Monday, 30 July 2018

Superman Unmade #12: Superman - A screenplay by J.J. Abrams

Here there be spoilers

"There is no one document that defines (the) character - there have been so many permutations, additions and changes... I understand that people are scared of seeing another bad movie, but everyone involved on this one... is desperate to make it good." 
J.J. Abrams on his first draft of Superman.

"I thought it really was loaded with action, loaded with heart, and loaded with humor, but needed work... It's not just a big studio latching on to a trilogy so we can make a billion dollars."
Alan Horn on Abrams' first draft

Who wrote it?
JJ. Abrams, at that time best known for creating TV's Alias, as well as writing credits on Armageddon, Forever Young and Regarding Henry.

When was it written?
This draft is dated July 26th 2002.

How long is it?
139 pages

What's the broad structure?
Act 1  = 1-38
Act 2a = 39-68
Act 2b = 69-113
Act 3 = 114 -139

What's the context?
Developed concurrently with Batman vs Superman by competing camps within Warner Bros., this is the script that won the hearts and minds of senior WB executives, and brought to a head the schism between Alan Horn and Lorenzo di Bonaventura.
Abrams had been announced as the writer (with Joseph McGinty Nichol, AKA "McG" directing) in February 2002. At that point, it seems Andrew Kevin Walker had already turned in a first draft of Batman vs. Superman (The New York Times says WB had read a draft in October 2001) but had yet to turn in his second (dated March 2002). Akiva Goldsman's revision wasn't turned in until June 2002. The first 88 pages of Abrams' script were delivered July 5th 2002, with the complete draft dated 21 days later.
With this in mind, it's tempting to think Goldsman was brought in specifically to lighten the tone of the team-up script, with di Bonaventura knowing that a competing - and potentially lighter-hearted - project was competing for production. The kind of internal machinations and resources necessary to pit one Superman project (and its proponents) against another in this way boggles the mind. Welcome to Hollywood.

Why didn't it happen?
Long before he and Abrams had been announced as Director and Writer (February 2002), McG was already committed to making Charlie's Angels 2 (later Full Throttle). With that sequel scheduled for release in June 2003, he'd be unable to turn his full attention to the Man of Steel for at least a year. di Bonaventura apparently cited this as one of the reasons WB should move ahead with Batman vs. Superman first...
But six weeks later the newly installed EVP, Worldwide Motion Pictures was gone, bundled out with a production deal that was effectively a golden handshake. An alleged power-play against Horn to their Time-Warner bosses had failed. Without its champion, the team-up project imploded.

With its competition vanquished, the solo project was placed on the fast track and McG exited as Full Throttle moved into production. In August, talk surfaced that WB had its eye on Brett Ratner, and in September 2002 he was officially attached. Surely, finally, Superman would fly again?

The next year would make the turbulent development of Superman Lives seem like a warm, fuzzy memory.

First, there was no budget, which meant no official green light. Warners hadn't pulled the plug on the wild costs of earlier iterations simply to blow more cash now. di Bonaventura had guesstimated Abrams' script would cost $250m. Sources suggest Ratner's team were told to aim for $180million. When the figure finally came in, in January 2003, it was $225 million... in production costs only.

Second, the internet hated the script. The then-influential Ain't It Cool News posted a scathing review of Abrams' draft titled "You will believe a franchise can suck", which led to an online petition demanding his removal from the project, and threats against the writer and his family. This wasn't the first such protest, and it wouldn't be the last, but for five or six years AICN's coverage seemed to matter. Before the internet became honeycombed with its clones, AICN was considered an outlier, willing to speak truth to Hollywood power and able to call upon a network of moles to back up their aggressive approach. Abrams was scrambled to explain, and called AICN founder Harry Knowles personally, claiming the script was written in four weeks (a dubious assertion given what we know of the project). He tried to allay fans' concerns, assuring them he was hard at work on the next draft.

Third, there was no star. Ratner simply couldn't cast a lead, and part of his deal was a stipulation that he do so by January 2003. When that came and went, speculation that he was about to be replaced by Michael Bay had to be strenuously denied by all parties. The earlier problem of securing a lead actor but no satisfactory script had effectively flipped, and for a year the trades were full of the names of both newcomers and more established stars, including Josh Hartnett, Jude Law, Ashton Kutcher, Brendan Fraser, Victor Webster, Paul Walker, and Matt Bomer.

