Greetings true believers. You are holding in your hands (in a manner of speaking) the fourth spectacular issue of my ongoing article series The Ten Best Unproduced Comic Book Movie Scripts.
If you haven’t checked out my bloated, unwieldy nerdgasm of an introduction to the series as well as a complete week-by-week breakdown of clues to each entry on this list you may do so here.
This week I have selected a screenplay that is legendary in movie and comic geek circles for the sheer amount of hatred it inspired. These days it’s quite difficult to imagine a time when the filmmaker who went from churning out hit shows on network television to being handed the keys to two of the biggest blockbuster franchises in the universe took a shot at bringing arguably the greatest superhero who ever existed and was rewarded for his under-the-gun efforts with an incalculable amount of crap.
Superman by J.J. Abrams.
This summer has been kind of a drag thus far. For the moment let’s travel back eleven summers ago to a time when executives at Warner Bros. were divided into warring camps – such is a typical Hollywood day – and at loggerheads about the direction their DC Comics properties needed to take on the path back to big screen success.
As I discussed in my second entry the studio’s longtime franchise prospects Superman and Batman were looking pretty dire at time so initially the decision was made to bring the two legendary heroes together in a single movie to be directed by Wolfgang Petersen (Air Force One). They could kill two birds with one stone by using the hoped-upon success of Batman Vs. Superman to kick start both film series back to life, because there was only so much financial wizardry Harry Potter could perform.
After the team-up project burned through a ton of Warners’ seemingly endless supply of development funds in pre-production the studio returned to the idea of solo Superman and Batman movies. By the summer of the following year Christopher Nolan would be handed the reigns of reigniting the Dark Knight’s silver screen adventures, while the task of re-envisioning the Man of Steel for 21st century moviegoing audiences was taken by J.J. Abrams.
After nearly a decade of false starts on the new Superman movie that had chewed up and spit out writers and directors like Kevin Smith, Tim Burton, William Wisher, Wesley Strick, and Paul Attanasio who had grown tired of the demands and antics of freewheeling producer Jon Peters, it looked as if Krypton’s favorite son would never again see the light of a theater screen.
Nothing short of the reviving touch of an ethereal Marlon Brando would do the trick, but Abrams certainly gave it his best shot.
Having worked his way up in the industry from composing music for B-monster movies to creating and producing hit TV series the likes of Felicity and Alias, Abrams had also written the utterly forgettable feature films Regarding Henry, Gone Fishin’, and Joy Ride (the latter I actually liked a lot). He was also among the Murderer’s Row of writers hired to rework the script for Michael Bay’s oil drillers in space summer ’98 action smash Armageddon. Abrams didn’t have the credibility when it came to comic book adaptations, but as a student of the populist entertainments of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas he had a modest insight when it came to crafting large-scale event features with humor, intelligence, and heart.
These were the days before he became obsessed with the “Mystery Box” method of marketing his films that backfired horribly the last time he decided to keep that box closed. J.J. Abrams was heading straight to the top and he intended to ride Superman’s cape tails all the way there.
Abrams had intended for his Superman script to serve as the foundation of a new trilogy that would explore his origins and homeworld in great depth. In his vision of the Man of Tomorrow’s universe the planet Krypton was never destroyed. Instead Krypton is torn apart by a revolution spearheaded by Kata-Zor, the power-mad brother of Jor-El, Superman’s birth father. Believing his son Kal-El to be the fulfillment of a Kryptonian prophecy, Jor-El sends the baby boy away to Earth before he is taken prisoner by Kata-Zor and the planet falls into chaos.
Abrams’ script actually begins with the full-grown Superman engaged in aerial martial arts combat with his evil uncle in a battle that concludes with Supes forced to dive into a tank filled with liquid Kryptonite in order to save Lois Lane, the gutsy human journalist he has fallen in love with. Lois is saved but at the cost of her hero’s life.
Let me repeat that: the script begins with the death of Superman. Say what you will, but that’s a pretty ballsy way to open a Superman movie. Abrams would later recycle this sequence as the high-tension first scene of his feature directorial debut, 2006?s Mission: Impossible III.
Right off the bat Abrams’ script proclaims that this is going to be a bold revisionist take on the Superman legend. It was traipsing through territory already explored by the first two blockbuster smashes to star Superman, but this time the writer intended to put his own stamp on the material. Abrams made several drastic alterations to the character’s time-honored canon, including making his arch-nemesis Lex Luthor a C.I.A agent investigating possible extraterrestrial threats for the government and having Superman’s Earth parents Jonathan and Martha Kent been personally selected by Jor-El himself a long time prior to Kata-Zor’s civil war. But he also made plenty of room for the kind of senses-shattering action set pieces typical of the comics that Superman fans had been dying to see brought to life in a multi-million dollar cinematic extravaganza.
In a sequence owing to a similar moment in 1978?s classic Superman: The Movie that would be ripped off by Bryan Singer for Superman Returns – the movie that was made in favor of Abrams’ approach – Superman announced his presence to the world by successfully rescuing Air Force One from crashing with Lois on board.
