Superman is probably the most famous superhero of all time. Despite his popularity, however, his forays onto the silver screen have been decidedly anti-cinematic and often straight-up terrible. The question is, if the character is so popular and beloved, why don't Superman's movies work? The answer is more complicated than you might imagine, and only mostly Zack Snyder's fault.
Most people think it's because he has a bland personality, but there have been plenty of stories that have proven otherwise. His wealth of empathy, compassion, and kindness actually give him a unique perspective that is sorely lacking in today's age of gritty superheroes.
If that's the case, then, why are so many filmmakers struggling to capitalize on the Big Blue Boy Scout? It's worth noting that Richard Donner did a superb job adapting the character with Superman: The Movie - a film that wasn't afraid to be optimistic during the cynical 1970s. Granted, there have been some cool moments in modern Superman films, but it's all just so grim and depressing. If Hollywood has any hope of keeping the character alive for another generation, they need to tap into that optimism and exploit its sunny disposition. Otherwise, they'll continually be unable to translate the success of the comics to the screen.
Even if they do that, though, there are still plenty of reasons you can't make good Superman films.
It's Hard To Modernize His Story
Superman is built on old-school American values. His core principles have always famously been, "Truth, Justice, and the American Way." What does that even mean? The farther we move from the 20th century, the more those conservative mid-Western values seem out-dated.
The problem is that removing Superman from those values means losing the appeal of the character. Case in point: just look at how they tried to modernize Superman and his stance on killing in Man of Steel or Batman v Superman. Audiences were either upset at the betrayal of the character, or just apathetic towards his new, gritty persona. Basically, Superman needs to be wholesome to resonate with consumers, but consumers don't respond well to classically wholesome characters anymore.
He's Never In Real Danger
This may seem overtly obvious, but it's definitely been a huge problem for all of Superman's films. There have been varying degrees of power bestowed on The Last Son of Krypton for his on-screen portrayals, but most movies have shown him to be indestructible to the point where he can survive in space without the need for a suit.
Seriously, when your main character can't get physically hurt there are no stakes to get excited over. When the protagonist is always going to be fine, there's no drama to a story. We crave conflict and struggle in our storytelling, it's at the core of our desire for narrative. And it's really hard to get jazzed about a guy who's so tough that bullets bounce off of his eyeballs. Also, that was kind of gross, right?
Kryptonite Is The Only Way To Create A Fair Fight. It's Also Boring
Perhaps the most massive problem that comes from Superman's overwhelming power is his inability to have a fair fight. Pretty much anyone who isn't a deity doesn't stand a chance against the Man of Steel. Thus, Kryptonite was invented. The irradiated chunks of his home planet are the only way to keep Superman in check (short of a red star). The problem is that it keeps showing up over and over again Superman stories.
It's become a crutch for lazy writers to humanize an inherently inhuman character. And here's the thing: when you take away Superman's powers, you're no longer telling a Superman story. Now you're just talking about some dude named Clark, and no one signed up for that when they went to go see a movie about a space god.
He Always Plays Second Fiddle To Batman
Batman's just a cool character. That's just an observable fact, like gravity or global warming. He's so cool, in fact, he often overshadows his more colorful colleague in both popularity and box office returns. In the mid-2000s, the decision was made to give a sequel to Batman Begins but not Superman Returns despite the fact that they pulled in similar box office numbers.
Years later, in order to pique interest in the Man of Steel sequel, they decided to make it a story where Batman is the only one with character development. It makes sense, there's a million ways to tell a great Batman story and, like, three ways to do the same for Superman.