Indeed, the only time he’s a good character is when he’s starring in one of those ‘What if…?’ tales. For the best example to date, check out Red Son: instead of landing in the Bible Belt, Superman’s infant pod is knocked off course and he lands in Soviet Russia. Instead of protecting America from supervillians, he protects the proletariat from the evils of American capitalism (headed by none other than Lex Luthor).
Then again, the only time Pingu is awesome is when he’s communist.
So when it’s reported that Chris Nolan might be rebooting the Superman movie line, I die a little bit more inside. Superman is inextricably woven into the idea of the Ideal American. For three generations, he’s been the ideation of the white, Protestant, American male: he’s always good, he’s always right, he always wins, and he always brings hope.
While Batman has strong links with the capitalist fantasy of dominating the underprivileged who threaten their power structure (he’s a wealthy industrialist who dresses up in fetish wear to punch up escapees from a psychward — Arkham Asylum — who threaten their power structure), Batman’s become a lot more interesting since the ’80s turned him into an antihero.
You can’t have a canonical antihero Superman. That might not be a bad thing: we’ve become a little bit too absorbed with antiheroes over the past two decades and it gets a bit tiresome. Oh look at you, you edgy outsider who doesn’t care for the rules but is determined to seek justice. P.S. Your featureless mask is terrifying, Rorschach.
Stories involving Superman — and other ridiculously powerful superheroes — require stories which cannot be resolved by mere appeal to them proving that they’ve got more brute force than their enemies. It needs to be the sort of resolution where it doesn’t matter if the enemy is even more ridiculously superpowered, the good guy has set it all up so that he gets the resolution he’s after.
Case in point, Vetinari from the Discworld series by Pratchett. Vetinari has the ultimate in superpowers: the author loves him. If there’s a fight, Vetinari will win. If there’s an attack on his authority, Vetinari will win. It would be incredibly boring if Vetinari just kept winning by being more powerful than everybody else around him. Thus, all of the good Vetinari stories are resolved in ways which do not rely on Vetinari’s use of sheer power.
I can’t think of a similar example for Superman. Consider the first movie: his girlfriend dies (SPOILER ALERT) so Superman uses his superpowers to fly around the world superfast, making time go backwards… You’re left wondering why Superman even bothered in the first place: ‘Oh, Lex has won the day. I’ll just fly superfast to travel back in time and stop him. A winner is me.’
The only way to make Superman interesting is to have him fight Batman. I doubt that will happen in a Nolan film.