In a recent interview with Empire to promote the upcoming release of Star Trek Into Darkness Abrams talked about his rejected intentions to revive Superman as a movie franchise:
“The thing that I tried to emphasize in the story was that if the Kents found this boy, Kal-El, who had the power that he did, he would have most likely killed them both in short order. And the idea that these parents would see – if they were lucky to survive long enough – that they had to immediately begin teaching this kid to limit himself and to not be so fast, not be so strong, not be so powerful.
The result of that, psychologically, would be fear of oneself, self-doubt and being ashamed of what you were capable of. Extrapolating that to adulthood became a fascinating psychological profile of someone who was not pretending to be Clark Kent, but who was Clark Kent. Who had become that kind of a character who is not able or willing to accept who he was and what his destiny was.
The idea in the movie was that he became Superman because he realized he had to finally own his strength and what he’d always been.”
The recently released Man of Steel was lionized for finally giving Superman a worthy foe to battle in Michael Shannon’s vengeful General Zod. Most of the earlier unproduced sequel scripts were based in part on the “Death of Superman” storyline from the early 90?s which had the hero falling in battle at the hands of the destructive alien beast Doomsday, but those scenes most took place at the beginning of the script. By the point of Superman’s inevitable resurrection there was hardly anything left for him to do except fight Lex Luthor some more, even though he really can’t the way fans were dying for.
Abrams’ script opens with massive devastation on a global scale, takes a breath, beats the living hell out of Krypton, and mostly keeps the engine idling until Kata-Zor’s son Ty-Zor and his trio of henchmen arrive on Earth to deliver to the planet’s new protector the hurting of a lifetime.
Once the relationship between Superman and Lois is established and he sacrifices his life to save hers he is given a grand hero’s funeral, complete with a tearful eulogy from Ms. Lane. With Luthor installed as President of the United States the country falls under Ty-Zor’s rule. But as it turns out, Superman didn’t really die. Well actually he did. But he gets better. In one of many of Abrams’ original ideas that just don’t work he meets with his Kryptonian father Jor-El (who committed suicide while in Kata-Zor’s custody in order to make this rendezvous possible) in a infinite void and is informed of the prophecy that tells of Kal-El’s birth and eventual rise to become the savior of his planet and people.
So powerful is this paternal pep talk that Superman returns from the grave, and with the help of Lois and the air forces of the United Nations armed with Kryptonite-powered missiles he engages Ty-Zor and his followers in battle once more but this time emerges triumphant. The day is saved and now Supes and his new lady love can embrace and look forward to more amazing adventures with some “faster than a speeding bullet” nookie on the side.
All seems to be well and good until Dr. Luthor of the C.I.A. returns to inform Superman that isn’t the only alien on Earth now. As it turns out, our Lex is also a native of Big Blue’s home planet. This little twist didn’t come from left field, it came from the freakin’ interstate three miles away from the ball park. Naturally the two get into another airborne bout of fisticuffs before Luthor is subdued by Kryptonite and packed off into a paddy wagon until he is needed for the inevitable sequel. The script ends with Superman hopping back into the pod that brought him to Earth as an infant and setting a course for Krypton so he can fulfill the prophecy, or at least that was the intention of Abrams and the studio.
Other interesting but potentially problematic ideas Abrams brought to the mythos were having Superman’s trademark red and blue suit be kept inside a canister that came with him in his Kryptonian pram, a scene where he saves Ma Kent from being raped by their dastardly landlord Mr. Devaney, and Clark’s decision to hang up his cape immediately after announcing himself to the world because the stress was just too much for Pa Kent to handle so he up and died from a heart attack.
For all of the screenplay’s fundamental flaws there is a great deal of Superman’s story Abrams absolutely nails. The relationship between Superman and Lois Lane is wonderfully brought to life, though it doesn’t quite compare to the way their bond was handled in the 1978 movie. Some of the dialogue is funny, the action is epic and intense even for a typical summer comic book movie extravaganza, and the villains are perfectly hate-worthy.
In September 2002 Ain’t It Cool News writer Moriarty posted a long, detailed review of Abrams’ draft. It was less a review and more…do you remember that scene in the original RoboCop where the criminals shoot the living bejabbers out of Peter Weller? That’s what this assessment of the script reminded me of. In Moriarty’s words, “I… I… sweet God, I hate this script.”
Look, I will not deny that Abrams’ script needed work. A lot of work. Most of what Moriarty had to say about the Abrams screenplay was right on the money. The Kryptonian prophecy subplot clearly wasn’t thought through properly before being committed to word processor. Superman’s death comes as a shock at first until you realize that without him we don’t have a happy ending and Warner Bros. loses another valuable franchise cash cow, and the way he returns to life is cringe-inducing awful AT BEST.
