Often we wonder why a certain thing exists the way it does. Why do dogs have tails? Why is the sky blue? Why does Superman wear trunks? Okay I’m being silly! But as Superman fans at one point or another we have asked that question. Why does Superman need trunks? They’re not exactly fashionable. They’re not really holding his pants up. And yet he wears them. And more importantly we fans want him to wear them. So again the question why?
When Siegel and Shuster created Superman they envisioned him as a strongman. Most circus strongmen at the time wore trunks for probably more obvious reasons. So in creating their “strongman” they gave him trunks. Now of course there may have been a few other reasons they did this but in the final product Superman debuted wearing red trunks. At the time, I’m sure, most readers didn’t even give it a thought. This was Superman, this is the costume he wore, and the costumed had red trunks. Over the years though Superman fans became more vocal. They became more protective of their character. And some even became a little (a little?) obsessed. That’s when Superman’s costume became as important as the character himself.
I’m more old school when it comes to Superman. I’m a bit of a traditionalist. I’ve seen many things happen to him over the last 30 plus years since “Crisis on Infinite Earths”. But one thing always stayed the same. His costume. Yes his costume has gone through some tweaks and changes from the 30s until the 2000s, but one thing never changed, the red trunks. With the New 52 came many changes to the character but the one change many Superman fans lamented was the loss of his trunks.
It doesn’t seem to be that important in the grand scheme of things, but to fans like me it was an insult. How can you take the greatest character ever and take away something that’s so iconic!? At the time the decision was more surface based. Out with the old in with the New 52. But I don’t think DC realized or cared that they were taking that one thing away (aside from the S!) that we fans could hold onto that would leave us with something we could still connect to the “classic” Superman. Was it a deal breaker as far as reading this version? Maybe. Maybe not. But it still felt like an insult.
Superman looks regal with his trunks! Superman looks human with his trunks. Superman looks like the character we’ve come to love over the last 84 years. They’ve endured a crisis, a reboot, a death, a rebirth, another crisis and even a secret origin. And while the creators have played with the costume now and again over that time (Electric Blue?) they always came back to that classic suit and those red trunks. Yes, I’m old school and traditional when it comes to Superman, but I think I can speak for many fans when I say those red trunks represent more than just a costume accessory. They represent an iconic hero that we fans have loved for 84+ years.
There is a perfect Superman costume.
Christopher Reeve wore it (to varying effect and in different sizes) in four Superman movies. And yes, it includes red trunks over his tights.
This is the platonic, visual, ideal of what Superman is, to me. When I think about the character, which is often, that costume always floats around the periphery of my imagination.
But Superman shouldn’t wear red trunks anymore. Or even a cape maybe. The S is definitely optional.
I came to this conclusion during the great ‘The Trunks Are Too Small!!’ wars that followed the first reveals of Brandon Routh’s costume, back in the long ago time of 2005. The trunks were too small, people argued. His cape was the wrong shade of red, they wailed. The micro S pattern all over his costume was stupid, they shrieked, spraying spittle composed of the acid from Superman III‘s chemical plant scene all over the internet.
Nobody was happy.
Thing is, nobody could have been happy. Superman Returns wasn’t made for new Superman fans. It was aimed at a very specific audience; those for whom Superman III and IV were shallow sequels to the one-two punch of, well, Superman: The Movie and Superman II, and for whom this movie would be a vindication. And then, despite knowing who their audience was, they screwed with the costume.
I came to the realization then that Superman being tied to any costume in particular was fundamentally silly.
I cycle. Every day, 8 months of the year, 40km a day. I am a cyclist. I am identifiable as a cyclist, no matter what I wear, be it lycra, or shorts and a Superman T. I’m clearly a cyclist, not because of the outfit I’m wearing while I’m on my bike, but because of the actions I’m doing while on the bike. The act of cycling is my identifier. That, and truly epic calf muscles.
Likewise, Superman is Superman in his traditional costume (whatever that means to you), in a striped sweat suit, or even in Hugh Hefner’s robe. As a slightly inferior DC character (who’s had his own costume challenges over the years) said in one of his better film outings, “It’s not who I am underneath, but what I do that defines me.”
A better version of that for this discussion might be, “It’s not what I wear, but what I do that defines me.”
I, personally, would love to see a run of Superman in either comics or TV, that focuses on the character of Superman, and eschews, in Gough and Millar fashion, the tights.
I’d like to see a Superman travelling the world in leather jacket and blue jeans, but whom people are easily able to recognize as Kal-El due to his actions. Heck, throw him under a wizard’s cowl and chuck him into a high fantasy alternate Earth for a couple of years.
Or have his apartment blow up, his costumes incinerated, and he’s forced to do super heroics in the only thing he could salvage from his closet, the Hawaiian shirt Perry gave him for his 10th work anniversary.
Superman is what the man is, regardless of the color or placement of his underwear.