This is not intended to insinuate that there are only three good Superman stories. There may well be a hundred of them. However, there are only three movies that Hollywood is ever going to know how to make out of those hundreds of stories. Thankfully, Superman defeating a mainframe developed by an African-American comedian and stopping nuclear proliferation by fighting an irradiated clone are not considered to be among them. There is the origin story and intial confrontation with Lex Luthor ( Superman, Superman Returns, and Smallville). The next story is the confrontation with the Phantom Zone villains ( Superman II and Man of Steel ). Then there is the movie that they have not done as a live action film yet. That would be the death by hands of Doomsday as well as the subsequent resurrection. That story was shown in the animated film (to a degree) entitled Superman / Doomsday. Beyond that, the Big Blue Boy Scout just does not seem to have anything that would be cinematically worthy. The truth of the matter is that Hollywood has a traditionally poor take on the Man of Steel. Superman is a lot like Frankenstein’s Monster in many of these movies. Superman is a character with a compelling origin, however Superman is essentially a prop to build the movie around.
To some degree, this is true in a lot of the better Superman stories in the comics as well. Kingdom Come, which was a painted mini-series in 1996 by Alex Ross, is a perfect example of this. Kingdom Come is actually a searing character study into Ka-El. However, think about it. This was not a searing discussion of who Superman really was. It was not a character study of anything other than Superman’s place in the world. This is the same point of the story in the Death of Superman. The compelling factor is Superman’s willingness to die as well as his vulnerability, however the true emotion came from Superman’s abscence. Batman may have said it all best when he said that the last thing that Superman did to inspire anyone was “To die.” Kingdom Come examines how much authority Superman should exert in a world that he has come back to. That is a very similiar point that Superman Returns is trying to make. It should have been a bit telling when director Bryan Singer esckewed all comics as a point of reference and chose to only focus on the films of Richard Donner as a reference point.
Next years upcoming Man of Steel (like Superman II) features the Phantom Zone villains. Generally, the basic question of even putting in the Phantom Zone villains is a philisophical one. What happens when you put the powers of a God in the hands of people who would use it for their own purposes? Superman, like Robocop, is essentially a retelling of Jesus and the resurrection story. The first story has to set up that the power is in the right hands. The second story gives you an antithesis to that. Its the third story that will generally get bogged down in acerbic black rage or robotic ninjas. However, once you establish that the character can conquer death itself, then what else really is there. Isn’t that the same trap that both Neo and Harry Potter fell into?
Universal Studios had a similiar issues with keeping Frankenstein franchise going. Finally, you got to all of the ‘House of …’ movies which was essentially seeing how many iconic characters interacted with each other. Consciously or subconsciously, this is the same template that Marvel used with thier Phase One Universe movies. It is also a template that was essentially used after eight years of mostly successful movies from X-Men to Iron Man had in fact run their course. Repackage the legend for a new generation. That is the reason why the Justice League movie will be practically an inevitability. Hopefully, we can at least get a good Wonder Woman (another character that Hollywood seems to have a woeful understanding of) movie out of it before. Ideally, Justice League would have more substance to it than the Avengers movie. Ideally, the Justice League movie should be about the interactions of Olympic Gods against the threat of Elder Titans. The Avengers was and will continue to be big blasting popcorn fun. However, even having Superman in a deep thoughtful Justice League movie will still amount to his place on the team as well as his role in the planet Earth as well as its survival. None of that really gets to the heart of who the man is. I just don’t see filmakers with the vision to move past it. There have been occassions in which it was done successfully in the comics though.
The prediction is that the second movie in the Man of Steel trilogy will be the Doomsday story. Beyond that, we are really going to be watching out for up tempo comedy, robotic ninjas, and (God forbid) a giant robotic spider.