March is Superman month here at the m0vie blog, what with the release of the animated adaptation of Grant Morrison’s superb All-Star Superman. We’ll be reviewing a Superman-related book/story arc every Wednesday this month, so check on back – and we might have a surprise or two along the way. I figured that, today, I’d take a look at Superman-related movies.
But Superman was one that I was kind of intrigued by, because of my love for comic books and because I read the script they were working from at that time and hated it. Batman is about angst; Superman is about hope. That was the thing that bothered me about Greg Poirier’s draft: they were trying to give Superman angst. They had Clark Kent going to a psychiatrist at one point. Superman’s angst is not that he doesn’t want to be Superman. If he has any, it’s that he can’t do it all; he can’t do enough and save everyone. It’s not enough to make him want to quit being Superman; it’s enough to make the guy stay up at night so he’s out doing shit constantly.
– Kevin Smith on the script he was handed
I figured, with all this talk about Zack Snyder’s Superman reboot, I might as well take a look at some of the other productions that have brought the Man of Steel to the big screen in recent years. Superman never had quite the box office traction of Batman, and so never really went through that many big-screen iterations – while there’s a notable change in aesthetic between the Batman films of Burton, Schumacher and Nolan, Superman’s movies have been fairly consistent. I took a look at Superman Returns earlier today, but I thought I might take a look at Kevin Smith’s unproduced script for an earlier iteration of that particular film, Superman Lives!
Now, before you read my thoughts on the script, you should really watch the below clip, where Kevin Smith talks about writing Superman, and the various difficulties and demands that he faced.
Note: You can check out the script yourself, here.
In case you’re curious, Smith’s script was based on the famous Death and Return of Superman comic book arc from the nineties. It was relatively fresh at the time that Smith was drafting his script (which was very strange for the time, when the movie studios weren’t especially interested in fidelity to the source material). Anyway, the comic book was published at a time when the medium was going through a “darker and edgier” phase – around about the same time, for example, Bane broke Batman’s back in the Knightfall story arc. Although the plot never formed the basis of a live-action movie, it was developed as an animated film, Superman: Doomsday, featuring a cameo from Smith.
So, from the outset, know that the script has huge difficulty with scope. Superman Returns arguably spent 150 minutes doing nothing, but this movie tries to cram the death and resurrection of Superman, along with three iconic foes, a bunch of cameos, and a clear character arc, into two hours (or possibly less). That’s a lot, and it’s the kinda thing which would seem impossible under the very best of conditions.
Smith was not working under the very best of conditions. As he relates in the anecdote above, producer Jon Peters was forcing various concepts into the script. I would like to believe that most of the difficulties with the script stem from that, and a lot do. The cute little robot sidekick, L-Ron, for example, was a mandated addition. Although I like to think of it as a sideswipe at L. Ron Hubbard. Similarly, there are cringe-inducing bits featuring “two statue-like Polar bears” standing sentry at Superman’s fortress and a “Thanagarian Snare Beast” (which is a spider, which plays to Peters’ spider fetish – see Wild, Wild West, for example).
There are other awkward moments. I am not sure, for example, we need a chase sequence on hoverboards with Jimmy and Lois. It calls to mind Star Wars rather than Superman. The plot sees, at one point, Lex effectively taking over the world government (with the help of Brainiac) and charging Jimmy and Lois with “sedition and insurrection.” That doesn’t feel like a Superman movie to me – it feels like generic space opera, which I can’t really reconcile with the Man of Steel.
There are plenty of other bizarre moments, but it’s difficult to know where to place the blame. For example, there’s a truly strange Batman cameo, which pops up out of nowhere, features a bunch of exposition and then… nothing. It’s just sorta thrown out there. It’s like “here’s a page of Batman I threw in there, just because.” Truth be told, I’m not sure if these story problems are as a result of the studio or Smith. I know that the studio made some crazy demands, but Smith has always been a dialogue- rather than plot-driven writer. It’s just his particular strength.
Anyway, the plot basically follows Brainiac’s arrival on Earth. By the way, how deadly is it that Smith’s script uses a Superman villain who isn’t Lex Luthor? Anyway, Brainiac arrives on Earth, looking for something. Connecting with Luthor who has (for some strange reason, given his distrust of aliens) beamed a message into space looking for help killing Superman, the alien decides to kill the superhero in order to track down a lost piece of Kryptonian technology. Along the way, he releases a monster named Doomsday, designed to hunt down and kill the Man of Steel.
The title of the story arc that the script is adapted from is a bit of a spoiler, even if the adaptation isn’t really that faithful to the original tale. There are nice nods to the comic book (people wearing “black arm bands emblazoned with Superman’s ‘s’ shield” as a tribute, for example), but it pretty much goes its own direction with the tale. I don’t really mind either way – I accept that the only way to do a story of that sacle justice would be in a trilogy, so cuts and amendments have to be made.
However, the script seems to have a fundamental problem with Superman. Following the mandate for producer Jon Peters, Superman doesn’t even wear his iconic blue costume in the film. Instead, Smith timidly suggests, “um… nineties style?” There’s a moment early on where the character threatens to kill Lex Luthor in an elevator shaft, but relents at the last minute. Is it because Superman doesn’t kill? Not quite. “You’re hardly worth the effort,” the Man of Steel breaths. Later on, Superman warns that “this city’s oppressors are about to feel my wrath.”
