Ireland could face FA action for his goal celebration
Manchester City maintained their 100% Premier League home record and climbed to third in the table with a rocket of a volley from Stephen Ireland.
Ireland lit up an otherwise poor match when he made a cracking connection with Darius Vassell's cross from the left.
It was a cruel blow for Sunderland, who played the better for much of the game.
But Danny Collins and Anthony Stokes failed to find the target with flashing first-half headers and Kenwyne Jones could not turn in a left-wing cross.
The game lacked the fireworks normally associated with Bonfire Night until Ireland struck.
Martin Petrov switched play from right to left where Elano and Vassell linked before the latter, a half-time substitute, swung in an inviting ball to the back post where Ireland fizzed a shot between Craig Gordon's legs.
He then pulled down his shorts to reveal a pair of underpants bearing the Superman logo.
The match caught fire in that moment, with the tempo increasing and Sunderland pushing for what would have been a deserved equaliser.
Their best chances came from the left where Ross Wallace swung in crosses for Grant Leadbitter and Jones.
But Leadbitter's side-footed effort back into the box was cleared by Richard Dunne and Jones could only get a toe to another delivery to the back post.
With 10 minutes remaining City shored up their defensive ranks with Michael Ball replacing Elano and the reinforced rearguard ensured Sunderland's hopes of a come back went up in smoke.
The struggling Black Cats were left to rue their inability to make their hosts pay for a shockingly lacklustre start.
Collins and Stokes missed the target with headers when they should have at least tested Joe Hart in the home goal.
And Leadbitter dragged a tame shot wide after Sun Jihai, who had a torrid evening, slipped on halfway to gift the breaking Stokes the ball.
By then City had at least been roused from their torpor.
The muted home support, who entertained themselves by roundly booing visiting boss and former Manchester United stalwart Roy Keane, had to wait 26 minutes before seeing Gordon tested with a bobbler from Elano.
That seemed to ignite the hosts with Elano to the fore and Emile Mpenza twice firing on goal, once on target and once wide.
But the match soon fizzled back to a turgid, one-paced affair littered with mis-placed passes and little sparkle.
After 56 minutes both managers had seen enough, with Sven-Goran Eriksson throwing on Rolando Bianchi for Mpenza having withdrawn Michael Johnson, who was struggling with a groin problem, for Vassell at the break.
And Keane altered his forward options with Wallace and Michael Chopra replacing Stokes and the energetic Daryl Murphy.
But while Chopra immediately caught the eye with some lively play and a shot, it was Vassell who made the more telling contribution with a flash of inspiration before Ireland's explosive finish.
Manchester City manager Sven-Goran Eriksson on Ireland's goal celebration when he dropped his shorts to reveal a pair of Superman pants:
"Superman - super goal.
"He has been training very well, I am just a little surprised it has taken him a bit of time to play better.
"I saw his celebration. Stephen scored a nice goal and I would like to leave it there. Maybe the FA will look at it - but I hope not."
Sunderland manager Roy Keane:
"I don't feel hard done by.
"We didn't deserve anything. I don't feel we did enough to get anything out of the game. I don't think their keeper had too many saves to make, did he?
"They produced that one bit of quality and they scored."
Man City: Hart, Jihai, Dunne, Corluka, Garrido, Ireland, Hamann, Johnson (Vassell 46), Petrov, Mpenza (Bianchi 57), Elano (Ball 82).
Subs Not Used: Isaksson, Geovanni.
Goals: Ireland 67.
Sunderland: Gordon, Nosworthy, Higginbotham, Collins, Harte, Stokes (Chopra 58), Miller, Etuhu, Leadbitter, Murphy (Wallace 58), Jones.
Subs Not Used: Ward, Kavanagh, Connolly.
Ref: Alan Wiley (Staffordshire).