Friday, August 03, 2012

On the importance of Superman's shorts

I just started reading Superman: The High-Flying History of America's Most Enduring Hero by Larry Tye (Random House; 2012). This is the very first paragraph of Tye's preface:
The most enduring American hero of the last century is soemone who lived half his life in disguise and the other half as the world's most recognizable man. He is not Jack Kennedy or Joltin' Joe DiMaggio, Batman or Jerry Seinfeld, although all of them were inspired by him. It was on his muscle-bound back that the iconic comic book took flight and the very idea of the superhero was born. He appeared on more radio broadcasts than Ellery queen and in more movies than Marlon Brando, who once pretended to be his father. He helped give America the backbone to wage war against the Nazis, the Great Depression, and the Red Menace. He remains an intimate to kids from Boston to Belgrade and has adult devotees who, like Talmudic scholars, parse his every utterance. And he has done it all with an innocence and confidence that allowed him to appear publicly wearing underpants over full-body tights, and to assume an alter ego who kept pursuing the prettiest girl in town even though he seldom got her.
Now last September, when DC decided to reboot and redesign their entire stable of superheroes, supervillains and the various characters that share their DC Universe setting, artist and co-publisher Jim Lee gave Superman a new costume which looked a lot like his traditional one, sans shorts. In fact, not only did Lee's new Superman costume not include the shorts, but, through an in-story act of cosmic manipulation that altered the setting's entire history, Superman never wore underpants over full-body tights.

And from the images Warner Brothers have released of the suit that Henry Cavill will be wearing in next year's Man of Steel movie, that version of Superman will similarly be going without shorts.

A few pages later in his preface, Tye writes that "Each generation got the Superman it needed and deserved. Each changed offered a Rorschach test of that times and its dreams." If that's true, what does that say about these first years of the 2010s...?

Does it mean our Superman is not as innocent and as confident as the one of the previous seventy-some years...?

What does finally losing his shorts after seven decades tell us about our Superman? He's self-conscious, insecure and worries so much about what others think about him that he'll make radical changes just to try and look cooler...?


Josué Chaves (chrchaves) said...

I don´t think you can judge a whole society because of one person of course, and that´s why the 52s Superman has been so critized, the majority would love an all-star superman and we ain´t getting it

d said...

I agree with the above comment. Don't judge us all just because Jim Lee is a hack.

Steve Bennett said...

I think you might be missing the most obvious reason for the shorts; prudery and/or "bulge protection". I'm guessing turn of the century circus strongmen wore the shorts because of fear patrons might glimpse more of human anatomy than they were prepared to see at that time. In our hypersexualized society that's no longer the case.

JohnF said...

When he had the shorts, everyone made fun of them. "He wears shorts over his pants" was the de facto Superman insult for decades.

Now he doesn't have the shorts, and we criticize that.

The truth is that I really like the shorts, but the lack of them is not why the new costume sucks.