By Mike White
Until 2006, Krypton’s most famous son, Superman, hadn’t officially graced the silver screen since the dismal SUPERMAN IV: THE QUEST FOR PEACE in 1987. This fourth chapter seemed to successfully hammer home the final nail in the coffin of this doomed film series.
Superman’s greatest enemy, it appears, was neither Lex Luthor nor any of the other super foes he’s faced over the years. Rather, Superman suffered most at the hands of his producers. Even from the first Superman film in 1978, SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE, there were problems. In an effort to cut costs, director Richard Donner shot the first film and its sequel at the same time. In fact, the film’s famous ending—in which Superman reverses time—was supposed to be his way of defeating the villains from SUPERMAN II. (For more on the Donner cut see page 23).
While I used to think that SUPERMAN II was the best of the bunch, a reappraisal of this work proves that it’s a mess. More than the loss of Marlon Brando (whose legal wranglings kept his completed footage, and voice, from being in the sequel at the time), SUPERMAN II suffered from needless rewrites, a tinny re-orchestration of the John Williams theme by Ken Thorne, and embarrassing scenes starring Gene Hackman’s body double (and pooly imitated voice).
Father and son team Alexander and Ilya Salkind drove the Superman story into the ground with the horrific third chapter of the series. Kicking a franchise when it was down, even more damage was done by schlockmeister cousins Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, when they purchased the rights to Superman in 1987 to produce SUPERMAN IV: THE QUEST FOR PEACE. Allegedly, Golan/Globus used less than half of their budget on SUPERMAN IV, reinvesting the rest of the budget into other film projects. The duo removed such costly items as plot and special effects, leaving a burnt-out shell of a film. There’s no guarantee that SUPERMAN IV could be any better, but the original running time of the film is said to have been closer to 140 minutes not the 90 minutes most audiences saw in theaters. More likely, a longer running time would have just prolonged the agony.
Not content with the destruction they had wrought, Golan/Globus were prepared to unleash a fifth Superman film with hack-for-hire Albert Pyun at the helm, until financial troubles left them bereft of the rights. When the rights reverted to the Salkinds, they continued to strip-mine Superman with the “Superboy” television show. The Salkinds commissioned “Superboy” writing partners Mark Jones and Cary Bates to write a prequel. SUPERMAN V: THE NEW MOVIE had Superman doing battle in the bottled city of Kandor against his rival Brainiac. While researching the article, I contacted Mark Jones in hopes of reviewing this script. He told me that Cary Bates was the only person with access to the SUPERMAN V script but that Bates had fallen off the face of the Earth in recent years.
With the Salkinds’ spotty Superman track record, it’s probably for the best that SUPERMAN V died on the vine. SUPERMAN V and “Superboy” became casualties of the 1993 buy-out of the Superman rights by Warner Brothers Studio. This event was to usher in a new era of Superman films...or so everyone thought.
THE LIFE AND DEATH OF SUPERMAN
In the comic books, Superman died in 1993 at the hands of the 250,000-year-old creature Doomsday. It’s easy to guess that Superman may have been down, but not out—he was quickly resurrected. This entire death and renewal story arc garnered massive media coverage and would have been perfect fodder for an immediate cinematic adaptation. Warner Brothers tapped producer Jon Peters to bring this to fruition. Rather than concentrating on the “renewal” aspect, it seems that Peters worked hard at killing Superman ever since.
Horror stories about Jon Peters abound in Hit and Run: How Jon Peters and Peter Guber took Sony for a Ride in Hollywood, by Nancy Griffin and Kim Masters. The authors paint Peters as a man who speaks with his fists and various things below the waist (usually either his dick and his pocketbook). A hairdresser-cum-Lothario, Peters used to claim that SHAMPOO was based on his life. He went from styling hair to producing hits when he met and bedded Barbra Streisand. Making his mark with A STAR IS BORN (1976), Peters quickly climbed through the Hollywood ranks with his unique blend of bravado and bullying.
