Oh my: J.J. Abrams’ ‘Superman’ script
I may not agree with the internet’s current collective conclusion that Man of Steel will be terrible for some reason (apparently “At one point Clark Kent has a beard” is just too “out-there”?). But I can see why people would be at least very guarded in their enthusiasm.
Because let’s face it, this is still Warner Bros., the company that heard Brian Singer pitch a sequel to a 30-year-old movie where Superman doesn’t really do anything other than lift heavy things, bail on Lex Luthor’s court date letting him to go free, and stalk the ex-girlfriend he left pregnant five years ago. They heard that pitch and said, “Of COURSE that is the movie we should be making.”
And then there’s the news that the announced Justice League movie is going back to the drawing board, for the silly little reason that no director will sign onto it because the script is some kind of abomination.
(I don’t even know how that could be – I mean, we TOLD them how to make a perfectly good Justice League movie. It’s like they didn’t even listen!)
Also not helping: the possible Kickstarter-funded documentary reminding everyone of every ridiculous, wrong-headed idea for Tim Burton’s Superman Lives project that flamed out just before America could get a load of Nicolas Cage in a rubber electro-suit and laugh along with Braniac’s sassy gay robot sidekick.
So look, I get it. The odds of a Really Good Superman movie are, at this point, not terribly great. But even if it’s not a great movie – if it does not even surpass Superman Returns somehow – it is still not the biggest misfire we could get.
For that, we can look to J.J. Abrams’ script for Superman: Flyby.
I’d heard things about it before, but this past weekend, perhaps spurred by news that maybe Harrison Ford would grumble and frown his way through Abrams’ upcoming Star Wars film and wanted to see how he handles something more overtly fantasy-based.
The good news is, based on his Superman script, I can tell you that J.J. Abrams apparently looooooves coming up with names for aliens and alien vehicles and alien weapons. Which should help the Star Wars toy makers breathe a sigh of relief.
The bad news is, the reason there are so many alien things to name in this script is because in this movie, Krypton never exploded.
Now, the way I see it, there are two types of Superman fans: the ones who think Jor-El’s role in Superman’s development should be over the minute he hits the go-button on baby Kal-El’s rocket, and the ones who think Marlon Brando’s meaty head teaching Clark everything he needs to know is the way to go.
The Smallville writers were definitely fans of Jor-El’s ghost guide, for instance. But Abrams goes even further with it. He not only keeps Krypton alive, he gives it its own side-story involving a bloody, decades-long civil war so that Jor-El ALSO gets to be an action hero.
Basically the script is 1/3 Kryptonian war-movie, 1/3 watching Clark Kent awkwardly grow up, and 1/3 Superman actually doing Superman-stuff.
He fights a giant robot. I believe it is important that Superman get to fight a giant robot or two, so good.
But he’s also at the center of some kind of Kryptonian prophecy, so…we’ll call it a wash?
Before I get into it though, I do want to compliment Abrams for coming up with a good spin on Clark Kent’s childhood, which I otherwise could live without. By having his powers develop early, Ma and Pa don’t just teach him good values, they teach him self-control. In fact, they kind of overdo it, so the tightly-wound, nervous adult Clark we meet isn’t an act – it’s the result of years of the guy keeping himself bottled up.
Which means the moment he puts on his super-suit is incredibly liberating for him – the scene where he saves Air Force One is as exciting for him as it is for the audience. In fact, Abrams generally does good work with Superman and Clark, presenting a hero who’s still finding his way despite his amazing talents.
So it’s a shame that that particular plot won’t fill out a runtime, and that’s when the Ninja Warriors From Space show up. (Because it would just KILL the goddamn writers of Superman movies to use Metallo or something whenever they want a damn fight scene.)
This is where the timing of the script – it’s dated July 2002 – reminds you that all the studios in that era were still in Post-Matrix mode, because every fight scene between Kryptonians has phrases like “ninja vestments,” “segmented weapon” and “aerial martial arts.”
This is also the point in the script where the “Krypton’s still alive” part goes from intrusive-but-manageable to wait-what-the-hell-is-this-movie-about godawful.
You see, Kal-El was not sent to Earth as a last, desperate effort of a father to save his son from imminent death. INSTEAD, Jor-El had extensively researched Earth and even spent time with the Kents to secretly vet them as adoptive parents, so that he could send Kal-El there to fulfill some kind of vaguely-described prophecy.
In this prophecy, eventually Kal-El would return to Krypton (presumably packing a set of superpowers that somehow would not fade under a red sun? I dunno, I didn’t write a fucking prophecy into this movie), to end the civil war.
ISN’T THAT THE KIND OF SUPERMAN MOVIE YOU’D LIKE TO WATCH?
