Immediately after Zack Snyder was hired to direct the upcoming Superman reboot Man of Steel, there was already speculation that one of the main reasons he'd landed the gig was that Warner Bros. thought he'd be able to complete the film with minimal turnaround time.
David Goyer's script evidently had some serious issues that still needed to be addressed, but it was of paramount importance that Man of Steel be ready to hit theaters in the summer of 2012.
The studio's now or never attitude stems from DC Comics' ongoing legal battle with the heirs of Superman creators Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster. If a settlement can't be made by 2013, some of the most fundamental aspects of the character's mythology revert back to the estates of Siegel & Shuster. That obviously puts Man of Steel in the clear - but what would this mean for potential sequels and future cinematic adaptations?
It's an unbelievably complicated matter and Variety has a detailed breakdown of the situation. In a nutshell, the heirs of Siegel & Shuster would retain the rights to the character's iconic costume and his ability to “leap tall buildings in a single bound” while DC Comics would own the rights to most of Superman's villains (including Lex Luthor) and the character's ability to fly.
Variety points out that after 2013, Warner Bros. would still be able to "exploit the Superman projects it's already made, but under the Copyright Act, the company could not create new 'derivative' works based on Action Comics No. 1 and other properties held by the heirs." Therefore, the studio would be able to produce sequels to Man of Steel, but they would be prohibited from using elements owned by Siegel & Shuster that hadn't already been utilized in previous films. This arrangement would effectively make another big screen reboot of the property impossible.
In fact - if the rights are split, audiences could be subjected to two separate franchises.
In a recent article published in the Columbia Journal of the Law & the Arts, Anthony Cheng writes that 7th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Richard Posner's decision in Neil Gaiman's suit against Todd McFarlane "could provide the rationale for both parties to continue legally exploiting" Superman. Posner determined that Gaiman's "Medieval Spawn" was "sufficiently distinct" to justify a separate character copyright from the original Spawn.
Essentially, there would be two distinct interpretations of the character - a 1938 Superman owned by Siegel & Shuster and a modern Superman owned by DC Comics. Both parties would then be free to create new works based on these separate versions. This probably wouldn't be an ideal situation for the Siegel & Shuster estates, however, DC would still own all of the trademarks and international rights - not to mention the fact that their modern version of Superman is the one that's more firmly ingrained in pop culture.
As messy as things are bound to get if both sides can't come to some sort of an agreement, the reality is that it's just not that simple. Marc Toberoff, the heirs' attorney, is currently appealing the original court ruling that led to this debacle in an attempt to receive a more definitive answer on who owns what specifically. Meanwhile, DC Comics is pursuing a lawsuit against Toberoff claiming that he "poisoned their relationship with the Siegels and Shusters."
Ironically, the reason for splitting the rights in the first place was to encourage both sides to come together by giving each of them vital components of Superman lore. Otherwise, each party is left with something reminiscent of, but not completely, Superman.
With something so lucrative at stake, there's certainly still hope that a mutually beneficial arrangement will be made. If not, then Man of Steel could conceivably be the last true Superman movie that fans see for a very long time.
Man of Steel is tentatively scheduled to reach theaters by December of 2012.