Though Peters had a hand in producing Tim Burton’s BATMAN (1989), the film was a success more in spite of him rather than because of him. When he was given the task of bringing Superman back to the silver screen, Peters wanted to give the man of steel a makeover. No more “faggy” blue and red suit, no more “overgrown boy scout” mentality; Peters wanted a darker and meaner Superman. To that end, Peters chewed through screenwriters at the average rate of one writer and script for each year since the WB takeover of Superman. Apart from a few successful television ventures (“Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman,” “Smallville,” and several cartoon incarnations), Superman couldn’t break free of the phantom zone of development, imprisoned by Jon Peters.
These are the incarnations that Superman could have taken.
SUPERMAN REBORN (Jonathan Lemkin, circa 1994)
Superman battles Doomsday, only to die by the end of the first act. Lois has been mysteriously impregnated with Superman’s spirit. Their hastily gestated heir grows at an incredible rate to adulthood (think STARMAN). Of course, he saves the world from destruction in this campy, stillborn first effort.
SUPERMAN REBORN (Gregory Poirer, December 20, 1995)
Brainiac, credited here as the creator of Doomsday, has infused his creature with Kryptonite blood. Meanwhile, on Earth, Superman tries to deal with being an alien in love with a human woman via psychiatric help.
Dead by page 23, Superman’s corpse is stolen by an alien, Cadmus. A Brainiac victim, Cadmus becomes Superman’s sifu after resurrecting him on page 32. His own body deteriorating, Brainiac seeks Superman’s body as the perfect corporeal vessel. The baddie threatens the people of Metropolis to aid in the search (along with lame criminals Parasite and Silver Banshee).
Powerless, Superman wears a robotic suit that mimics his old powers until he can learn to use his powers again on his own (according to the script, they’re a mental discipline called “Phin-yar”–not to be confused with “The Force”). Bad guys are defeated and Superman feels at home by the end of Poirer’s script.
SUPERMAN LIVES (Kevin Smith, March 27, 1997)
It was a fanboy’s dream that quickly became a nightmare. Smith’s cornball script suffers from Peters-imposed ideas (polar bears guarding the Fortress of Solitude) and cheesy Smith dialogue.
I know it sounds silly—where do I get off complaining? He—the guy who’s faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive... what’s the last one?
Something about tall buildings.
This time Superman stays alive until page 38, where he’s again defeated by Doomsday. Superman’s defeat is aided by the lack of sunlight; the result of a merger between Lex Luthor and Brainiac. Their sun blockage isn’t as creative as the way Mr. Burns did it on “The Simpsons,” but it’s evil nevertheless. Superman is resurrected by Kryptonian robot, The Eradicator, which has lain dormant at the Fortress of Solitude. (The Eradicator made an appearance in the “Superman: Exile” story arc as an ancient mystical Kryptonian relic).
Rather than Superman’s lifeless body, Brainiac wishes to possess The Eradicator and its technology. Powerless (again), the resurrected Superman (back by page 50) is sheathed in armor (The Eradicator becomes his protective suit) until his powers return, courtesy of some sunbeams. Evil is vanquished and Brainiac’s annoying robot lackey, L-Ron, has a pithy closing remark.
Around the time that Smith’s script reached completion, Peters continued to act as the architect in Superman’s destruction by hiring Tim Burton to direct the new Superman film. For a hot second it seemed like a Smith/Burton/Cage Superman would really happen. Warner Brothers even had a poster made up for the February 1997 Toy Fair with a silver Superman logo on a field of black with the simple statement “Coming 1998” emblazoned across the bottom.
Had Burton’s Superman been made, it’s certain that the “stranger in a strange land” aspect of Kal-el on Earth would have been played to the hilt. Burton scrapped Smith’s script and brought in Wesley Strick to rework the puzzle pieces (Brainiac, Luthor, Doomsday, et cetera). Meanwhile, Burton was trying to cast his film:
|Superman||....||Nicolas Cage (or Ralph Fiennes)|
|Lois Lane||....||Cameron Diaz|
|Jimmy Olsen||....||Chris Rock|
|Lex Luthor||....||Kevin Spacey|
|Brainia||....||Tim Allen (or Jim Carrey)|
|Batman||....||Michael Keaton (cameo)|
|K (formerly The Eradicator)||....||Jack Nicholson (voice)|
During this period of time, there was a flurry of activity. Smith’s script was out and Strick’s was in, until Warner Brothers nixed it. A string of new writers followed:
SUPERMAN REBORN (Wesley Strick, circa 1997/1998)
Going back to some of Poirer’s ideas, Strick’s script is said to have included Silver Banshee and Parasite as lesser villains again. Strick’s version of Superman was “darker,” much to Burton’s delight.
