With the results of a recent lawsuit from the Siegel and Shuster estates (heirs of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, original creators of Superman), it looks like Warner Brothers has a choice: have a new Superman movie in production by 2011 or, possibly, never again without paying huge penalties. I have yet to find a concise, understandable description of this lawsuit or its results (if anyone out there has a link, feel free to send it my way), so I don't have those details for you, but I do know that the heirs of Siegel and Shuster have been saying for years that they have gotten a raw deal from Warner Brothers and DC Comics and, more often than not, the courts have generally agreed. The fact that almost all creators from that era got a raw deal seems to go pretty much unnoticed, but that's a different story.
The story here is that Warner Brothers needs to get a new Superman movie rolling fast, but they say they can't because the character is currently perceived as "uncool" and "damaged goods". One studio talking head in the court case used the abysmal box office record of Superman IV as evidence that this franchise was "played out".
That last point we can address easily. The abysmal box office record for Superman IV was evidence that Superman IV sucked. End of story. The sheer volume of successful Superman adaptations since then is overwhelming evidence that the problem was in that particular offering, not in the franchise as a whole.
So then we are left with the problems of "uncool" and "damaged goods". Those actually are not that difficult to deal with either. Whenever suit-and-tie-wearing executives interfere with the presentation of the character called Superman, we inevitably get a guy in a blue suit and red cape who does not otherwise show more than a passing resemblance to Earth's greatest defender. The bean counters have, over and over again, tried to "modernize" Superman, tried to copy the formulas of other heroes and anti-heroes, tried to "make" Superman "cool". These attempts have, over and over again, failed miserably. Without exception, every time someone tries one of these ridiculous re-imaginings and it bombs, someone else comes along and brings the Big Blue Boyscout back to his roots, and the character's popularity once again surges. You would think that, after seeing this formula repeated so many times, someone in charge might actually notice.
Since you guys at Warner Brothers can't seem to figure these things out on your own, let me give you a few pointers:
Superman is not an anti-hero. He is a shining beacon of hope and people could certainly use a bit more of that these days. It has been very rare that showing a darker side to Superman has actually worked (think Kingdom Come, a fabulous graphic novel that you really should read if you have not done so) and these have only worked because they actually highlighted his positive traits and were ended with a large redemption that restored Superman to these positive traits. If you ever doubt that Superman is The Hero and that doubt is not resolved absolutely and at least relatively quickly, you have not written a Superman story.
Superman is not Batman and you cannot use the same methods for one as for the other. This is not actually the same thing as the "not an anti-hero" point because Batman is not truly an anti-hero. He does things that are dark (opposite of Superman) but he does them for purely noble reasons (same as Superman and decidedly opposite of anti-hero motif). The combination of similarities and differences is what makes putting these two characters together so popular. They share absolute morals - protect the innocent, never kill, fight injustice no matter the odds, etc - but they constantly bicker over methods. The defining difference is in who they most seek to affect and how they accomplish this. Batman's primary affect is on criminals through fear. In many of the best batman stories, the average citizen doesn't even know whether or not there really is a Batman - he's an urban legend - but the criminals know him and are afraid. Superman's primary affect is on the average person through hope. Everyone knows Superman is real and most people feel a happy thrill when they see him flying through the air. Do you see the difference?
Superman is the most powerful hero in the DC universe. Quit wasting our time with problems Jimmy Olsen could solve. There is a reason the comics only rarely feature Lex as the upfront villain. Yes, it's good to see his devious manipulations from time to time but have you forgotten what the original and longest running Superman comic was called? Action Comics! Notice a key word there? We want to see Superman go toe to toe with villains who can actually hit back.
Superman is not a whiner. Leave the angst to the X-Men or the Boy Wonder. Teenagers. Superman is not a teenager. You don't make an adult character cool to teenagers by making him act like them. They're not stupid. Most teenagers see that as the lame attempt to grab their attention that it is.
Superman is not alien. Get off the isolated alien kick. Yes, he is technically and genetically not human, but he is emotionally and socially more human than human. He is the best parts of humanity, amplified. Superman was raised by Kansas farmers who taught him human values, human loves, and human ideals. Yes, he knows he is an alien and yes, this occasionally causes issues, but it is not the center of his being. The center of Superman's being is being the best human he can be because that is what Mom and dad taught him to be.
In short, give us back our Kansas boyscout and let him do some serious butt kicking in the name of defending truth and justice. Those two words are a Superman catchphrase, but I'll give you two more that should be guiding stars to the folks at Warner Brothers: hope and action.
There is nothing uncool or damaged about the character of Superman, only about the way Warner Brothers executives have treated that most iconic of characters. Be fair - hell, be honest and just. Make a Superman movie worthy of the name and you'll see moviegoers flock to the box office. Continue to think that people should be dumb enough to buy anything with a big red S on it and you'll continue to lose money. Shouldn't be a difficult decision.