As far as the decision to reveal Lex Luthor as another Kryptonian with super powers in the finale goes it didn’t rankle me much, nor is it executed successfully. I can see why it was done in the first place; before this we had three movies of Luthor as a scheming real estate junkie with a predilection for hiring imbeciles as his support staff. Earlier drafts for the fifth Superman movie returned the Man of Steel’s greatest adversary to his post-John Byrne reinvention as a billionaire corporate magnate with an inexhaustible supply of resources and the obsessive will to destroy Superman no matter the cost. That was more of a step in the right direction.
Turning the villain into a C.I.A. agent tasked with investigating alien activity on Earth would appeal to the character’s scientific side, but until Ty-Zor arrives Luthor never really becomes much of a threat. Then Abrams makes him another alien with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men just after Superman has bested his evil cousin in a planet-shaking confrontation. By then it’s just pointless overkill, and I happen to be a great supporter of overkill.
The thing is, this was a first draft, not the final draft. This script was not about to go into production the next day or week or what have you. It was not gospel.
Screenplays are commonly rewritten many times before filming begins, and even while filming is going on. That’s how the tentpole movie machine works, folks. When a project like the new Superman movie has so much riding on it everyone at the studio and those involved with the production are going to put their two cents in before the script is in a shape most can be satisfied with. Besides, Abrams didn’t have the industry clout then that he has since banked with the Star Trek movies, Cloverfield, Super 8, the Mission: Impossible sequels (he continues to serve as a producer), and his latest assignment helming the next installment of the Star Wars saga. If changes were likely to be made to the script on the studio’s orders then Abrams was going to do if he wanted to remain involved with the project.
And indeed he did remain involved once his Superman script won the approval of producer Peters and the studio and was given the coveted green light. The same month Ain’t It Cool News ran their negative review of Abrams’ initial draft Brett Ratner, the abrasive but not untalented director of the Rush Hour movies and Red Dragon, signed on to direct the first movie of a proposed trilogy set up in the script. Pre-production seemed to be proceeding on schedule but efforts to cast a name actor in the role of Superman were proving futile. The actors Ratner approached were either rejected by the studio or just flat-out did not want to get tied down to a part that could net them the biggest payday of their career but in the process torpedo any hope they had of ever being taken seriously in Hollywood. Considered for the role were Ashton Kutcher, Josh Hartnett, Jude Law, Jerry O’Connell, and future White Collar star Matthew Bomer.
Development stalled and Ratner left the production after disputes with Jon Peters that threatened to get harmful to the body. McG (Charlie’s Angels, Terminator Salvation) was next up to take the reigns after Michael Bay was briefly rumored for the job and Abrams himself was shot down as a replacement candidate. As the budget climbed above the $200 million mark (with development costs from the other failed incarnations added) McG had even worse luck than his predecessor in casting the part of Superman. Among the actors who tested for the lead during that time were Brandon Routh – whose audition would net him the role a few years later – and current Man of Steel Henry Cavill. When Warner Bros. decided to secure soundstages in Australia for the production the aviophobic McG abandoned the director’s chair following an attempt to relocate filming to Canada that studio execs refused to back up.
By the summer of 2004 – the season when Warners had hoped to release their new Superman movie under the direction of either Ratner or McG – Usual Suspects/X-Men director and lifelong Superman fan Bryan Singer officially came board to call the shots on what would be released two summers later as Superman Returns. Though Singer’s movie, which dropped the J.J. Abrams script in favor of a more faithful treatment he conceived with his X2 writers Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris, failed to connect with audiences the way the 1978 movie had at least Warner Bros. finally succeeded in getting a new Superman movie on the big screen after more than a decade of torturous development. That was an achievement to which the Last Son of Krypton would have had to tip his trademark spit curl.
On a final note, it’s surprising to me in retrospect how Abrams’ treatment of the Superman legend was greeted with such rancorous vitriol by die hard fans of the comics and past films who took umbrage at his daring to tinker with parts of the story they held in highest regard. Because many of those same dissenting voices were more than willing to give Zack Snyder, Christopher Nolan, and David S. Goyer a free pass when they decided to give Superman their own creative makeover in Man of Steel. In fact a lot of Abrams’ ideas – some of which were doubtlessly imposed on him by Peters and the execs at Warners – made their way in some form or another into Man of Steel. General Zod could be a composite character of Kata-Zor and his son Ty, and his attempted takeover of Krypton shortly before its destruction is mirrored in Abrams’ draft in Kata-Zor’s seizure of power that forces Jor-El to send his own son Kal away to Earth.
Man of Steel also borrowed – inadvertently or not – Abrams’ operatic final battle and the world’s initial distrust of Superman and put their own spin on his conception for the origin of Superman’s iconic costume. Granted I’m not saying that Abrams should have had a credit on the Man of Steel screenplay, because neither he nor Snyder and co. were the first to boldly re-imagine Superman’s beginnings for a new generation. The universe’s greatest superhero is constantly having to adapt to the changing times in ways both small and large in order to remain relevant to new readers. But as long as he retains his core dedication to fighting for truth, justice, and the American way the Superman we know and love will never change.
And last I heard, J.J. Abrams was doing just fine.