SUPERMAN: THE MAN OF STEEL (Alex Ford, 9/4/98)
While Hollywood tried to get Superman to straighten up and fly right, fans weren’t taking this silver screen hiatus lying down. The better known fan scripts floating around the internet included T.J. Grech’s SUPERMAN: LAST MAN OF KRYPTON, SUPERMAN 5 by Matt Fisher, SUPERMAN FIRESTORM by David B. Samuels, and SUPERMAN: THE MAN OF STEEL by Alex Ford. The story of Ford and his script is almost a Hollywood tale in itself. Alex Ford wrote this alternative Superman script and, after being encouraged by his wife, he connected with the right people to get it read. He even managed a meeting with Peters and additional Superman producer Lorenzo DiBonaventura. Feeling like a work of fan fiction, Ford’s script sets up a longer series of films which will include more villains than just Luthor, Brainiac, and Doomsday. Like too many Hollywood stories, Ford’s work was rejected and he was given a “don’t call us, we’ll call you” farewell.
SUPERMAN LIVES (Dan Gilroy, 9/20/98)
A pastiche of the previous scripts’ lesser elements, Gilroy’s draft has Brainiac on the hunt for Kal-el after having destroyed Krypton. Like Smith’s draft, we don’t see Superman fly—merely hearing a “whoosh” and a blur of color as would be done a few years later in “Smallville.” When Brainiac reaches Earth, he “merges” with Lex Luthor to form “Lexiac” (a la Alan Moore’s Superman story, “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?”). He dispatches with Superman by page 61 via the Kryptonite-blooded Doomsday (shades of Poirer).
Typical of the other drafts, it’s only a matter of ten to twelve minutes (page 72) before the Man of Steel is resurrected. The Kryptonian device The Eradicator goes by “K” in this script. Again, K sheaths Superman and provides him with power as he heals. The majority of the script seems to be Lexiac chatting with Luthor’s slimy lawyer, Morris. Meanwhile, Superman goes on a bit of a spiritual journey as he learns to accept his role on Earth in order to regain his powers (page 101). Superman has some horrible lines as he fights Brainiac (“You’ve been recalled!”) and if Smith’s painfully self-reflexive “more powerful than a locomotive” line was bad, Gilroy surpasses this with the old “It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s Superman!” on the final page.
It wasn’t long after this that Tim Burton was reluctantly fired by Warner Brothers. The reluctance came, no doubt, from Burton’s “play or pay” contract which netted him a significant amount of cash for doing nothing more than wasting time.
After Burton sought greener pastures in SLEEPY HOLLOW, Peters approached a number of directors such as Michael Bay, Shekhar Kapur, and Martin Campbell. They all turned him down, apparently because of Gilroy’s lame script. This draft was finally canned and William Wisher was brought in to start anew.
SUPERMAN LIVES (William Wisher, 8/23/2000)
In the myriad articles documenting the winding road that Superman followed to reach the big screen in 2006, Wisher’s script is often described as being influenced by THE MATRIX. Allow me to put that notion to bed. Apart from some Lex Luthor-created wireless internet technology a person can wear on their necks, there’s no hint of anything remotely similar to THE MATRIX in Wisher’s work. The “Lexmen” are a cadre of drones that act like MATRIX “agents” and manage to slow down the Man of Steel for a hot second.
If anything, Wisher’s script was a return to the roots of the Superman project, resembling the aforementioned Lemkin, Poirer, and Gilroy works. Kal-el, one of the scant few survivors of Krypton, is pursued by his father’s creation, Brainiac. He’s discovered on Earth just after he’s had a fight with Lois Lane about how uncomfortable he feels being an alien among humans. Lex Luthor allies himself with Brainiac in exchange for technology that gives life to his ill-fated “Lexlink” program.
