Leadership Lessons from Superman's Underpants
After 73 years of wearing his underwear on the outside, why has Superman decided to abandon his briefs?

For years I've been trying to help people see that popular consumer culture is a form of religion. It offers us a sense of value, identity, and context that traditional religions once provided. Similarly, pop culture has sacred symbols. How do I know this? Because when one of these symbols is altered the faithful will rise to protest the act of irreverence.

The Coca-Cola Company learned this lesson in 1985 when they released New Coke. And earlier this year when Gap changed their logo, hoards of angry white females rioted via social media. Gap relented and the retail deity's image was restored.

The latest victim of pop-culture blasphemy: Superman. Photographs have leaked from the production of Warner Brothers' new film Man of Steel showing actor Henry Cavill wearing a blue Superman suit without red trunks. When the film debuts in 2013 it will be the first time the character is depicted on screen without the red under(over)pants. Nerds are enraged.

The question I have is this: After 73 years of wearing his underwear on the outside, why has Superman decided to hide his Hanes?

I did a little snooping and discovered that when Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created Superman in the 1930s his design was derived from two sources–science fiction comics and circus strong men. The former gave Superman his blue one-piece uniform (all advanced societies wear one-piece uniforms, it's a Hollywood fact), and the latter his red Speedo. The look has remained largely unchanged for seven decades–including five feature films.

But when Warner Brothers handed the responsibility for penning a new Superman script to Christopher Nolan and David Goyer, the same team behind Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, they wanted to bring the same realism to the Man of Steel they had brought to the Caped Crusader. But the Superman character, unlike Batman, is utterly unrealistic. He's an alien who can fly, repel bullets, and fire lasers from his eyes. If we are to accept all of that, is it really too much to ask a modern audience to believe Superman would wear red underwear over his pants?

Yes, it is.

At least that was the filmmakers' conclusion, so they ditched the drawers. Now fanboys' panties are in a bunch over the decision and they're tearing up chat rooms and message boards about it. Online petitions have even started to pressure Warner Brothers to return the super shorts.

What lessons can we learn from the skirmish over Superman's skivvies? Here are a few thoughts:

ONE: Don't underestimate the power of symbols

September 14, 2011

Displaying 1–10 of 15 comments

Matt

March 07, 2012  9:02pm

The humor of Superman's missing underwear was surprisingly well associated with leadership. It's amazing how such a small artifact of Superman's outfit could cause such a riot. Yet small things cause "much ado about nothing" all the time. The fourth point really drove home the issue because people need to be listened to by their leaders. The creators of Man of Steel did not consult Superman fans before designing his suit and received a beating. The British government did not listen to colonial protests and we know how that ended for them. While the majority are not always right, leaders must be patient and willing to listen to the concerns of the people. Otherwise, if the people are not consulted protests and animosity will be inevitable.

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Happy the trunks are Gone

January 25, 2012  11:45am

Enraged? ENRAGED? Enraged? Not really. They are just shocked and stuck in the past like the FLDS fashion sense. This is a GOOD move forward for Superman anyone who doesn't see this needs to wake up and smell the roses.

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Jerry Thacker

December 16, 2011  10:42am

I guess you could say that if you get to the bottom of it, Superman's underwear is causing a falling out. And that's the news in brief!

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bil_

September 28, 2011  2:57pm

Great thought-provoking article! I appreciate that first and foremost. And my favorite comment....from Brett! LOL! I loved the "utility belt" correction. Comic nerds in the Kingdom: UNITE!

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Dave

September 27, 2011  9:34am

Very thoughtful article and some very insightful threads drawn to matters of faith. Tracked this from Comic Book Resources (CBR) and was pleased to see a fellow level-headed Christian comic nerd putting out such a great message.

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Torsten Adair

September 26, 2011  3:12pm

Also of interest... the recent kerfuffle over Wonder Woman's costume, specifically her pants. She's back to the iconic shorts. Looking at the new Justice League, none of them have shorts, just full jerseys. Shorts... it doesn't matter... the icons, the sigils, that's what gives the heroes power. Both for identification (just like St. Bartholomew's skin) and storytelling. Myself, I'd like to see someone draw Superman with JUST the red shorts, like Wonder Woman's costume. He's invulnerable, just like WW, so why not a pure strongman jersey? And... just like the Reformation, some will stay with the "old" and some will move to the "new". The old comics still exist. Superman is still Superman. The stories change, but the character endures, partly by reinvention.

