Friday, 9 March 2018

FLYBY: How J.J. Abrams Almost Killed Superman

Superman is without doubt the most recognisable and iconic superhero in the world, the character has served as the face for the entire genre ever since he left onto the pages of comics in a single bound back in 1938, and then on to the silver screen in 1978. The classic Richard Donner-directed Superman: The Movie stands apart as a moment in time, and has left a longstanding legacy, both in terms of cinema and the idea of the blockbuster film, but also in proving that superheroes can be a success on the big screen, something we’re all too familiar with today. 

Despite this, the Superman film series  has had its fair shares of problems. The series born out of the toil of Donner had fallen on hard times, after the critical failures of Superman III and Superman IV: The Quest For Peace, and it wasn’t until 1989’s Batman that superheroes returned to the forefront of the cultural zeitgeist, but now presented in a much darker fashion. Over the next decade, Warner Bros sought to revitalise the Man of Tomorrow and return him to the big screen, attempting everything from a poorly-devised Superman V, to the infamous Tim Burton-directed Superman Lives project starring Nicholas Cage. None of these managed to materialise, and as we entered the new millennium, Superman seemed to be fading, a distant memory in cinema that could never be replicated. However, WB were adamant that the Man of Steel would return to the big screen, and chose to take a leap-of-faith, giving this universally beloved character and franchise to a up-and-coming screenwriter currently making his name on the ABC television series ‘Alias’, J.J. Abrams. In 2002, when Abrams was hired by Warner Bros. to pen the screenplay for what evolved into Superman: Flyby, was relatively unknown in Hollywood, still several years away from carving his name through his hit series ‘Lost’, and when faced with bringing back such an iconic character as Superman, it could be a daunting task. Abrams, however, refused to play it safe. 

Turning in his first draft in July 2002, Abrams completely re-imagined the Superman mythos, offering up a fresh and somewhat-controversial spin on the beloved character (much in the same way he did several years later with his reboot of ‘Star Trek’). Firstly, J.J. sought to start from the beginning, establishing the planet Krypton and the circumstances which predicated its downfall: a disastrous civil war which had ravaged the planet, forcing Jor-El (now depicted as Krypton’s King) to send his only son to Earth, in an attempt to spare his life from his tyrannical uncle, Kata-Zor, who had taken control of the planet and imprisoned Jor-El. And while this sounds extremely far out, Abrams is quick to point out that he sought to focus much of the origin on Clark’s upbringing on Earth, once discovered by the Kents, and how this wholesome and traditional American upbringing came to define the person he grew to be, telling Empire Magazine that:

“the thing that I tried to emphasise 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.”
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Abrams' script would also introduce much of the traditional characters and locations expected to be found within a Superman film; Lois Lane, Perry White, Lex Luthor, Smallville, Metropolis, and so on, but re-imagined for his new vision. For instance, while Lex served as a main antagonist in his treatment, he wasn’t the cunning billionaire we know him to be, instead a federal agent obsessed with aliens and UFO phenomena. The film would take inspiration from Dan Jurgens’ seminal 1992 comic book The Death of Superman (which Warner Bros were keen to adapt, also serving as a major source of inspiration for Burton’s Superman Lives), with Superman murdered by Kryptonian soldiers led by the General Ty-Zor, son of Kata-Zor and cousin of Kal-El, before being resurrected and rescuing the Earth from its alien conquerors, before setting off to find Krypton and restore order to his home-world. Furthermore, in later drafts, Abrams had also toyed with the notion of outing Lex Luthor as a Kryptonian sleeper agent, and the film’s climax was to be a Man of Steel-esque battle sequence between the two metahumans, with Superman defeating Lex. 

