September 14, 2011
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
The strong reaction to Superman’s costume change is coming from a community that is highly invested in the character. To many of them he represents something iconic, good, pure, and nostalgic. Some hold Superman to be a patriotic symbol in the same category as the Stars and Stripes and George Washington. He stands for “truth, justice, and the American way.” For others, and I must put myself in this category, he is a symbol of childhood that triggers positive memories of backyard action figure battles and treks to 7-11 to buy comic books.
When we invest symbols, like Superman, with this kind of meaning and significance, we expect them to remain timeless and unchanging. They serve as vessels that hold something precious–our nation, our childhood, our memories. And the permanence of these symbols only increases in weight as cultural changes accelerate. So when the symbol itself changes–by having his underwear removed, for example–the values and memories we associate with it suddenly feel insecure or worse, attacked. One of the fixed points of reference in our universe unexpectedly shifts, and we lash out at the person who moved it.
In your leadership, if you face an unexpected backlash for what you thought was a minor change, you may have underestimated the identity-value of the thing you changed. It may seem silly to you, but the power of symbols is very real to those invested in them.
TWO: One generation’s “cool” is another’s “creepy”
During the Great Depression when Superman made his comic book debut, the popular culture was familiar with circus acts and their flamboyant costumes. The strong men that inspired Siegel and Shuster to put red trunks on their Superman were admired by school boys for their heroism and daring acts of strength. Fast forward four generations, and school boys today aren’t going to circus side shows anymore. And the once innocuous red knickers now draw snickers (try saying that three times quickly).
If we are seeking to lead multiple generations, either simultaneously or over time, we must be mindful to not infuse highly-contemporary symbols with meaning. Otherwise, when cultural norms change, and they always do, we will either be ill-prepared to lead younger people or face the painful and traumatic process of divesting meaning from older forms. Many of the “worship wars” seen in congregations can be attributed to this tendency.
A better option is to use much older symbols that are largely immune to the whims of popular culture. Consider church buildings. No one enters a Gothic cathedral or Puritan meeting house and says, “Uh, this is so out of style!” Those forms are so old that they get a pass, and may actually be admired for transcending the ever-shifting trends of the culture. But a facility that may have been designed to be highly relevant in 1985 is another matter. And if your church is determined to stay on the leading edge of technology in worship, be prepared to shell out enormous amounts of time, money, and energy for decades to come (and with a diminishing return, if my guess is right).
THREE: Sometimes compromise is just dumb
When Warner Brothers decided to scrap Superman’s shorts, they were actually following the lead of DC Comics. Earlier this year DC announced a reboot of the Superman storyline with a redesigned character. Their contemporary take on the Man of Steel also had no red trunks, but to retain some aesthetic link to the past, and to avoid nerd-fury, they gave Superman a red belt.
It didn’t work. Fans still freaked out about the loss of the undies, and others questioned the purpose of the belt. Why does he need a belt if he doesn’t have any pants? And unlike Batman, whose utility belt holds his gadgets, Superman doesn’t carry accessories. By compromising DC Comics neither pleased fans nor advanced the character’s realism. By dodging the bolder decision they actually created a bigger mess.
I’m not saying compromise is always bad (heaven knows we could use a little more of it in Washington DC from time to time). But leaders need to be discerning enough to know when compromise is actually a chocolate covered turd–it may look good on the outside, but take a bite and you’ll regret it.
In my opinion, Zach Snyder was smarter than DC Comics when he not only ditched the red underpants for his Superman movie but also lost the belt. He is sticking to an internally consistent and plausible narrative. Superman is an alien with an alien suit–no belt is necessary.
FOUR: The people, not leaders, decide what’s important
The first official image released by Warner Brothers of Henry Cavill in the new Superman suit was a tease. The studio wanted to create positive buzz for the film, particularly after their last Superman movie in 2006 was considered a letdown by fans. The photo showed a grittier, more aggressive Man of Steel the fans had been hoping for. But the photograph kept part of Superman’s midsection hidden in shadow. Speculation began immediately about whether or not he would retain the red trunks.
WB may have calculated that a clear photo showing the costume change would have distracted both fans and the media from the message they intended to convey–that Superman is back and ready to rumble. And they may have hoped to delay the inevitable backlash by the nerds. But by keeping part of the suit hidden, it only kept fans guessing and distracted from what Warner Brothers intended to communicate. By not wanting the underwear to become the story, it actually became the story.
Ultimately the people will decide what’s important and not the person with the microphone. President Obama, for example, has learned through plummeting poll numbers that while he wanted to talk about health care reform, the rest of country wanted to focus on unemployment. And Anthony Weiner may have wanted to talk about reforming the financial sector, but everyone else wanted to discuss his Twitter pics. Bill Hybels is fond of saying that the first job of leaders is to define reality. But doing that means taking the time to listen to the people and what they’re saying is important.
So, there are four leadership lessons I’ve taken from the controversy surrounding Superman’s underpants. What do I think about the decision to abolish the briefs? I will withhold my opinion until I see the movie. In the end, if it’s a great script with strong acting and fantastic action, I will forgive this blasphemy against my childhood hero. Good storytelling covers a multitude of sins.