A look back at J. J. Abrams Superman screenplay

by Paul William Tenny

jj-abrams.jpgI ran across a post on AICN this morning about the SUPERMAN film franchise. It's not so interesting as a link to a script reviewed by Moriarty from 2002, a draft of a Superman script written by J. J. Abrams. This would have been a year or so into Alias, just after Felicity went off the air and a good two years before Lost make him a TV star.

It's cool to look back at old stories and see what people were thinking at the beginning of the comic craze, what was hotly anticipated and lived up to the hype, and what sunk like a rock only to be tried again, and only to fail again.

Even better is finding out that someone like Abrams was in on the attempt to revitalize the most valuable comic franchise in history.
With the benefit of hindsight, this being the waning days of 2008, it's easy to get excited about an Abrams version of Superman even if you're not a fan of his work. If he could capture for an hour-and-a-half even a fraction of what made Lost so popular during its second season, it could have been that movie that The Dark Knight was chasing instead of Titanic.

But that's a pretty big if, one that turns out to be impossible.

Abrams wrote the entertaining but painfully flawed Armageddon, and Lost fell apart pretty quickly before he left to focus on his movie career and the series was rescued somewhat by the remaining producers. Alias had its day but it was never a cult hit or a network tentpole. Fringe isn't terrible but it's not breaking new ground, either. I'm not sure I hand the Superman franchise to someone like Abrams unless something he's already written on spec just blows me away. The script AICN reviewed wasn't written on spec and if it blew anyone away, it wasn't in a flattering way.

To be fair to Abrams, Joss Whedon wrote Alien 4 which wasn't much better than the horrible Alien 3, but like Armageddon, it had its moments. Although Whedon is basically a TV God, I wouldn't hand him Superman either. That has less to do with writing talent than it does simply not being a good fit for the guy. If you take someone out of their element, you're handicapping them unnecessarily. It's always better to pick the right person who fits the project mentally rather than the one that has done great things on their own, outside the box.

Both men have talent, but neither really fits that mold. Bryan Singer I did think fit the mold, but that's not a guarantee for success either. It's a very interconnected, complicated scam, making movies. Of all the things you can screw up honestly, picking a genre writer for the wrong genre is probably the one that's going to cause the most collateral damage. Warner Brothers did precisely that by tapping Abrams and the result, apparently, was predictably horrific.

I won't bother giving you the executive summary when you can go read the review for yourself, which I strongly recommend you do, but I will give you this:

And as blisters erupt all over Superman and he cries out in pain, we SHOCK CUT TO:


Seriously. It's Naboo. Oh, sure, they call it Krypton in the script, but it's instantly recognizable as the Naboo of EPISODE I. Green fields. Forests nearby. Little girl playing. Everything peaceful.

And then the big war machines come rolling in.

Again, I'm picturing EPISODE I. Three-legged robot tanks. Mechanical soldiers taking a royal city. A civil war raging suddenly, ruining the peaceful green planet.

JOR-EL is a young man at this point, 39 years old, the leader of the Senate. As the attack gets underway and reports of key military failures roll in, Jor-El orders everyone to leave the War Room and go to their families, so at least they'll be together at the end.

Jor-El's got other plans, though. Seems there's some prophecy, and he and Lara have a rocket shipt they've built for just this occasion, and Jor-El is determined that the only way to save their baby is to send him away.

What I cut out was how the script begins.

The premise is simplistic and unoriginal -- Superman spends most of the film fighting another person from his home planet (which isn't destroyed) on a mission to finish what was started on Krypton, and later an entire group of them. What you see above is the B story that dominates the script. Abrams bounces between two planets and multiple timelines, beginning in the presumed "present" with an adult Superman fighting with his powerful doppleganger and losing, badly. Just as we're about to see Superman die or something equally obtuse since this was supposed to be the beginning of a triology, we jump to Krypton where a contrived and very earth-like (and hence boring) political fight results in war, then come back to earth but now in the past when Superman (now Superbaby) arrives to the Kent family.

We follow Superbaby to Superboy, Superteenager, Supercollege dork, jumping back and forth between Earth at different times and Krypton (apparently always in the "present) until finally damn near at the end of the film, we finally catch up to where the screenplay began. That trick works on TV, it never works in film.

Read Morarity's review, he goes through it from top to bottom pretty clearly and it's simply awful. There's a token gay guy, clichéd evil landlords, the main character (Superman) losing basically the entire film -- a big no-no -- and a reboot of Lex Luthor into a CIA agent with a twist involving Luthor at the end that wouldn't make this script fit to smash spiders with.

I'm not surprised at all that Abrams' script was never shot, and even more puzzled how he's now considered one of the top writing-directing talents in Hollywood. As difficult as it may be to step into a franchise and "do it right", even a child could do a better job than that.

Otherwise, the post is a nifty to look back at that point in time and see what people were saying about movies that were in development then, but are years behind us now. X-Men cemented Bryan Singer as a player and for all anyone knows, X-Men 2 which wouldn't be released until a year after Moriarty's script review was published, may have gotten Singer the job that Abrams wasn't cut out for. One might argue that Singer wasn't really a better choice, but that's another discussion for another day.

Spider-Man only had one installment out at the time and Fantastic Four hadn't been shot yet. Ang Lee was spending gobs of money on his would-be box office dud, THE INCREDIBLE HULK. 4-5 years later, Edward Norton and company would match Lee's feat by failing a second time with the same movie.

If movies had stock (not studios, but movies) there would have been some real winners back then to invest in, now I'm not so sure. I figured Iron Man would bomb and missed that by a couple of billion miles but it feels like that was the exception. Dark Knight did better than I thought it would though I think that was entirely based on credibility instead of on the merits. We've got to be nearing the saturation point and as troubled as Superman Returns was, I think those guys are swimming upstream if they try rebooting the franchise a second time.

Anyway, I guess we should be thankful that Abrams didn't write the Trek reboot, even if the two guys who did write it aren't going to be much better. There's no way they could write something as bad as Abrams' version of Superman..

in Film


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