The gist seemed to be that none of the more established actors wanted to sign on for three movies over the better part of a decade, and WB was unwilling to rest its flagship franchise on the shoulders of a newcomer.

Fourth, Jon Peters. Ratner had never been Peters' guy. It seems the producer had set out to befriend McG as he blazed his hot streak across town, and the two had then turned their attentions to Superman. McG's visual presentation got him the job, and he recommended Abrams as writer. When Ratner replaced him, the geometry of that creative triangle changed. With no lead actor locked, Peters and Ratner allegedly clashed in a heated (and widely reported) parking lot altercation when Peters attempted to fire Ratner's casting director.

On March 15th 2003, Ratner's option as Director expired, and he departed the project. Despite acknowledging Peters as a "pain in the ass", he denied the producer was behind his exit, and instead laid the blame on his fruitless search for a lead.

Once again, the project died on the vine. Warners' best hope now was Abrams' second draft.

Where does Superman start the story? 
Exiled to Earth from a still-intact Krypton to protect him from his evil Uncle. Thanks to his adoptive parents' caution, he spends most of his life controlling himself to the point of neurosis. He knows he doesn't belong here, but has no idea where he's actually from.

What happens next?
Pretty much his entire life. He meets Lois Lane. Goes to work at The Daily Planet. Encounters Lex Luthor, and in a moment of panic reveals Superman to the world, becoming a phenomenon...

Then four Kryptonians arrive demanding his surrender. Carnage ensues.

Where does Superman end the story?
Coming into his own. Not only has he discovered where he's from and what his destiny is, he's become a leader of the free world, corralling the United Nations into action against the Kryptonian invaders...
Oh, and he's also come back from the dead.

The script
It's a strange beast, beset by the circumstances of its birth.

Someone was so desperate to head off the competing Batman vs Superman project that they attached McG as Director, knowing he'd already committed to another film. So desperate that they had Abrams deliver a draft only two thirds complete (the day after a national holiday).

Knowing he was coming back with more, Lorenzo di Bonaventura countered by officially announcing BvS just three days later.

Abrams had needed to work fast before, but he now came back with the final 51 pages in just three weeks. Unfortunately the join shows, and things fall apart in the last act. Abrams simply didn't have the time to make most of it work.

Still, the first part of his job was done. At this point it didn't have to be great; it just had to be good enough to knock its competitor out of the race to production.

What works?
  • Abrams navigates Jon Peters' demands, for the most part. Instead of a giant spider we have Rousers. Superman's cape is described as "a living thing" but isn't actually its own character... yet. He applies creative solutions to make the Producer's infamous notes more palatable.
  • Multiple species on Krypton. The planet is presented as home to not just humanoids, but many other types of life. Let's skip over the fact that a humanoid seems to rule them all...
  • Superman is still an orphan. For all the furore about Krypton not being destroyed, the "end of Krypton" beat is functionally the same; it's just the end of Krypton as we know it, not the planet blowing up. It doesn't have quite the same impact for us, but for Superman the effect is largely similar.
  • It flips the old dichotomy. Unlike so many of the to-date interpretations, nebbish Clark is not the act; Superman is. Abrams writes that he's "acting the part of the confident man for the first time". Superman represents the courage to do things you feel are beyond you; even for Clark. The point at which he embraces this fully is the realisation that he was sent here for a reason, which is how he ends up at the U.N. organising and leading an all-out attack on the Kryptonians. (Yes, the whole negative space metal S revelation is clunky as fuck, but it's plot mechanics that can be hidden or refined later. That's the purpose of a first draft.)
  • He's the ultimate immigrant. There's a theme through most of the reboot scripts that's carried forward here, and is perfectly illustrated by the rooftop interview; Superman doesn't know who he is. Reeve's Superman answered all Lois' questions because he knew the answers, but the certainty of that Superman is gone. This one goes out into the world not knowing where he's from, or why, and because he can't answer, eventually people mistrust him. He experiences the classic immigrant's treatment; he's not one of them, and they fear what he's brought with him.
  • The Kents are human... Fortunately they aren't paragons of virtue, nor are they the isolationists of Man of Steel. They're apparently the only reason Clark isn't an angry, vengeful god, because almost everyone else is horrible to him. Eventually we're also introduced to Clark's college room mate (with a nice little nod to Superman's creators), who up to that point seems to be the only other decent person in his life.
  • Lois and Clark's relationship. They're both alienated in different ways. Nobody likes her because she's "abnormal", but she has focus and purpose. Clark, conversely, is considered abnormal but is is in limbo, having neither direction nor place in the world. In his uncertain state, her surety and determination are beacons, and she becomes a model for the next stage of his development.
  • Luthor is an outcast too, and presented as the third point of this "abnormal" triangle. Making him CIA is hardly canon, and doesn't make any more sense than having him be a crazy-rich private individual, but it's no worse than him being a crime boss... and it's definitely better than what comes later.
  • Lois' arc. Lois has as much to learn as Clark does about becoming what she needs to be. The power she wields as a journalist is not the point; it's the responsibility she has to use that power wisely which she hasn't yet mastered, and Perry demands of her.
  • It's not just punching stuff. Abrams gets that there's almost nothing that can physically harm Superman, so his psychology must be mined for conflict. Clark has a panic attack immediately after revealing himself because it goes against his conditioning. There's no joy in it. To compound this, he knows that his father's death was probably caused by hearing about him on the radio. Once the Kryptonians arrive, of course, Abrams knows people want to see the Man of Steel punch stuff, but not only is he outnumbered and inexperienced, he's hamstrung by the restraint he's grown up with. He's a god, but now among other gods.
  • Kryponite poisoning has more pronounced physical effects than just coming over all woozy; try a deathly pallor and blister rash. That visually sells the danger much more succinctly.
  • The rescue montage, whilst clunky in places, is at least varied in scale. This isn't just a guy for exploding volcanoes. He'll grab your cat out of a tree too.
  • The huge exposition dump midway through the second act works because Abrams blends it with the suspense of Lois' surveillance. It's not just Gray and Burk learning stuff, she is too.
  • Abrams repeats sequences from the Kryptonians' battle later in the script, but he does it from a different perspective, which keeps things fresher.