Again, Brainiac employs Doomsday to kill Kal-el by page 60. His body is taken by Mal-ar, last Knight of Krypton, who swore to protect the infant prince before Krypton’s King Jor-el was murdered by Brainiac previous to the destruction of Krypton. Like Jesus, Superman is resurrected after “about three days” (page 79). Waking up a weakling, Kal-el wears a suit of “Krypton Armor;” a sleek black suit that gives him enhanced abilities. Doomsday doesn’t have a second shot at Superman: he disappears from the script after he’s served his purpose. Rather, Superman easily cuts his way through the Braniac-controlled “Lexmen” with a crystal sword looking like “a samurai from outer space” (page 98). While Lex Luthor tries to redeem himself as a human being before Earth explodes (Brainiac has a habit of destroying planets), Superman battles Brainiac in a rather anticlimactic scene wherein he regains his powers and, very un-Superman-like, kills the baddie while destroying his talking “skull ship.”
Again, wearing black and attacking the Luthor Building doesn’t really make Wisher’s SUPERMAN LIVES anything like THE MATRIX either. Oliver Stone was approached at this point to direct Wisher’s script but didn’t take the bait. It was time, too, for Nicholas Cage to cash in his chips. The new choice for Superman went to Russell Crowe. With Wisher’s moody Superman, Crowe may have been a good choice. The Aussie actor wasn’t interested. No director, no stars, and a script that took the project back six years. The wind had gone out of Superman’s cape.
SUPERMAN DESTRUCTION (Paul Attanasio, 6/27/2001)
There’s little known about Attanasio’s work on the Superman project. Some reports have him utilizing a treatment by DC comics writer Keith Giffen with Superman battling the stellar bad guy Lobo (Wizard Magazine #118), while others have him turning in a 50-page treatment of his own that rehashes the death/resurrection plot line yet again.
While the Peters-plagued Superman project labored on for years, the Batman franchise sputtered under the direction of Joel Schumacher. Batman wasn’t being killed off in the comics. Instead, he was being recast in “Batman: Year One” in Frank Miller’s seminal tome. Miller reinvigorated Batman. A movie was said to be quick to follow. By 2002, Wolfgang Peterson was on track to bring BATMAN VS. SUPERMAN to the screen. This was to be followed by the long-delayed Peters project, which was set to be directed by McG. ASYLUM (Andrew Kevin Walker, Revised by Akiva Goldsmith 6/21/02) When you’re a kid, you pit people against each other in imaginary fights: “Who would win: Johnny Socko’s Giant Robot or Ultraman?” One of the classic match-ups has to be Batman versus Superman. Now that may sound like a one-sided fight; the man of steel versus the man in a bat suit. How could a mere mortal best Krypton’s favorite son? Read Frank Miller’s “The Dark Night Returns” to witness this superior throw down. But why would these two beacons of justice ever face off?
In Andrew Kevin Walker’s ASYLUM (also known as BATMAN VS SUPERMAN), Lex Luthor drives a wedge between the champions of Gotham and Metropolis via an elaborate plot that involves cloning The Joker and giving Bruce Wayne the perfect mate, only to take her away. Through his machinations, Batman’s motivation of revenge comes in direct opposition of Superman’s dogmatic protection of his human charges. Simply, Batman wants to murder The Joker and Superman won’t let him. The two come to blows in an epic battle that involves a lot of Kryptonite and millions of dollars in damage.
While the showdown between the caped crusaders wears out its welcome after twenty pages, the rest of the script is incredibly engaging and typical of Andrew Kevin Walker’s style. Yet, as is the case with Walker, his best work is often rewritten (SLEEPY HOLLOW, 8MM, etc).
SUPERMAN: THE MAN OF STEEL (J.J. Abrams, 7/26/02)
If fan boys were excited about Kevin Smith, they were beside themselves with J.J. Abrams. He was on top of the world with TV’s “Alias,” and the fervor over his involvement with Superman might have been topped only if Joss Whedon has volunteered to pen a script. The height of expectations were only equaled by the depths of disappointment when Abrams script was trashed by the hacks at the Ain’t It Cool News website.