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Django

September 26, 2011  1:50pm

I loved the article and Im one of those fans who is upset with the costume change design for the new film. Visually the suit won't look the best. Just because they want to modernize an icon doesn't mean they have to take a piece of him that has been part of it's essence since it was created. Look at Mc Donald's Ronald Mc Donald. It's the same icon but with a different hairstyle not far from the original look. The same goes for KFC's Coronel Sanders: They modernized the look without taking his glasses off, or his beard or his clothing. It was enough by just changing the texture of the suit and the shield. But when I saw the pictures of the weird tribal patterns on his trunks and legs area I was very upset. It looked like a generic superhero who happened to wear the Superman shield. I think visually, this Superman will look a bit dissapointing with the change in the new suit (trunkless).

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Jeremy

September 22, 2011  11:24pm

What an interesting article. To through in lessons that can be learned from the rioting that is occurring at the loss of Superman's shorts. I wanted to comment on a few of the leadership points that you brought out in the article. First off you mentioned the idea of a symbol, I thought that it was a unique point that needs to be analyzed in ministry situations. Often times when we remove something from the daily swing of things you get a lot of complaining. People are use to that solid foundation and reluctant for change. However, I do think that things do need to progress as things change within the individuals in the church. Not saying we let culture reorganize the church, but that we are aware of the cultural shifts that are happening. We do this so we can make the best attempt to share the Good News of Jesus Christ to a hurting people. I understand your point of changing things, as the story illustrated changing the plot of Superman and his briefs is not a well received notion. The third point you made on compromise is quite interesting. When we are in leadership roles within the church we are to make the decisions that need to be made following the guidance of God. If we fail to be the leadership that the church needs, and let individuals who are not of that authority make decisions it is going to be an interesting downhill roller coaster ride. There's a fine balance between listening to the ideas of the congregation, as opposed to following every move they make. For instance one of my professor's talked about an elder board that would just compromise with a Senior Pastor in everything he would say (Regardless of the situation being presented) The senior Pastor was running the showing and the Elder Board was not following through with their job that they are required to fulfill. They just compromised and gave up their job in order to lay the responsibility on the lap of another individual who was not following a Godly lifestyle. I agree with your statement that leaders need to be careful of compromise, and that they need to discuss things on a deep level rather than just following the lead of another individual. Thanks for sharing, I appreciate your ability to take something buzzing in the news and turning it into something that we can learn from and incorporate into ministry. God Bless! Oh and I say keep the shorts =)

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Brett

September 22, 2011  7:39pm

"Nerds are enraged." Yes, we are. "Warner Brothers handed the responsibility for penning a new Superman script to Christopher Nolan and David Goyer, the same team behind Batman Begins and The Dark Knight" Hopefully they won't have this Superman talking as though he has a mouthful of marbles the way Batman did in The Dark Knight. "He's an alien who can . . . fire lasers from his eyes" Well, technically they're not lasers but heat beams, hence "heat vision". Oh, and while I'm at it, and his belt DOES contain something, namely his Justice League of America (JLA) communicator. (See my previous comment re: enragement) Anyway, you (perhaps deliberately) overlooked something: that often, especially in Hollywood and particularly with comic book characters, the changes are made simply so that the creative forces behind the movie can make the character "theirs". It frustrates people is because what the Hollywood folks are doing is similar to a dog urinating on a fire hydrant: it's just a way of marking their "territory" and in this particular case the "hydrant" is one many of us are very fond of.

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Jelani Greenidge

September 16, 2011  6:13pm

Great post, Skye. And I think I agree with K.W. Leslie when I see this as another example of majoring on the minors. I mean, it's still Superman. He's still going to leap tall buildings in a single bound and all that. On other hand, I'd probably feel differently if I were more heavily invested in the Superman franchise, emotionally or otherwise. But hypothetically if in 2019 someone were to decide to remake The Matrix and none of the principals wore black leather or sunglasses... well, now, I'd be picketing up a storm as well.

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