What doesn't work?
  • Some demands can't be navigated. Even Abrams can only do so much with Jon Peters' proclivities. So we get Superman seeming "like a savage hunter, hungry for a kill". At one point Abrams actually has to type "Kal El, who will one day become Superman". Presumably because, as related by Kevin Smith, Peters didn't know this.
  • Kal-El is royalty. Being an alien with god-like abilities clearly isn't special enough. And just to throw some more kindling on the trope fire, there's a prophecy too. It's boring. The "chosen one" narrative had already been done to death.
  • Jor-El is perfect, and utterly uninteresting as a result. A great King, warrior, scientist... and yet still unable to save the planet from his own brother. He also seems to have disappeared from Krypton for years on end in the search for an adoptive home for his son... and nobody noticed. That's a feat for such a beloved leader. Perhaps if he'd spent the time at home, the civil war could have been stopped.
  • It's the death of Superman... Again.
  • It's tries to do too much. There's an origin, a death and a resurrection in the space of one movie. It's why the script is too long (it takes 38 pages to get to the "present"), and it's why we struggle to care about Superman's death. We've barely met the guy.
  • First draft problems. There are failures of basic logic that aren't fundamental to the story and could easily be fixed in the next draft. For example; 
    • Cause and (non) effect. What happens when the Kents' landlord makes his heralded visit and finds an alien pod bisecting their field, and a baby who's appeared from nowhere? 
    • The suit in a bottle is never really explained. Does Jor-El intend Kal-El to become a hero on Earth? What's its purpose? 
    • Lara's exile. Has she just been living out in the desert with Taga for 19 years?! If she's such a badass why hasn't she tried to fight back?
    • Abrams' chronology is confusing. It wouldn't harm the film too much, but it causes more than one double-take when reading. Jor-El's age keeps changing, for one thing.
  • Dubious sexual politics, including:
    • Another attempted rape, of the sort you just can't get away with writing so lazily anymore. Yes, it helps build Clark's character because it reinforces that he has to retain control at all times... It's the event by which he defines his childhood. But it feels gross because that's its only purpose. The aftermath focuses on Clark's trauma and completely ignores Martha's.
    • Demeaning Jimmy. You want to make him gay? Go ahead. Effeminate? It's cliched, even back then, but... don't sneer.
  • Clark's borderline obsession with Lois. Following her to The Daily Planet is a little creepy, but Clark clearly needed a steer at a sensitive time, and Abrams heads it off by having him admit it to her. The trouble is there's more, because Superman only reveals himself thanks to Clark's feelings for Lois. He tries to save Air Force One because she's on board. There must have been other disasters he could have averted over the years. He'd tell her who he is right then and there, but she doesn't recognise him at all, and so again, we feel like she's the source of all his decisions. When she's fired, he grants her an interview just to get her job back, intimidating Perry in the process. It's... uncomfortable.
  • Lois devolves. She's starts as a fearless shit-kicker who takes down huge jocks with Krav Maga. By the end she's afraid of rats, and desperately seeking reassurance from powerful male figures like Perry, Superman and Dressler. The Lois from the start of the script would have aggressively grilled Dressler on why he hadn't taken action against Luthor earlier. This one simpers under his approval of her work.
  • The last forty pages. As the script plunges into the third act, internal consistency starts to break down, surely a sign of the rush Abrams was in.
    • It reaches for the iconic without earning it. Lois argues that Superman has taught us the right thing to do, but this Superman hasn't yet faced any kind of dilemma that would illustrate that. This is not the Superman of sixty-odd years of comics, and attempting to bundle that in feels incongruous.
