Would you want to see a Superman movie where he can’t wear his iconic costume? It could happen. Variety printed a fascinating article Friday about how the legal rights behind the Man of Steel could result in the biggest severing of the character since he met Doomsday. This doesn’t affect the current film; that Zack Snyder movie will be moving along as planned. But if it doesn’t succeed, another origin story could be impossible. Basically, come 2013, the rights to key elements of Superman break into two where the heirs of the character’s original creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, retain elements such as his costume – red cape and boots, blue leotard – plus his ability to “leap tall buildings in a single bound” while DC Comics will keep the rights to most of the villains and the ability to fly.

How is that even possible and what does it mean for the future of the franchise? We try and make sense of the legal jargon after the break.

Variety’s article breaks all of this down in detail but, after reading it, I think this is what’s going on.

A few years ago, a series of rulings were made that tried to give original creators more control and financial windfall based on their creations. The rulings said the estates of the creators would, after a certain period of time, retain the rights to key elements of the characters that were not created while employed by another company. So while several key Superman elements were originated in the first few Action Comics, apparently Siegel and Shuster started working for DC after that and anything that was developed in that time is owned by DC. That’s why the costume and jumping are separated from flying and villains.

All of this comes to a head in 2013, as we’ve previously reported, and, as Variety says, “In theory… [audiences] could see two parallel versions of the Man of Steel ramp up.” It’s not likely, being as DC would still hold all the trademarks and full rights for anything international, but if they wanted to, the estate could move forward with a 1938 Superman project while DC would only have the modern Superman.

In regards to the Snyder movie, because it will be released in 2012, anything in it seems to fall under the current rules. Direct sequels are, mostly, safe. It’s anything new that creates an issue, especially if those sequels decide to use elements not in the previous films. That’s been a big part of the impetus at DC to get a new Superman film made as soon as possible.

Of course none of this is ideal for anyone involved and though some of these decisions are under appeal, one would venture to guess that eventually this will be settled in a courtroom. If both sides can’t come to an agreement, though, everyone loses as each wouldn’t be able to explore the character up to his full potential.

There’s much more to this issue and, if you are interested, Variety has many more details. The basic fact is this: Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel could be the last time we see the true origin and essence of the character on screen. It’s unlikely, but possible.

UPDATE: The Hollywood Reporter has just released a story that describes in more detail why the two sides may NOT be able to work things out. Read that here.

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