“The Phantom of the Opera,” “Big Trouble in Little China” and an archaeology museum all played a part, the designer Mayes Rubeo explains.
Send any friend a story
As a subscriber, you have 10 gift articles to give each month. Anyone can read what you share.
There is a hush-hush building in North Hollywood full of supersuits and scraps, a costume warehouse where Marvel Studios preserves every major outfit that its heroes have worn onscreen during the last decade and a half. For the costume designer Mayes Rubeo, touring the warehouse is always a fun trip, not least because there is an aisle of costume leftovers from her work on “Thor: Ragnarok” that comprises the most colorful section of the entire building.
“Bringing color into somebody’s world is so cool,” Rubeo said. “I’m Mexican, and I live in Italy, so I’m not afraid of color whatsoever.”
If anything, Rubeo’s work on the new sequel “Thor: Love and Thunder” is even more vivid: In an era when superhero costumes tend to be toned down from what’s on the page, and films like “The Batman” eschew color and light for dark squalor, Rubeo instead favors a flamboyant approach. And the plot of “Thor: Love and Thunder,” which finds Thor (Chris Hemsworth) teaming up with his ex-girlfriend, Jane (Natalie Portman), as she deals with her suddenly granted superpowers, allowed Rubeo plenty of room to go against the grain.
It helps, she said, that this is her third collaboration with the irreverent director Taika Waititi, with whom she worked on “Thor: Ragnarok” and “Jojo Rabbit” (which earned Rubeo an Oscar nomination). “We have parameters at Marvel where they come to you with a package of visual development, which I respect very much,” Rubeo said. “But it all goes a little bit out the window when you work with Taika.”
Below, Rubeo walks us through some of the film’s boldest looks.
When we first meet Thor in “Love and Thunder,” he’s traded his traditional supersuit for something a little more rock ’n’ roll, fighting aliens while dressed in a red leather vest, a snug-fitting white T-shirt and jeans so tight “that my assistants were kind of worried,” Rubeo said.
The radical ’80s look is meant as an homage to Kurt Russell in “Big Trouble in Little China” — one of Waititi’s favorite films — as well as a nod to the time Thor has spent hanging out with the Guardians of the Galaxy, since the leather vest appears to be a jacket borrowed from Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), modified to show off Thor’s bulging biceps.
“Maybe it had sleeves, and he tore them off,” Rubeo mused. “He can’t bear wearing sleeves. He runs hot, Thor.”
Later, after encountering his old flame Jane in a supersuit of her own, Thor uses one of his most unsung but useful abilities — the power to give himself an instant makeover — and summons a colorful new suit of armor out of thin air, this one complete with bold blue and gold detailing.
“It’s so flashy, there’s no other word for it,” Rubeo said. “They’re like walking cars, so shiny!”
Blessed by Thor’s mystical hammer, Mjolnir, Jane transforms into a Norse goddess, and Portman — after two previous “Thor” movies in which she played the powerless human foil — gets to put on a dramatic supersuit that includes a silver bodice, leather pants and a bicep ring to accentuate her newfound muscles.
“It’s a very romantic look,” Rubeo said, though elements of it proved tricky to design, especially the winged helmet that causes Thor no end of envy. “For me, it was very important that her eyes weren’t going to disappear,” Rubeo said. “The helmet could have come lower, but we made it in a way that you don’t lose Natalie in it.” And since the helmet would be difficult to wear during action scenes, it’s usually a CGI effect added in postproduction, though Rubeo did make actual helmets for Portman to don in wardrobe fittings and photo stills.
As for the suit itself, “it had to be lightweight,” Rubeo said. “Natalie had never had the experience of carrying a super suit, and you need proper training for that — it’s something you have to get used to.” Even the flowing red cape had to be modified to suit Portman’s 5-foot-3 frame: Though Hemsworth’s Thor cloak is made of the same heavy dorchester fabric that is used for the red jackets of the Queen’s Guards, Rubeo sourced a more dynamic, willowy textile from Spain for Portman’s suit.
The end result impressed not only Portman but also the actress’s young children. “They were absolutely obsessed with the costume, they wanted to wear it,” Rubeo said. “Of course, Natalie is super professional, so she was like, ‘Nuh-uh — you can touch it, but you can’t wear it.’”
In a film full of unconventional creative choices, no detail better exemplifies the try-anything feel of “Thor: Love and Thunder” than Thor’s comrade Valkyrie showing up to her first big fight in a kitschy “Phantom of the Opera” sweatshirt. “At the 11th hour, we were printing this sweatshirt,” Rubeo said. “That was a saga.”
How did “Phantom” score such prime placement on a character who typically suits up in futuristic armor? Rubeo noted that unlike Thor, who has spent the last several years traveling through space, Valkyrie has remained on Earth, soaking in its weird and wonderful culture. “Taika wanted Valkyrie to be portrayed as a person who actually has a life,” Rubeo said. “She is getting with the program of the world immediately.”
So when Valkyrie is awakened during a nighttime raid on her village, it’s only natural that she’d spring into action sporting some down-to-earth sleepwear. Still, Waititi took ages to decide what he wanted to emblazon on her sweatshirt: Might the AC/DC logo, with its thunderbolt, provide a clever wink to the film’s title? Or did Valkyrie seem like more of a Blondie fan? In the end, Rubeo eventually prevailed with a nod to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s long-running theatrical musical.
“Everybody has seen a ‘Phantom of the Opera’ T-shirt — it’s a cognitive baseline, it lands in a place that we live,” Rubeo said. “And then, simply, Taika thought it was cool.”
It isn’t the only unconventional bit of clothing for Valkyrie, who pops up elsewhere in the film costumed in a three-piece suit — a nod to both the character’s bisexuality and Frida Kahlo’s penchant for menswear, Rubeo said. But the “Phantom” sweatshirt resonated in a unique way: When Rubeo told Thompson what she’d be wearing in the action sequence, “she said there was a time in her life where she actually slept in a ‘Phantom of the Opera’ T-shirt!”
Though the heroes rock vivid, metallic ensembles, villainous Gorr the God Butcher is more abstemious: He wears only a white robe, and all color vanishes from the shadowy realm where he dwells. “We wanted this character to be like one of those very tormented statues you see in the Archaeological Museum of Naples,” Rubeo said. “We wanted to give it that perennial, eternal feeling.”
Though Gorr’s costume appears simple, putting it together was anything but. Rubeo ordered 50 yards of linen to drape on Bale, expertly arranging it to conceal secret aspects like the cooling system that would keep the actor from overheating and the harness added when Gorr flew through the air.
A sequence that pit Bale against Jeff Goldblum’s Grandmaster from “Thor: Ragnarok” hit the cutting-room floor, “and that breaks my heart, because we made an incredible Kandinsky robe for him,” Rubeo said. But she was thrilled by the midmovie excursion that introduces Russell Crowe as Zeus and contacted the Roman leather masters Augusto and Giampaolo Grassi, whose father outfitted Richard Burton in “Cleopatra,” to fashion a worthy breastplate covered in gold foil for the “Gladiator” actor. “We’re talking about somebody who already knows how to wear a cuirass,” she said.
With “Thor: Love and Thunder” in theaters and Rubeo’s costumes and leftovers sent to brighten up that North Hollywood warehouse, is she interested in tackling something more intimate and less cosmic next time? Not necessarily.
“The nitty-gritty of the situation is that with every project, I want more — I want to be challenged every time,” she said. “I want to do another country of costumes. Another planet of costumes!”