It really is a dilemma, and one we've discussed quite often on Cinematical. No matter where you stand on superheroes and their adaptations, I think we all agree there seems to be something criminal in keeping him shelved when all his compatriots are flying free on the silver screen. Superman is an icon whose reach extends beyond the comic page. His shield is tattooed on many a bicep, and you can't go anywhere without running into Superman merchandise. You could probably go to the frostiest point of the Arctic Circle and find a Superman t-shirt for sale next to the reindeer fat and snowshoes. Yet he's too problematic to make into a movie. Why is this?
The answers are pretty battered from the repetition. He's boring. He's too perfect. He doesn't work in an era of dark and gritty superheroes. Bryan Singer mucked up his mythology. It's impossible to put him in conflict. Yet readers continue to flock to his "boring" adventures on the page week after week, month after month, and they tune into his Smallville adventures. Superman has never gone out of print or popularity, and yet he's proving more impossible to adapt than Watchmen.
Now, I'm not a big Superman fan, and I've read very few of his comic adventures. But like most kids, I really enjoyed the glory days of Richard Donner and Christopher Reeve, and I feel he's a character worth bringing back for every generation. Every boy and girl should believe a man could fly -- yet I don't think a reboot is the answer ... though I used to. One of my biggest complaints with Superman Returns was that it catered to the Donner audience, and not to a new one. It went on the assumption that we all remembered the finer points of Gene Hackman and the Fortress of Solitude, and left out everyone else. It was as though Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons had directed it, and you can't win an audience if you snub half of them.
Yet, I feel like Singer was onto something. He trusted his audience to know who Superman was, and I think that's what Warner Bros should do again. I don't think there's a need to reboot the whole damn franchise, and go back to the Kent farm to discover just how special little Clark is. People know. Superman is a character who is embedded into our pop culture DNA. Why not just start from Metropolis, and launch straight into a rousing Superman story? If you want to get really fancy, you could play catch-up during the credits sequence like Watchmen did, but there's no need to pander with yet another origin story.
I think there's a terrible assumption that "Middle America" couldn't possibly understand a Superman story like that, and that they'd be frantically trying to connect it to Superman Returns. I imagine quite a few would. But something Hollywood (and by extension, our cloistered online community) doesn't understand is that "ordinary" people can get caught up pretty fast. They're more likely to get confused if you start something over again. This whole "reboot" thing has absolutely no meaning for your average moviegoer. I've dropped that term in conversation quite a few times in my travels, and people just look confused and upset. But if you keep it simple -- "There's going to be a new Superman movie!" -- I guarantee they'll be excited. They will be very unlikely to dwell on Lois Lane's new husband, or Superman Jr., and if they do, all the studio has to say is "This takes place before that" and people will understand. In fact, now that I write that, that's a great idea. Just set it in a vague period before Returns, and trust your audience will understand it the way they did The Bourne Ultimatum.
Of course, that doesn't solve the problem of how to make a really good Superman movie, or how to truly threaten him. My fannish wish would be to see Alan Moore's Superman: Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?, but it's far too complex, with too many appearances by villains and characters unknown to a mainstream audience. However, I think there's one very dark moment that could be enough to hinge a movie around. Two minor villains, Toyman and Prankster, kidnap Pete Ross, one of Clark's childhood friends. Pete inadvertantly learned his pal's super secret, and kept it his entire life. But Toyman and Prankster torture the information out of him, murder him, and expose Superman's identity on national television.
I think that's a little moment of horror that could work quite well in a Superman film. It would be relevant in this day and age of all-consuming media, and it exposes one of Superman's few weaknesses, albeit on a social scale. It allows him to be hurt emotionally, allows him to be horrified at what humans will do to one another, and lets him feel guilt for being the cause of Ross' death. It would be a good arc, and send our invincible hero into depths of self-doubt and depression. Then have something even worse happen, preferably at the hands of Brainiac. Alex Ross' Justice had a rather nice little plot where "supervillains" became good guys, mind-warping humanity for Braniac's devious ends. Enslaving humanity always has to be the point of these things, after all, and it's a threat audiences never get enough of.
But I digress. People are paid more than me to come up with a Superman film, and I certainly wouldn't want to be the one who has to make it all come together. The point is that I think it's very possible, and that Superman comics are filled with cliffhanger moments that keep his readers coming back again and again. I believe it's easy to bring that to the big screen without getting too wrung out, and trying to reboot everything. Trust your audience. In the end, we want to believe a man can fly, and be so selfless that he patrols the skies for us. We don't need to be told again and again who he is, we just need to know he's out there.