By now, most of us have seen the knockout montage that kicks off Superman & Lois’ pilot episode (even though the show still hasn’t aired outside North America). One thing that really stands out during this sequence is how series creators Todd Helbing and Greg Berlanti use Superman’s evolving costume to mark the passage of time.
When we first see star Tyler Hoechlin suited up as Superman, he’s sporting a Golden Age-inspired outfit replete with the character’s signature red trunks. By the time the montage has wrapped up, however, Hoechlin’s Man of Steel has traded in his “underwear on the outside” aesthetic for a more contemporary look – and it got me thinking about how this design choice is becoming standard practice across superhero comics, movies, and TV shows.
Even now, in an era where the superhero genre is enjoying unprecedented mainstream popularity and commercial success, many fans and creators can’t help getting their knickers in a twist over this seemingly trivial issue. The upshot is that, more and more, we’re seeing superheroes (and villains) on the page and screen being stripped of their outer underwear – and if you ask me, this is a huge mistake.
Why do superheroes wear their underwear on the outside?
But first, you might be wondering why superheroes wore underpants over the top of their costumes to begin with. The short answer is that they didn’t. Back in 1938, Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster took their cues from the flamboyant (often caped) leotards worn by strongmen and circus acrobats of the time – only expanded out to include unitard-like sleeves and leggings – and every other Golden Age writer/artist team, well…followed suit.
Now, to readers in the 1930s and 40s, this connection was obvious; they didn’t mistake superhero attire for underwear because they instantly recognised the strongman visual it was aping. So, in no time at all, skin-tight, insignia-emblazoned bodysuits became shorthand for superhero, enduring long after the strongman association was lost. Heck, as recently as the 2000s, leading superhero comics publishers DC and Marvel were introducing new characters who rocked this distinctive sartorial style – that’s how strongly entrenched the leotard is in the genre.
Did comic book writers and artists occasionally joke about this throwback aspect of costumed crimefighters’ couture? Sure. Would big screen costume designers sometimes dispense with it entirely? You betcha. Overall, though, everybody seemed happy to accept (if not fully embrace) the whole “underwear on the outside” thing as being an intrinsic part of the superhero aesthetic.
And then, a bit over a decade ago, everything started to change.
Why aren’t superheroes portrayed wearing “underwear” on the outside anymore?
Suddenly, both DC and Marvel – and more importantly, their parent companies, WarnerMedia and Disney – had blockbuster superhero film franchises on their hands that they were looking to grow. As part of this, there were plans for traditionally “underwear”-clad heroes like Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Captain America, and Thor to headline their own sub-franchises – which meant the undies had to go.
Why? It’s obvious: because the “underwear on the outside” visual is goofy as hell. Yes, long-time comic book fans are essentially conditioned to see superhero uniforms as normal…but casual moviegoers? Not so much. If studios were going to sell these properties to more cynical teen and adult audiences, the underwear aesthetic had to go – and corporate synergy being what it is, it wasn’t long before both DC and Marvel altered their comic book characters to mirror their redesigned movie counterparts.
For Marvel – traditionally less undie-oriented than its rival publisher – this was less of a big deal; they’d even done it before, when the X-Men traded in their spandex wardrobe for leather jackets to match the early-00s X-Men movies. But for DC – which had historically resisted messing with the iconic costumes of its flagship characters (long-term, that is) – this was a huge step change (although Superman’s new design has since been rolled back, at least).
Generally speaking, I don’t have a problem with any of this. The superhero genre has lasted for over 80 years by reinventing itself to reflect contemporary tastes, and there’s no reason why that shouldn’t extend to the clothes characters wear. You wouldn’t expect to see Clark Kent in a three-piece suit and fedora in a comic published in 2021, so surely there’s no reason (other than nostalgia) that his superhero alter-ego should still be getting around in outdated threads?
Well, as it turns out, there is…
The problem with updating classic “underwear on the outside” costumes
See, the classic superhero leotard-style costume has one key thing going for it that trunkless bodysuit costumes don’t: contrast. These outfits are primarily one block colour, typically only broken up by a different coloured chest logo, belt and boots – so making the “swimsuit region” a different colour as well adds additional, much needed visual juxtaposition.
Admittedly, some heroes like the Flash and Captain Marvel/Shazam have been getting away with underpants-free, block-colour costumes for decades. They’re the exception to the rule, however, and crucially, their costumes were designed to overcome this lack of contrast right from the start.
So, what’s the answer, then? Should superheroes in comics, movies and TV shows have their classic crimefighting ensembles restored? I’m tempted to say yes.
After all, the idea that outer-underwear is the only thing that makes superheroes look ridiculous is itself a frankly bonkers conceit (you’re seriously telling me that Bruce Wayne donning a bat-eared cowl and scalloped cape is above board, but adding trunks over his leggings is somehow beyond the pale? Puh-lease). But instead, I’m going to suggest a middle ground approach: superhero speedos should remain consigned to the annals of history – so long as they’re replaced with something else that’s equally effective.
Already, we’re seeing comic book artists and film/TV designers experimenting with bolder belts to address the colour imbalance caused by dispensing with old-school trunks (Superman’s present-day suit in Superman & Lois is a great example of this). It’s a start, but it needs to be pushed further to truly achieve the desired effect.
Perhaps coloured panels or piping at the waist or running up the inner leg could work. Maybe a coloured section emerging from beneath (or even above) the belt could work – something that mimics the same effect as a leotard, without, y’know, actually being a leotard. Honestly, there’re a myriad number of workable solutions. Comic book creators and filmmakers just need to experiment, and fast.
Because until they do, superheroes will be walking around without their undies (or even a decent substitute) – and there’s nothing more embarrassing than that.