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