costume.

So that we can then have a moment like the climax, when Thor is revealed in his final battlefield costume? That could have gone in many different ways. He could have reverted back to his Infinity War self.

Well, it’s basically the same costume as Infinity War, except he then gets his armor sleeves, and the cape, and it becomes grander. But because he’s gone through so much, he’s a different Thor, so he can never be as grand as he was in the earlier Thor movies ever again. None of them can be as grand as they were before because of the story arc. So I think that we just decided he’d have that moment, where the full costume sort of comes back on. But it’s a simplified version.

Well, at a glance, if you just watched the battle scene on its own, you may not even recognize any difference to the costume or to his weight.

That’s right. And we did that on purpose. As I said, he’s a different Thor. Because his body shape is different, there was a big discussion of how many different costumes we wanted him to wear. Do we keep him big through the whole movie? And it’s like, yeah, we do. He’s never going to go back to the old Thor in this story arc. Because he could have easily magically become glamor Thor again, but it just didn’t work to do that. So, we kept him simplified. Bringing back the silver arms and bringing back the cape, really does it. It brings him a little bit back to the grandeur he had before and it is also sad.

Oh, yeah, very much so.

Yeah. I mean his story arc is very sad. The whole scene in Asgard with his mother, it’s one of saddest in all of the movies.

But then Mjolnir still recognizes him as worthy! That’s a tremendous moment of uplift. So many have found validation in that one image alone.

Exactly.

We then leave the battlefield for Tony’s funeral. You have to find each character as they would dress for mourning.

That’s right.

That had to have been quite the challenge.

It was quite the challenge because we also couldn’t tell the actors what they were doing there. I’m like, “Trust me, you’re going to wear black for this.” We told them it was a wedding, and they didn’t know what I was doing. The hardest part was fitting the Guardians of the Galaxy on Earth. Everyone was like, “Oh, just leave them in their Guardian stuff.” I said, “But you can’t. You have to have it blend.” I just designed these other costumes, and said, “How about these?” And they went, “Oh, great.”

Even with Captain Marvel, her jacket is kind of a military jacket. We tried to stick to their characters even in regular clothes. It all fits, so you know exactly who they are. And even though they’re in contemporary clothes, they don’t change their character. That was hard to do. We never saw any of them all together until the day we shot. It was all a surprise to everyone that it worked.

I imagine that would be quite stressful.

Yeah, but it was very, very moving.

Oh, I can imagine. If it was moving for me, I can’t imagine what it’s like for you, having worked on so many of these films together.

It was.

But again, back to Thor, and his character at that moment. The fingerless gloves, to your point, he has not reverted back to his previous self.

Yes, but we tried to do that with everybody. They’re still their characters. We didn’t want them to just be a bunch of people in black. Thor, that was the thing, he liked those silly ratty gloves. And even though he’s got a suit jacket on that doesn’t fit, he tried, and he still has a hoodie on, like a zippy thing under it. So he tried to dress up but he couldn’t quite get there.

So, in that scene, you have a character like Banner Hulk. He’s a digital creation, but he still needs an outfit. What’s the collaboration with other departments look like on those characters?

Well, we work so closely with visual effects. Every garment for Hulk’s hero outfit, we had a maquette made, and we actually made a costume for the maquette, which is like a little model to scale, so they could see that. As far as his other clothes, we gave them fabric, we gave them styles, we gave them stitching samples. We do that with all the CG characters. Often we build them from scratch. Rocket is a real costume on a real thing.

If we can build the whole thing, we will. Sometimes we can’t because they can’t physically really make them. Like Thanos’ children, those were all CG, but we gave them textures and fabrics and did all kinds of the development of what they could be. We give those ideas to them and we discuss with them to see what works. We all have a very close relationship on a Marvel movie, very close.

I would sure think so. I look at those end credits because we all sit through them to get to the final scene.

(Laughter) Good for you!

Well, hey, we got to! And you see the neverending names belonging to the art department, visual development, the production design. When you all get together, what’s step one in the process?

Well, the first thing, I sit with the Russos and the production designer, and we figure out what is the tone of the movie, what do we want this to be, what is the story? Because the story always informs the clothes and what they want to be. So I think those are our first initial meetings.

