I was speaking to a friend of mine recently who lives primarily in Thailand but has been staying in the U.S. temporarily, and I asked her if she was familiar with Superman. She said yes, and mentioned some of his claims to fame, such as changing clothes in a phone booth and wearing his underwear on the outside. She told me that if she ever had the opportunity to stop the Man of Steel and ask him a question, the first thing she would ask is why he prefers wearing his briefs outside of his clothes.
We chuckled about it for a second and then I told her that not only has Superman been changed in the comics so that he no longer wears the trademark briefs, but that in the upcoming Superman film “Man of Steel,” he doesn’t wear them either. She looked stunned, almost appalled, and said that the briefs were iconic. In her mind, he just wasn’t Superman anymore without his bright red Underoos.
I’d have to agree. While I certainly don’t hate the new Superman reboot design by Jim Lee (although I find Lee himself draws the best version of it), it feels substantially less super for some reason. It leaves out that bit of yellow, making the S-shield the only part of the costume with any yellow on it at all. This leaves the dark red of his new, awkwardly shaped arbitrary utility belt thing to clash with the dark blue of his newly armored (I’m guessing those extra lines signify armor plating?) body suit. It could probably look more balanced with the yellow in his shield replaced with blue or black, but it still feels like something is missing.
This is even more true of the costume that Henry Cavill is wearing to film the newest Superman movie, “Man of Steel,” set to hit theatres in 2013. While it gets some things right, such as a lower neckline, a larger shield and a more blocky look for where the cape attaches to the costume, it makes an even more egregious error below the waistline. Rather than tossing out the undies and transferring the red to the belt, it eschews the belt as well, going instead with a kind of skeletal flourish that sort of suggests a belt with a gold band going around his back and a gold button where the belt buckle would be.
These new details, along with the scaly texture of the costume, certainly do add a bit of alien-ness to the design that might be touched upon more in the film. However, the lack of red underwear in spite of the red shield up top and the red boots on the bottom make him look at the very least like a superhero that forgot part of his costume at home while rushing into battle, and at worst like a dude in blue long johns. It actually has the effect of turning the blue bodysuit into a kind of underwear! Furthermore, it makes him look like Ultraman, who is a bad guy, and we don’t need a Superman that looks like a bad guy.
I can understand that DC would want to take away the underwear-on-the-outside aspect of its heroes to allow people to take them more seriously (or to make him appear less like the Superman that appeared on Action Comics #1, which is the other story). This works fine for Batman, who really just needs the iconic silhouette, and in a best case scenario, a yellow utility belt. Characters like Green Lantern and Flash never needed the briefs-over-the-costume gimmick anyway, and Wonder Woman… is a female, so her costume really is just underwear. But Superman needs the briefs. It’s a part of his roots, in that his costume was modeled after those worn by 1930s circus strongmen, a forgotten form of proto-superhero that might as well be as alien to our generation as a man from Krypton. And in addition to being a perfectly acceptable and charming design choice, believe it or not, it is iconic. It’s how people know the guy, just as much as the spit curl, the runic looking S logo and the bright red cape.
While people around the world might chuckle about why Earth’s greatest hero chooses to show off his underwear instead of put them on under his pants, it’s not like we don’t love the guy for it. We’re allowed to give characters that we admire a hard time every once in a while, but we don’t want to see DC get all “butt hurt” about it and change the costume so that people will stop making jokes. At the end of the day, no matter what changes are made to his costume, the world at large knows him by the timeless version of it that he has always worn, red undies and all.