Before Star Trek Into Darkness, before Lost, JJ Abrams wrote a draft of Superman. This is that draft.

Genre: Superhero
Premise: A slightly reimagined Superman origin story which includes an enemy from his home planet coming to earth to take him down.
About: This is JJ Abrams Superman entry, written in 2002, back when JJ was just your average TV show producer, finishing up work on Felicity and starting up work on Alias. The show that would make him a household name, Lost, was still just a twinkle in his eye.
Writer: JJ Abrams
Details: First draft (July 26, 2002) – 138 pages

Superman-justice-league-digital-art-featured

Superman is still stinging from its horrible previous installment, which very well may have destroyed Bryan Singer’s reputation. The film was just so…forgettable. And badly written. Nothing made sense. Superman, who looked 25, had supposedly left earth for ten years? So he left when he was 15? Already I’m confused. Then nothing really happened. I couldn’t tell you what the story was about. There were no stand-out scenes. Superman was horribly miscast, as was Lois Lane.

I think the scene that epitomized the screw-up for me was the shuttle scene. It didn’t have anything to do with anything. What I mean by that is: it wasn’t woven into any sort of plot. It was just this standalone short movie of Superman saving a shuttle.

I said then that if they were ever going to reboot Superman and get today’s audiences interested, they were going to need to go darker like Batman. I know, I know. That’s “not Superman.” But it’s what audiences are digging, and Superman needed a makeover to appeal to today’s youth. I haven’t seen the movie, of course, but Zach Snyder’s version already looks a thousand times better than that previous abomination.

Which brings us to this draft, which I’ve heard at least partly inspired the most recent movie. But let’s face it. That’s not the reason I’m reviewing it. I’m reviewing it because it’s the JJ Abrams draft. I just had to know what he would’ve done with Superman. And the results are both encouraging and…not so encouraging with an ending so sacrilegious and “out-of-left-field” that I’m pretty sure it was born out of JJ’s first experience with peyote.

JJ’s Superman is basically an origin story with a few twists. It starts out with an awesome battle between Superman and an alien baddie named Ty-Zor from his home planet. They’re throwing each other through buildings, that sort of thing. And Superman is basically getting his ass handed to him.

Eventually we cut back to Krypton and get a detailed look at the civil war going on there, with 100 foot tall robot machines shredding up Kryptonians like a top chef. We get the familiar scene with Supes’s dad putting him in the spaceship, sending him to earth, where he lands at the Kents’ farm, where he grows up with them and yadda-yadda-yadda.

Where the script starts deviating from lore is that it makes Lex Luthor the head of the CIA. Lex is obsessed with UFO phenomena and is trying to convince his bureau to spend more time and resources on it, convinced that little green men are going to become a threat to earth at some point and they need to be ready for it. When a young new reporter, Lois Lane, writes an article about Luthor’s exploits, he has no choice but to tell the world that the U.S. has actually FOUND a UFO.

This freaks Superman (now Clark Kent) out, since he figures Luthor may be referring to him. And he doesn’t want any part in being exposed. Eventually, Luthor’s obsession with UFOs starts to piss the bureau off, and they fire him. Well, you don’t fire Lex Luthor and not expect consequences. Luthor eventually finds and teams up with Ty-Zor, who’s come to earth specifically to kill Superman. Superman may be super and all but (spoiler) he’s apparently no match for these two and is KILLED. Yes, Superman dies.

Or does he?

Eventually we learn that Superman isn’t dead at all, and comes back to take down Luthor, who’s since been awarded the planet by Ty-Zor. Finally the truth is revealed about Lex Luthor and the reason he’s so obsessed with aliens. Turns out Lex Luthor IS AN ALIEN. He’s from Superman’s home planet and has been hiding here. Which results in a final flying city-wide battle between Superman and… Lex Luthor? Holy origin-destroyer Batman. What the hell just happened??

Oh sheesh. Where to begin…

First of all, I’m convinced my man-crush JJ Abrams had nothing to do with this bizarre choice to make Lex Luthor an alien. Some producer came up with that idea. I know it. One thing good writers know is when they’ve gone too far. Or when a choice is too ridiculous or not believable. They just have an intricate feel for what works and what doesn’t. JJ had been working as a screenwriter for a decade at this point. I just don’t think he would’ve personally incorporated this bizarre choice into the story. Maybe I’m in denial. But I can’t accept it. And whoever DID come up with that idea needs to be escorted out of Hollywood permanently.

As for the rest of Superman, I think the challenge for this franchise has most recently been about making it current. It was designed in a different time. We don’t have the “aww shucks” newspaper photographer anymore. Heck, we don’t even have newspapers anymore! Combined with this need for comic book nerds to keep Superman “pure,” it’s just really hard to update it. JJ does his best, but the story still seems stuck in the past.