Then we have a lot of meetings — we call them Vis Dev [visual development] meetings, where we look at everything from all the departments. We look at props, as well. Kevin Feige is there. Vis Dev from Marvel is there. The art department and me. We all just brainstorm basically for a month, and it’s great. We figure it out and it’s all story-based. What works for this story? What look works for the story? What colors work for the story?

How has that relationship with the Russos evolved since The Winter Soldier?

It’s just gotten better. I love working with them so much and I understand their aesthetic. It’s really just gotten easier in a funny way. We know the language, and we know these characters. I’ve been with Captain America since The Winter Soldier and gotten him all the way through this movie. Same with The Falcon. Then when we introduce somebody new or who we haven’t worked with before like Thor, it’s really fun to try and get them into the Russos’ world.

Even Tony Stark, when I first started working with Robert, it was really fun to sort of integrate all of that into one movie. The Russos, I love working with them! They’re a lot of fun, they have a happy set, and they’re just so smart with the story. They know how to tell a story.

How does your process differ with them versus somebody like James Gunn on Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2?

James is very different. He knows every shot that we’re going to do before we start shooting, and everything is worked out before we start shooting. The Russos are a little bit more — we develop as we go. So it’s just two different ways of working. Both are really fun. It’s just they all have a different way. James is very exciting because he challenges you because the movies are so different. His sense of color, it’s a different world. You’re just challenged in a completely different way.

I’m with James now, and I just love him very much. But it is a completely different aesthetic. It’s funny when we worked on the Avengers films, telling the Russos, “You’re working with the Guardians now, and it’s more color.” How do we get all these people into one movie? We have to adjust the palette of the whole movie, so we can incorporate all these other worlds. So it was interesting because Avengers has way more color in it than Winter Soldier or Civil War for sure. It was actually kind of fun to put all of that in one movie.

Reference wise, where are you pulling from for your costumes? Are you spending a lot of time with the comics? Or do you concentrate on real-world practicalities?

Yes, it’s a combination of all of that. Particularly with the Russo brothers. Since The Winter Soldier, they want everything based in reality. Yes, we look at the comic, but the Russos always have thought about these movies as, if Captain America walked outside in Washington D.C., nobody would really look twice, and he just kind of fits in.

We try and think of them more as clothing rather than costumes in a funny way. We do look at a lot of real-world things. It’s at minimum 10 people who are involved in the making of these clothes, to figure out how to do them and applying different techniques. The molding, sculpting, fabric printing, and etching and whatever we do on these things. It’s so complicated, and it is a combination for sure, of comic and real-world.

All right. So we started with my love of Thor, but I want to hear from you, what’s the costume or the outfit that does not get enough love. What design are you most excited about in Avengers: Endgame?

Oh. Oh, that’s so hard.

There’s a lot of them!

There’s a lot of them. I mean there are so many costumes in the movie. I don’t know if it’s one costume in particular, but Tony Stark’s look. His arc changed so much from the first time I started working with him, till the end of this movie, where we go from this sort of really flamboyant guy to a much more responsible adult, and then to a much more natural guy at the end of the movie. I found that so exciting.

Each actor has an arc through these stories and costumes, but Tony was something new for me in Civil War. Watching where he ended up at the end of the movie was really fun. His story arc was so fascinating to me, and I had an affinity for that. As I said, for me, the story is everything and it’s all about telling the story. And I think through his clothes, we told a very serious story.

Well, thank you Judianna so much again for taking the time.

You’re welcome.

I loved the movie, and the MCU has really meant the world to me. The 10-year-old kid in me can’t believe these movies exist, and frankly, neither can my adult self. So, thank you for your contribution.

I am so glad. I have to say I’m excited by the movie. I see it still, and I’m just like, “Wow, I can’t believe this movie exists.” So, I get it.


Avengers: Endgame is now available on Digital HD and will be released on DVD and Blu-Ray on August 13th.

Brad Gullickson: @@MouthDork Trekkie, Not Trekker. Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects, co-host of the In The Mouth of Dorkness Podcast.