The complicated and long-running legal battle over the rights to the character of Superman continued this week, with a US district court ruling that Warner Bros and DC did not enter a ‘sweetheart deal’ for the movie and TV rights to the character, as alleged by the heirs to Supes co-creator Jerry Seigel’s estate. But that’s not the end of it, and the info that came from the ruling may shed some light on the status of future Superman movies.

Right now, it turns out, Warner Bros is doing jack shit on Superman. The earliest they could have a film out, says WB’s honcho Alan Horn, is 2012. The court has ruled that WB must get a Superman movie off the ground by 2011 to head off future potential lawsuits.

This whole thing is a twisty, knotty, complicated mess. I must admit that I don’t understand the full legal ramifications of everything under discussion here, and some of my opinions are based on my fumbling attempts to make sense of a lot of legal stuff with which I’m not really familiar. In other words, I’m acting like a movie blogger here, talking about shit about which I don’t have the real authority to talk.

Warner Bros would seem to be in a weird position here. It looks like the full rights to Superman will revert to the creators’ estates in 2013; while some people are saying that it’s possible the character could migrate to another company or something I would imagine that is the least likely scenario. The most likely (as in 99% likely) scenario is that Warner Bros pays a bunch of money and shares a bunch of profits to keep the character.

But what about a movie? Warner Bros has little motivation to make another film right now outside of the legal threat of more litigation if they don’t have one going in 2011. Could they get around this by just throwing Superman into another DC Comics movie? There have been lots of rumors that he could appear in Green Lantern when that gets off the ground.

The 2011 date presumably comes from the Seigels being mad that Warner Bros is not properly exploiting the character, and thus throwing money away. They would be afraid that rather than make a movie about a guy they won’t own in two years, Warner Bros will just retire the Man of Steel – he’ll no longer be an earner. The irony is that rushing a Superman film into theaters to beat that deadline, especially after the mildly received last film, would actually be throwing money away.

So what’s next for Superman? I think in the end this will be all about accounting, and not about anything that will impact fans. I doubt that come 2014 Superman will be buddying up with Spider-Man or be the flagship character of his own new comics universe. He’ll be a DC character, and he’ll appear in Warner Bros properties.