In particular, the gears of the screenplay seemed more focused on getting in all the necessary “lore” as opposed to just telling a story. Gotta get in the introduction of the suit and cape! Gotta get in that Lois Lane-Superman interview for the paper! Gotta get in the kryptonite intro! Instead of just a naturally flowing story, the screenplay seems designed around artificially incorporating these elements.

The truth is, when you’re telling an origin story, you’re dedicating 40-70 pages of your script to setup alone. And no matter how interesting that setup is, it’s still setup. The audience wants to see the plot get going. Singer tried to do this in the last Superman, by nixing the whole origin story in favor of sending Superman home then bringing him back again, but it was the wrong story element to use, as it was simply too confusing and clunky.

When JJ’s plot gets going, it sort of loses its way as well. Part of the problem is we have two villains here. Now I’m all for double the villain-ry. It’s fun to see a superhero have to take down two assholes instead of one. The problem is these villains never quite gelled together. It felt more like JJ was trying to decide which villain he liked best as he went along. And that may have been the case. Remember, this was a first draft. But I didn’t know where to focus my attention. Was Luthor the more important guy to take down? Or was Ty-Zor?

I think what Nolan did with Batman Begins was kind of genius. He didn’t introduce the best villain of the franchise in the movie. He waited until the second movie to do that. While it’s hard to imagine a Superman movie without Lex Luthor, Ty-Zor was a pretty damned worthy adversary. I mean this guy is throwing Superman through buildings ‘n shit. We just should have built a story around him and brought in Lex for the sequel.

Despite the unending amount of setup here, JJ does manage to plug in a lot more action than Singer’s abysmal version. We have the Air Force One scene (which has since been ripped off numerous times), the Ty-Zor/Superman battle, the Superman mech-machine battle, and just some really imaginative cool scenes back on Superman’s home planet. Those things almost saved the script, but in the end, this messy first draft hadn’t figured itself out yet. Maybe JJ did it with the next one. But any script that has Lex Luthor with the same powers as Superman is going to be a fail in my book.

[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: I love reading scripts like this because they remind me of how influenced we are by the moment. Whenever we write a script, we write through the filter of “right now,” of what the world is talking about, of what movies everyone’s watching, of how the writers of these movies are approaching their stories. JJ’s Superman feels very much like someone writing a script in 2002. It’s an origin story (just like X-Men from 2000 and Spider-Man of 2002). Just like X-Men, Superman’s flaw is that he believes he’s a freak, which is the reason he doesn’t reveal himself. There’s not a lot of originality here. For this reason, I encourage you not to be too influenced by the moment. Don’t write what everyone else is writing, or be swayed by the current trends. Try to write something that’s wholly unique, that, if looked back at 10 years from now, would stick out as its own thing, as opposed to just another version of what everyone else was doing.

  • Tailmonsterfriend

    >And whoever DID come up with that idea [of making Lex Luthor an alien] needs to be escorted out of Hollywood permanently.

    Hey, at least they didn’t also demand that Luthor ride around on a giant spider. You know, what with spiders being the fiercest killers in the insect kingdom and all. :)

  • AlanWilder

    Superman “dying” was probably also mandated from higher up the food chain. When WB tried to get the franchise going again in the 90’s they decided to base the movie on “The Death of Superman”-comic that had came out a few years earlier and blown all kinds of sales records away due to sheer shock value, which meant that all writers who took a shot at a new Superman movie (including Kevin Smith) had to base it around Superman dying and then returning to life.

  • Xarkoprime

    Carson,

    Any reason why you chose to review this draft and not Superman: Flyby (a later draft of this screenplay from 2003, also written by JJ)? It’s weird you chose this one when there is a more developed one out there with a simple google search.

    • http://twitter.com/jaexhkim jae kim

      I also read the 2002 version and hated it. I didn’t know about the 2003 version. I’ll look for it now. thanks!

  • UrbaneGhoul

    After watching Superman Returns, I didn’t leave talking about the action scenes or my favorite scenes in general. I left thinking Singer overused the classic Superman theme. I could rant all day about Superman returns but I’ll just say Singer isn’t a Superman fan, he’s a Superman: The Movie fan and that’s only because of his closeness with Richard Donner.

  • https://twitter.com/deanmaxbrooks deanb

    Christ, I could write volumes about the failure of Superman Returns.

    I’m not a fan of JJ Abrams, but I don’t see how making Luthor an alien with super powers demonstrates a creative shortcoming. It’s not that it’s a bad idea. It’s that it’s misdirected and way too experimental for a $200 million film. I’m a big Superman fan, and that is NOT something I want to see in a summer movie.