Regardless of these major deviations from the source material, Warner Bros were keen to produce Abrams’ script, seeing the success of Sony’s Spider-Man film earlier that year, but were nerved at the idea of handing directing duties to the young screenwriter. After previously approaching Charlie's Angels director McG, Rush Hour's Brett Ratner was hired to helm the film in September 2002, and casting talks (along with concept art) had began to surface. Ratner was keen to avoid hiring an A-List actor to portray Superman, after approaching the likes of Jude Law, Paul Walker and Josh Hartnett. He told IGN in early 2003 that:

"no star wants to sign that, but as much as I've told Jude and Josh my vision for the movie, I've warned them of the consequences of being Superman. They'll live this character for 10 years because I'm telling one story over three movies and plan to direct all three if the first is as successful as everyone suspects."

Despite this, several high-profile names were targeted for Superman’s supporting cast, most notably Keri Russell and Amy Adams as Lois Lane (Adams would later go on to portray the Daily Planet reporter in 2013’s Man of Steel), Anthony Hopkins as Jor-El, and Christopher Walken as Perry White, with Joel Edgerton  auditioning for the role of the villainous Ty-Zor. 

While things appeared to be moving forwards for Flyby, the production came to a halt in March 2003, with Ratner leaving the project after excessive creative differences with producer John Peters, and the escalating budget which Abrams’ screenplay demanded.  McG was brought on to replace Ratner soon after, bringing in The OC creator Josh Schwartz to redraft Abrams’ screenplay, while Robert Downey Jr. had signed on to portray Lex Luthor. With a tweaked script, ESC Entertainment was hired for to create the film’s visual effects, costumes were created, and the film was set to shoot the following year, despite arguments between McG and studio executives over whether to shoot Flyby in Canada or Australia, with the director stating that:

it was inappropriate to try to capture the heart of America on another continent."

This proved to be one stumbling block to many for Flyby, and as every day passed, the prospects of the film actually being made began to dwindle. Test footage was shot for the film with several candidates for the Man of Steel, with eventual casting Henry Cavill shooting scenes, but little more movement on the project was made, and McG exited the project in June 2004. 

Interestingly, around this time X-Men director Bryan Singer had pitched his idea for a new Superman film, this version, however, a continuation of the classic Christopher Reeve series, albeit with a fresh actor occupying the role of Superman. Singer signed on a month after McG’s departure, and Superman: Flyby became little more than another ‘what could’ve been?’ in the Hollywood graveyard. 

And while Singer's resulting effort, 2006's Superman Returns, was hardly beloved by audiences, who found the film to lack the necessary action and excitement that a Superman movie should entail, I can’t help but be kind of glad that Abrams’ vision was never realised. Don’t get me wrong, I like JJ Abrams as a filmmaker, but I feel that this drastically different take on Superman would have been detrimental to both the long term cinematic success of the character, and also Abrams’ career as an aspiring director/producer. If Flyby had received the same reactions upon release as it had when Abrams’ script was leaked online in September 2002, it would likely have killed any attempt for him to make future projects such as Lost and Cloverfield, as well as finding work in established franchises such as Mission Impossible and Star Trek. Moreover, while I admire Abrams’ decision to offer a fresh and unique take on Superman, change isn’t always positive, and Flyby’s story felt so drastically un-Superman that it would’ve been better served as an original, yet-generic feeling, science-fiction epic. 

The film would also have had serious ramifications to the landscape of comic book movies, if it had been released in Summer 2006 instead of Singer’s Superman Returns. If Flyby had  failed, it’s likely that Warner Bros would be reluctant to another attempt to retell the character’s backstory only a few years later, meaning no Man of Steel, and therefore no DCEU. Also, while casting announcements were scarce, McG had stated on multiple occasions that Robert Downey Jr. had signed on to portray Lex Luthor, which would have definitely hurt his chances of landing the role of Iron Man two years later; fundamentally changing the nucleus of what grew into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and began to revolutionise the entire comic book movie genre. If Superman: Flyby had failed to impress audiences and critics, it’s likely that superhero movies would still be in the same slump they were at the time of the film’s production; while there were diamonds such as Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, Singer’s X-Men, and Christopher Nolan’s fresh take on Batman, the genre was nowhere near the commercial juggernaut we know it today, and probably never would’ve become it either. 

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