Well hold onto your seats, because now the goofy stuff starts flying fast and furious.
At a certain point, Lois is put into a deathtrap, and to save her, Superman has to expose himself to lethal levels of Kryptonite radiation. So yeah, Superman dies.
Because Jon Peters will not let that fucking plotline go, apparently.
Halfway across the galaxy, the imprisoned Jor-El – somehow sensing Kal-El has died – commits AND I AM SERIOUS HERE hari kiri so that he will die and his spirit will meet Kal-El’s spirit in the afterlife, to essentially fill him in on this whole Krypton plot business, and give him a combination pep-talk and power-boost.
So Superman – wisely deciding not to just burst out of his own grave and freak out a million mourners (who, I should note, had cycled through the adulation phase and were well into Superman: Threat or Menace? territory at this point in the script), instead burrows through the Earth to pop out on the other side, then fly back around, change into Clark Kent and ask Lois what the deal was with that glowing green rock.
Kryptonite, turns out, is the key to defeating the four Kryptonian Ninjas. Superman, who is “fortified,” having “received the Jor-El Touch,” which is just the worst phrasing and also explains nothing, dukes it out with the Kryptonians and their whizzing, super-kewl “blastaffs” (see, they are staffs, and they blast you). But now, the “Jor-El Touch” has imbued Superman with the Kryptonian Ninja Fighting Skills he had lacked, so now it’s a real fight.
He even knows how to use the blastaff, “pulling it apart and using each half as a separate martial arts blaster,” which is a phrase that J.J. Abrams seems to think makes sense, but probably would look pretty radical on the box of the toy.
The takeaway here: when Jor-El touches you, he touches you all over.
But all this fighting was really just Supes killing time waiting for a swarm of fighter jets, all armed with Kryptonite-laced missiles, to blow them all up, as per the plan he cooked up with the United Nations.
This is how Superman wins. He stands back and lets a bunch of jets kill the Kryptoninjas.
“But,” I hear you saying, “You haven’t even mentioned Lex Luthor! Isn’t he in this movie?”
OK, you asked for it.
In this movie, Dr. Lex Luthor is first introduced as a consultant with the CIA on alien stuff, being that they found a Kryptonian pod years ago and that got them looking for other stuff. Evil Fox Mulder, basically. OK.
But then in a shocking TWIST! It turns out he was secretly helping the Kryptoninjas to find and kill Superman. And in return, they promised he could rule the Earth. How he intends to do this, a short scene before the climactic fight points out, is to take the White House with his Kryptonian goons, then plan a series of Kryptonian goon strikes on all the world’s major cities and then, I suppose, let the rest sort itself out.
Well that plan goes about as well as expected once the Kryptoninjas are blown to pink mist, and Lex seemingly runs away.
OR DOES HE?
He doesn’t. See, Abrams has another SHOCKING TWIST in store!
Just before Superman takes off back to Krypton for the exciting sequel adventure, Lex shows up again, revealing that he’s actually a Kryptonian Sleeper Agent sent to Earth years earlier. “The pod the CIA recovered. It wasn’t yours. IT WAS MINE!” he says, quite insanely, the script would like you to keep in mind.
And now it is time for another brief aerial kung fu battle – “Superman’s fighting skills are advanced – but Lex throws multi-combinations like we’ve never seen” – before Lois drops him like a 200-pound sack of potatoes with a spare bit of Kryptonite.
So NOW Superman can go back to Krypton as the prophesied Space Prince who knows right from wrong because nice farmers raised him instead of anyone on Krypton, which appears to be populated by a million murderous psychopaths and Jor-El. (And, as ghost-of-Obi-Wan Jor-EL told half-dead Superman, a “guide” named Yoda Hen-Gra.)
Let’s see, what else, what else…oh, Jimmy Olsen’s gay. But that’s just so Abrams can give him lines like “Guys, I can’t stop crying. I feel, like, hormonal or something” in his approximately three minutes of screen time.
So there you have it. At one point there was to be a Superman trilogy that felt a lot like Star Wars, but with aerial ninja fighting and a series of increasingly stupid twists. But through the combined efforts of “Everybody hates Jon Peters,” “No actor wanted to be tied to a three-picture superhero franchise” (this was pre-Iron Man, remember) and “Director McG is too afraid of flying to shoot his movie about flying people in Australia”, the thing fell apart and instead they went with the comparatively less ambitious Superman Returns and Sulks.
Which is a real shame, because there was also that movie where Lois has divorced Clark and Lex is killing people in prison with a murderous cocaine-fingernail.
What’s that? You’ve never read the script for the also-aborted Superman Vs. Batman movie?
Heh. You guys are in for a treat.