    But a similar idea DID take place in the brilliant series All-Star Superman. In All-Star, Luthor creates a serum that temporarily gives him Superman’s powers. And All-Star was converted into an animated film (available on Netflix, BTW).

    If anything, what Abrams’ script demonstrates is that some ideas possess a certain aesthetic that make them better suited for a particular medium. In comics, you can get A LOT more inventive and experimental than in a screenplay. Take for instance the myriad differences between Watchmen the graphic novel, and Watchmen the film, in particular the climactic ending. In the novel it’s perfectly plausible that Ozymandias teleports a giant squid to kill half of New York. There’s a page and pages of nuanced detail building that up so that it makes sense when it happens. But would that have worked in the context of the film? I doubt it.

  • TGivens

    I’ve never been a huge fan of Superman. But I have big hopes for Zack Snyder! Even after that clusterfuck of a movie called Sucker Punch.

  • Avishai

    Here’s a question… What happens to Krypton in this draft? I heard it doesn’t explode, and the civil war is a major subplot, but is done in a boring fashion.

  • Xarkoprime

    Google it. It’s out there.

  • garrett_h

    WELCOME TO J.J. ABRAMS WEEK AT SCRIPTSHADOW!!!

    I remember reading this years ago. And the funny thing is, I vividly recall most of the set pieces. The opening was awesome. The Krypton scenes were fun. There was just some awesome action. And the descriptions were on point. Very clear and entertaining. I was really digging this script.

    Then comes the Lex Luthor reveal.

    If I wasn’t reading the screenplay on my laptop, I’d have thrown the script against the wall. That’s like making Spock a Klingon or something. Or rather, Khan Noonien Singh a white British dude…

    It’s funny, because this script actually foretells a few miscues from Star Trek. Like the confusing double-villain thing, and the sacrilegious treatment of the lore. Sure, Trek had some fun action (just like the amazing action in this Superman script), but action alone doesn’t get the job done.

    I’m SO GLAD this iteration never made it to theaters. It’s almost worse than the Singer version. The action was better, true. But the story was worse IMO.

    Maybe I’m just a fanboy? Maybe not. But Superman is probably the most recognizable superhero next to Batman. Even moreso than the X-Men. And Lex Luthor and The Joker, their main archenemies, are arguably the most recognizable villains to the average person who has never really read the comics. So I don’t think the backlash would be limited to just fanboys. I think the public in general would call bullshit and the bad word of mouth would have sunk this film.

    So kudos to whoever buried this abomination in a desk drawer.

  • Citizen M
  • rosemary

    I thought it was an interesting Version

  • RO

    I was really hoping this would be the 2003 draft. I tried reading the earlier one, but it had a lot of the horrid wall of text on a lot of pages that it really made it a challenge to get through. The subsequent draft was better in that it ditched the Luthor being kryptonian. I also noticed that the method of telling the story reminded me a lot of how Mission Impossible 3 moved.

    I remember coming out of Superman Returns really dissapointed, and that weekend I wrote out a 20 page outline for a superman trilogy, something I’ll work on one day but not anytime soon. I think not only was the story bad, but the acting was very poorly directed. Having seen Brandon Routh in other rolls, he’s got the chops for the part, but something tells me he was restrianed by Singer and the scritp from doing anything new with the role.

    In addition, I was really surprised while reading the 2003 draft how much I recognized scenes in the trailer.

    SPOILERS

    In JJ’s script, Krypton doesn’t get destroyed, there is a family civil war and Superman ends up leaving earth to save Kyrpton in a politcal manner. I suspect this may hold true with the current Man of Steel and if that’s the case, while it will be a fun popcorn flick, I doubt it’ll be a franchise starter. After all Superman Returns brought in nearly 400 mill world wide, but nothing more came from it.

  • tom8883

    Don’t write what everyone else is writing. Write something unique. But don’t make Lex Luthor an alien. So somehow you’ve got to keep things so they fit the brand and are not too out there but somehow find an original structural device that we haven’t seen before. Is that what you mean, Carson? *Also, enough with the 100 foot monsters. And we still have Pacific Rim coming, which is obviously trying to redo Transformers.

  • Writer451

    “We don’t have newspapers anymore.”

    Haha! I immediately envisioned Clark Kent as a cable news host (Bill O’Reilly or Glenn Beck).

    • Avishai

      I’m pretty sure there was a point in the comics in the 70s where Clark was a TV newscaster.

  • GeneralChaos

    Down goes Midnight Luck! Down goes Midnight Luck!