    • It takes easy paths. When Lois convinces Perry to let her take his car it's the first indication of an underwritten scene. Despite his previous concerns about her recklessness, he doesn't put up a fight; he just trusts her, even though she's given him no reason to.
    • The public perception of Superman goes from hero worship to fear and loathing, then back to hero worship very quickly. Did the world want Superman gone but not dead? He's only been in the public eye a couple of weeks.
    • The Afterlife... From which not only does Kal return, but does so with his strength doubled and the martial arts skills of a super soldier. These skills haven't been learned or earned. Where does he go from here if he's to grow at all in the next two movies?
    • Clark who? Once again, nobody at The Planet has missed Clark at all.
    • Why do the Kryptonians stick around? Superman's dead. They've given the planet to Luthor. The plot calls for them to stay, so they can be offed in the most perfunctory fashion imaginable. Baz-Al and Caan's demise in a single paragraph on page 126 is barely a beat. Ty-Zor's demise is hardly more fleshed out, but if Abrams leaves it there, closes the story and goes back ten pages to flesh things out it's completely salvageable. That doesn't happen. There's a good scene with Lois and then...
    • Luthor is a Kryptonian. And boy, is the point driven home. It's a twist that sets up and pays off nothing; a worthless, rushed version of a potentially decent idea, and it's really hard to know if it was a late development or if Abrams always had it in mind. There are certainly hints at Luthor's otherness earlier in the script, but the fact that some ground work was done and the twist still doesn't work is testament to its clunkiness.
    • The final scene between Lois and Superman, where she all but guesses his secret because he replies to something she told someone else once. She doesn't put together that Clark has also left, or that he disappeared while Superman was dead... nope. She remembers telling Clark that she loved Superman, and Superman saying he loves her too is what finally makes the scales fall from her eyes. It's desperate.
There's a lot of work to do here. Some of it is great, some not. Its DNA permeates the films that were actually made afterwards. The plane rescue, rooftop interview and theft of museum Kryptonite, as well as Martha's exile to the outskirts of the funeral all survived into Superman Returns. The Rousers are clear progenitors of the World Engines in MoS, and the arrival of his enemies survived too; but unlike MOS, there's no dilemma. He knows he has to give himself up to them. He doesn't agonise over it. Nor does he hesitate to leave if he thinks his presence will bring more harm to Earth.

Still it's a long, jarring, unsatisfying script.

Man of Steel preventable death and destruction rating: 7

There's due dilligence in Superman telling everyone to leave the area just before he faces off with the Rousers, and Abrams also makes pains to point out the Defense Department's concern for the public...

Having said that, the script that killed Batman vs Superman, the script Jon Peters deemed full of "hope" is actually more violent. Batman can only do Superman so much damage in terms of scale. The four Kryptonians are a whole other problem. If the film had been made, it might well have had to scale down the destruction or risk the kind of post-9/11 backlash levelled at Man of Steel.

I'll wager Peters' aversion to the Batman vs Superman script was more about his name not being on the title page than any grand ethical stance. Apparently it was fine for our hero to smack bad guys into next week, and create a huge amount of collateral damage in the process, so long as there's "hope" at the end of it all.

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(All sources have been linked to except the script: if you are the creator or originator of any material you feel has been misappropriated, please let me know and I'll do my best to correct the problem.)