It’s hard not to hear that classic boast from Jon Peters that Sean Penn would make a great Superman. He argued, based on seeing Dead Man Walking, that Penn has “the eyes of a caged animal, a f***ing killer.” Even the most casual movie-goer will see the inherent problem in that portrayal of the Man of Steel who is known to fans, and referred to in the screenplay, as the “boy scout” of superheroes. It’s clear that Smith does feel awkward writing this stuff, but that just makes reading it all the more surreal. Trust me when I say, without a shadow of a doubt, that this movie would have been agony. As I read it, I tried to image the lines being read by Nicolas Cage and the movie as directed by Tim Burton… and it was horrible.
So, if we take all this way, what do we have? Well, as noted above, Smith is great with dialogue. His tone doesn’t exactly fit the world of Superman though. It’s somewhat awkward when Superman discovers that the rocket which brought him to Earth is sentient, and immediately wonders if it watched him and Lois having sex. “Wait, wait, wait… did you ever see Lois and I… while we…?” he asks, which seems a little… uncomfortable. Furthermore, this sentient computer is written as something of a smart ass. “What’s this ‘we’ business?” the creature wonders.
It doesn’t help that the movie’s central arc is less than fluid. The core idea is an interesting one – that Superman can’t relate to us as mortal humans. It’s a fascinating inversion of the standard criticism of the character – the notion that audiences can’t relate to him. However, the execution is heavily flawed, stopping and starting and relying on hokey contrivance to get the message across. Hell, the “Superman as nerdy human” sequence from Superman II worked much better.
That said, there are some nice touches. For example, for once, Lex manages to beat Superman without resorting to Kryptonite. I swear, if Snyder uses that plot device, it is quite possible that I will scream in the cinema. Smith knows the audience is sick of that, so he makes sure not to rely on that crutch. “Was it Kryptonite?” Lois asks, as Clark is struck down. “It was something else,” he explains. Luthor is smart enough to use Clark’s reliance on “the earth’s yellow sun” as a means to attack the hero. It’s a nice touch.
I also appreciate the thought that Smith has put into the world around Superman. The opening action sequence features a cameo from the villain Deadshot, which is nice to see a writer using a supervillain without needing to provide an origin or backstory. Similarly, there are hints of Metropolis strewn throughout the film as well. This is, I believe, the first time a movie would mention the “Suicide Slum” region of Metropolis. Lois also credits Superman with making the city so shining and clean, asking Lex if he remembers what the city was like “before Superman arrived?”
That said, Smith’s dialogue isn’t suited to these sorts of films. The clunky exposition is awkward, relying on pairs of characters to explain to the audience what is going on. Hell, some characters have to talk to themselves, as they’re on their own. “Now — how to get to Kal-El without being detected… Or get Kal-El… to me!” the Eradicator declares, as I picture him stroking his chin, deep in thought.
Superman himself doesn’t necessarily lend himself well to Smith’s distinct narrative voice. His Superman’s just a little bit cheeky. After saving the Governor, he jokes that he voted for her, violating the sanctity of a secret ballot – and pretty much an endorsement. I like to think Superman would be more careful about such things. A few pages on, he stops the elevator at the fifth floor “hair care products” for Lex. “Look at your outfit,” he remarks to the assassin Deadshot. “What is this, Gotham?” This just doesn’t feel right. Superman isn’t a typical action lead, sprouting awkward one-liners as he dispatches dozens of foes. He’s more mature than that.
On the other hand, the relationship between Clark Kent and Lois Lane feels more real here than it did in Superman Returns, for example. They feel like a real couple. It’s great, for example, that Clark trusts Lois enough to let her know he’s the Man of Tomorrow. “I won’t settle for half a life,” she warns him, in a nice little line which makes it clear where they both stand. There’s no angst – no attempt to force Superman to retire, just an honest acknowledgement that he can’t actually have the normal life he aspires to. Still, there’s no angst. “I know it sounds silly,” Superman muses at one point, “where do I get off complaining?” That’s the sort of attitude we could have used more of in the film we got. “I’d rather dwell on the present… and the future.”
I do like Smith’s version of Lex Luthor. Though, that said, the very fact he’s a business man rather than a real estate conman means I’m predisposed to like him more than in the regular films. He makes some nice arguments about how Superman’s presence effectively puts “a complete freeze on human evolution”, and repeatedly betrays his xenophobia through referring to the hero as an “off-worlder” or a “Kryptonian.” Luthor gets a lot of the script’s best lines, and is suited to deliver them. My personal favourite is the somewhat prescient remark about Lois’ “hopes of carrying a super-brat some day.” He doesn’t get anything resembling the character development that he so sorely deserves, but he’s still the best defined character in the script (and the best defined version of the character ever written for cinema).
It’s a flawed script. it would have made a disastrous film. However, it’s clear that Smith is familiar with (and has a fondness for) the original source material, and that shines through. I wouldn’t mind, for example, hearing that Smith had been called in to punch up the dialogue on Snyder’s film – provided he was supervised by one of the Nolan brothers. Smith gets a lot about Superman, and more than I think Bryan Singer did, to be honest. The difference is that Singer is better equiped to tell these sorts of epic stories than Smith will ever be (without meaning any offence).
It’s not perfect. I wouldn’t even call it “good”, to be frank. However, this script is an interesting look at a Superman that almost was.
Filed under: Movies | Tagged: arts, clark kent, Jon Peters, kevin smith, lex luthor, review, script, script review, sean penn, superman, superman lives, superman reborn, Warner Brothers, zack snyder |