  • http://www.facebook.com/todd.walker.3597 Todd Walker

    Let’s be real here, you CAN’T turn Supereman into Batman. That, and as far as updating Superman for the 21st Century:

    Can you say HUFFINGTON POST anyone? That’s an online news magazine with tons of writers on it. Journalism may have gone digital but it’s not dead. And the big newspapers aren’t dead, i.e New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Sun Times, etc. So you can still have him writing for some news company on a computer. Heck, I still get the print version of the Dallas Morning News,lol.

    Clark Kent: CK is 28-32 when he arrives in Metropolis, that’s a no brainer. But what also is a no-brainer is to make Clark as dorky as can be. The reason he seems goofy and a klutz is because he has to keep on a front. You have to remember that although he’s Superman that at heart he’s a little meek, humble, almost ashamed that he’s Superman. He doesn’t seem to be the type of guy, ironically, to want attention.

    Superman: He looks like he just had a fight with Batman. Superman isn’t a killer. Superman doesn’t like to talk about his problems, rather he probably wants to put his problems in the past. Ever see in a Superman movie Clark, while he’s in Metropolis, moping about not being the star quarterback in high school?

    Luthor: As an alien? Seems a bit far fetched. Lex Luthor, if you go by the comics, is a cross between Mr. Clean and an evil Donald Trump. Just because he’s the arch-enemy doesn’t mean he has to be an alien.

    Batman has a whole series of problems that make him the “DARK KNIGHT” that Freud would love to psycho-analyze, but Superman not so much. Clark, despite the fact he’s the son of Jor-el and his earth father dying, had a pretty normal childhood with all the teen angst that goes with it.

    I mean is it really necessary to go “Dark Knight” just to sell tickets?

  • ripleyy

    I’m not sure if JJ wrote the way he did for the pilot for Lost and Fringe in this, but I have yet to find a more passionate writer than JJ. The aeroplane scene at the beginning of the Fringe pilot has JJ writing stuff like “THEIR FACES ARE FUUUUUCCKKIIING BUUUURRRNNIING AND MEEELLTING OMG MELTING OH GOD IT’S FUCKING HORRRRRRAAAABLLLLLEEEEE!!!!”

    That is an exaggeration, of course, but I loved the hell out of the way he wrote for that and the Lost Pilot: seriously, the aeroplane scene in Lost was written like a mad man…and I love it. It’s so passionate that it’s fresh instead of boring stuff that is read every day in scripts.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1588896122 Rich Drees

    I read this year’s back, after Moriraty’s scathing review on AintItCool and the outcry it generated helped to get this version scuttled. Maybe I was caught up in the geek zeitgeist at the time but I remember hating the thing intensly. Krypton doesn’t explode? Lex is a kryptonian? A terrible interpretation of the Superman mythos. (And don’t get me started on that Ma Kent “You must pay the rent!”/”But I can’t pay the rent!” scene…)

    But I have to ask if this was a script featuring an original character not named Superman would people have liked it better?

  • TruckDweller

    Personally, I would love to see them make Superman: Red Son into a feature. If you’re going to relaunch the big S, may as well make waves.

    Clark isn’t a reporter anymore? Hell. Clark’s in Soviet Russia during the Cold War.

  • Cambias

    I’m not a Hollwood person, so there’s something which baffles me and I wish those of you with more experience could explain to me. If you’re making a Superman movie, why not take advantage of 75 years’ worth of Superman comic books to mine for ideas? There are literally thousands of stories. Sure, a lot of them are idiotic hackwork — but a lot of them aren’t. We know this because the comic book is what made Superman an iconic figure.

    Seriously, how come?

  • Ken

    Nice Superman illustration.

  • Ken

    Nice Superman illustration.

  • ColinJ

    Even among Hollywood morons Jon Peters is famous for being a special breed of moron. Someone even wrote a book about him. Well, it was him and Peter Guber, but Jon Peters was the true wackjob of the pair.

  • Jonathan Soens

    I wasn’t a huge comics nerd as a kid, but I definitely read my fair share of them. It’s sort of popular to attribute all kinds of interesting messages to a comic like X-Men, which can ostensibly be a story about tolerance and civil rights. And it’s just as popular to assume Superman was the story with the least interesting stuff going on.

    I have to say, I always saw the most potential in “Superman.” The Batman movies have been allowed to be dark, because at its core its a dark story about a tortured kid growing up and becoming a vigilante. Similarly, as a kid, I always found the dark side of the Superman stories to be dark and fascinating. I know people think Superman must be boring, because he wears bright colors and he’s a boy scout and he’s basically invincible. But the unspoken reality of Superman is that he’s probably the most tortured of any superhero character. At any given moment when he’s saving a life, he can’t help but hear someone else who is calling out to him as they die.

    His inability to save everyone has a lot of potential for amazing drama. Of course, you have to do it the right way. He can’t just be mopey and emo, spending a movie pouting.