Also known as “SUPERMAN: FLYBY,” the Abrams story was a revisionist tale with Krypton besieged by civil war between its King, Jor-El, and his upstart brother, Kata-Zor. The baby Kal-el is sent to Earth partly as a safety measure when Kata-Zor’s forces trash the Krypton capital, and also in hopes that he’ll fulfill a prophecy to return to Krypton as its savior. When Kal-el arrives on Earth, he’s adopted by Martha and Jonathan Kent. When they discover his powers, they try their best to have Kal-el/Clark suppress his abilities. In the process, they make him neurotic.
Isolated, persecuted, and thinking he’s the devil’s spawn, Clark meets a spitfire young lady named Lois Lane in college. An undeclared senior, he’s impressed by her pre-Freshman ambition to major in journalism and work in Metropolis at “The Daily Planet.” Creepily, he decides to do the same thing and, when he meets up with her years later, she remembers him only as the guy who had his zipper down.
Lois doesn’t give Clark the time of day. She’s more concerned with exposing and humiliating the government agency that’s wasting untold time and resources trying to prove the presence of alien beings on Earth. The hard-as-nails agent in charge of this alien-hunting squad is none other than Agent Lex Luthor. Sporting a brush cut and a massive attitude, Luthor has quite an axe to grind about aliens, so much so that he blows his top at a Congressman and gets canned.
Apart from the framing device of the script that starts out with Superman down and nearly out, battling super-powered aliens (a similar frame would be employed in the Abrams-penned MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE 3), we don’t see Superman until nearly an hour into the film. This scene of Superman, saving Lois Lane as she’s aboard Air Force One interviewing the President, is something of a nod to SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE where Superman saves Lois as she’s on her way to interview the President. The scene and its aftermath— Superman setting down the saved airplane in a very public place (here Boston Commons)—also finds its roots in the John Byrne-penned “Superman: The Man of Steel” comic series. An amalgamation of these scenes would be found later in SUPERMAN RETURNS.
(I’m glad that the President’s plane didn’t crash. Otherwise, we might find Lois Lane on a mysterious island pursued by an unexplained smoke monster for a few years.)
This first appearance of Superman isn’t followed up by the montage of him going on a crime-fighting spree. Rather, Clark Kent is so pent-up about his role as Superman that he swears to never wear the costume again. This changes when he learns that Jonathan Kent (who up and died upon hearing the news of his son saving the President) would have wanted him to take the mantle of power and embrace his role as Superman.
News travels pretty fast. Really fast, apparently, as the radio and television waves from Earth reach Krypton in record time. This brings Kata-Zor’s son, Ty-Zor, and three other badass Kryptonians to Earth. To say that this brings about a lot of scenes reminiscent of SUPERMAN II is an understatement.
Again, Superman is defeated and killed. There’s a funeral but the Man of Steel isn’t down and out for long. He’s visited in death by Jor-El (who’s committed hara-kiri back on Krypton) and resurrected. With the help of some Kryptonite-fueled weapons, Superman defeats the four known Kryptonians as well as the secret-lurking Kryptonian, Lex Luthor, before this first chapter of a proposed series is over. There are mentions of characters either slightly seen or unseen in the screenplay, and Superman’s messianic return to Krypton is set to happen in the next film.
The changes to the Superman mythos-infuriated fanboys who forget that Kryptonite didn’t exist until the Siegel & Schuster story was translated to radio. This kind of re-imagining happens all the time in the superhero world; sometimes successfully (BATMAN: BEGINS), and sometimes not (CAT WOMAN). For all of the problems I had with the script, it was something new and not simply a recycling of the old, good ideas from the original SUPERMAN series.
Peterson stepped out and let BATMAN VS. SUPERMAN die in favor of TROY. Before the dust could settle, J.J. Abrams delivered his take on the Superman tale to Warner Brothers and everyone was elated with the possible exception of McG and apoplectic Superman fans. McG left to direct the sequel to CHARLIE’S ANGELS, and the ever-obnoxious Brett Ratner had his turn in the director’s chair.
Ratner hadn’t even had time to warm up his seat when the backlash against the Abrams script swelled into a shitstorm. When the opportunity presented itself, the RUSH HOUR auteur fled the sinking Peters ship. Oddly enough, Ratner would go on to direct the third film in the X-Men series while its former helmer, Bryan Singer, would defect to the Superman camp.
SUPERMAN RETURNS (Michael Dougherty & Dan Harris, 9/27/2005)
With his super heroic clout, director Bryan Singer managed to break away from most of the tenets laid down by producer Jon Peters. Gone were Brainiac, Doomsday, and the black suit. Still present was Superman’s pathos, a near death, and the red and blue “whooshing” suit (albeit a fairly dingy one).
Singer’s X2 screenwriters Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris made SUPERMAN RETURNS a continuation of the Superman story line from the Richard Donner films or, at least, SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE. There may be no mention of General Zod, Non, or Ursa but it’s apparent that Lois Lane bedded the Man of Steel. The product of their Fortress of Solitude union, Jason, spends the majority of the story as an asthmatic, bespectacled weakling except for one head-scratching, contrived moment.
The victim of an elaborate ruse, Superman returns to where Krypton ought to be only to find a deadly meteor field of Kryptonite. He manages to escape and get back to his adopted planet Earth five years after he departed. Instead of finding out how he got tricked and/or looking up his long-time nemesis, Lex Luthor, Superman hangs out in Smallville. Then he goes looking for Lex Luthor, right? Wrong. He goes back to Metropolis to learn that Lois Lane has moved on from Superman, even winning a Pulitzer for her piece “Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman.” Ouch! Then he doggedly pursues the only man who’s come close to defeating Krypton’s favorite son... wait, no. He doesn’t.
Even after Jimmy Olsen, in his infinite wisdom, suggests, “Why don’t you guys track down Lex Luthor?,” on page 73, the greatest criminal mind of our time is swept to the wayside. This leaves a lot more time for Superman to mope around and retread dialogue from SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE. Meanwhile, Lex Luthor seems to be in his own film and pursuing a plot with earmarks of his ideas from SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE and SUPERMAN II only in reverse order. Luthor makes his way to The Fortress of Solitude before revealing his elaborate real estate scheme, paraphrasing his lines from the earlier films along the way as well. Who came up with this idea—the same guy who thought it’d be smart to build a second Death Star?
Superman finally catches up with Luthor on page 118 and they share all of three pages together in an anticlimactic showdown. Rather than squaring off like Kirk (William Shatner) and Khan (Ricardo Montalban) in STAR TREK II, Luthor and Superman are more like Hanna (Al Pacino) and McCauley (Robert De Niro) in HEAT.
SUPERMAN RETURNS (Bryan Singer, 2006)
Little stands out as being starkly different from the screenplay of SUPERMAN RETURNS to the final film version, except for the lack of explanation for Superman’s disappearance and the scenes of Superman flying (in a spaceship) amongst the ruined crags of Kryptonite asteroids.
The cuts between the Superman (Brandon Routh) story line and the Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) story line are jarring. The film moves from the moody introspective Kryptonian, who’s been dumped by Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) in favor of the boss’s son, Richard White (James Marsden) to the hammy criminal mastermind and his Miss Teschmacher stand-in, Kitty Kowalski (Parker Posey). The worst character in the film has to be Superman’s bastard son, Jason (Tristan Lake Leabu) and his awful Adam Rich haircut.
While I can respect the decision to emulate Donner’s SUPERMAN films, aping these superior movies just made me long to see the originals. The John Williams score combined with the unnecessary cameo appearance by Marlon Brando only reinforced this desire. Overall, I would have rather have seen J.J. Abrams’s version of the story, as it strayed the farthest from the Jon Peters directives, divorced itself from Donner, and actually managed to feel like an original take on the Superman story.
Even if it hadn’t taken over a dozen years and millions of dollars to bring the next chapter of Superman saga to the big screen, SUPERMAN RETURNS would epitomize anticlimactic. Rather than breaking new ground or taking the Superman story in a different direction (see “Red Son” by Mark Millar), the film was just a rehash of a better film that predated it by nearly three decades.