The bizarre and troubled history of J.J. Abrams’ Superman

Before Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, before Man of Steel, before Superman Returns, there was a battle between two big name Hollywood directors for the right to direct a fifth Superman movie.

Superman IV: A Quest For Peace was critically slammed and a financial flop for the studio. Superman had been in hibernation since Superman IV, and while many ideas came about — including the infamous Nicolas Cage and Tim Burton Superman Lives, it wasn’t until the early 2000s that Warner Bros. decided to really get serious about a new, live-action, big budget Superman movie. 

There were two competing ideas and scripts. One from Bryan Singer would be a continuation of sorts to the Christopher Reeve films. The other, written by J.J. Abrams, aimed to reinvent Superman with a lot more creative license on the mythos, partly acting as an origin story. In the end, the Bryan Singer film won out and Superman Returns released in 2005.

The story of that J.J. Abrams Superman, known as Superman: Flyby is one hell of a trip: multiple directors, many failed castings, filming location failures, and several rewrites.

The many directors and writers

J.J. Abrams was drafted by Warner Bros. to write a script for a new Superman movie, following his successes at the time with the television series Alias. He turned in his script to the studio in July 2002. Abrams had hoped to direct the film after working on the script, but was rebuffed. Instead, the studio opted for Joseph McGinty Nicol, otherwise known as McG. 

When McG came on board officially as director, he wrote his own treatment for the script, adding and subtracting parts of Abrams’ script. He had been the studio’s first choice, but wouldn’t last long: McG left the project so he could do Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle. In hindsight, not the best choice by McG. 

McG Image: Getty

Next up was Brett Ratner of X-Men 3 (and sexual misconduct allegations) infamy. Ratner’s main request was he be able to cast an unknown as Superman, echoing Christopher Reeve’s casting in the original film. This request again did not stick, and the studio and Ratner started looking for big names. Reeve, who was involved as an executive producer, started pushing for Tom Welling to join the project, who played young Clark Kent in the Donner films.

Reeve said that “the character is more important than the actor who plays him, because it is an enduring mythology. It definitely should be an unknown.”.

This is again where problems arose. While Jude Law and Josh Hartnett were approached for the role of Superman, neither particularly liked the idea of signing up for such a lofty role. A major issue was the fear of a multi-picture contract stopping them from exploring other potential films, locking them into the role and typecasting them. 

“No star wants to sign that, but as much as I’ve told Jude and Josh my vision for the movie, I’ve warned them of the consequences of being Superman,” Ratner once said. “They’ll live this character for 10 years because I’m telling one story over three movies and plan to direct all three if the first is as successful as everyone suspects.”

While the final part never came to pass, it shows how difficult it is to cast superheroes like Superman and Batman. Josh Hartnett previously rejected the role of Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins for similar reasons. Hartnett’s offer was reportedly a fee of $100 million for three films, more than what some current day Marvel Cinematic Universe actors get.

Brett Ratner later left the project entirely in March 2003, citing the aforementioned casting difficulties, and shouting matches with Jon Peters. Peters was later embroiled in sexual assault and misconduct charges – which Ratner testified against Peters for.

After all that, there’s clearly only one man for the job. The visionary director, geek culture king — McG. He returned to direct the film, and the casting rumour mill ran up again. Another star that auditioned, but ultimately dropped out over fears of being typecast, was The Mummy heartthrob Brendan Fraser. There’s a drinking game to be made out of the many actors who were up for Superman but pulled out.

A young Henry Cavill in his Superman screen test. Image: Warner Bros.

Henry Cavill, who was cast as Superman for Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel a decade later, even screen tested for Superman: Flyby alongside other actors such as Jared Padalecki, Michael Cassidy, and Jason Behr. This was seemingly the second last straw, but the last straw is possibly the most humorous and unbelievable.

The studio were set on filming in Sydney, Australia due to the tax breaks available that also funded films like The Matrix and the Star Wars prequels. McG, however, pushed the studio to film in Canada in New York, arguing it was “inappropriate to try to capture the heart of America on another continent”.

McG lost that battle, later admitting his reluctance to film in Sydney was over a crippling fear of flying. Warner Bros. provided their private jet to fly to Australia, but McG told the Hollywood Reporter that he couldn’t overcome his fears, and the studio effectively fired him on the spot.

“It was very humiliating, and I got thrown off the movie that day,” McG said, adding that the episode convinced him to seek professional help afterwards.

As McG left for a second time, Abrams again asked the studio for him to be able to direct his Superman movie, but Warner Bros. had already decided to take up Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns script. In 2005, Superman Returns was finally released, to incredibly middling reviews and an atmosphere of “meh”.

The casting

There’s a few more notable names who went up for the role of Kal-El / Clark Kent / Superman, including James Marsden, Victor Webster (another who screen tested as both sides of Superman’s alter egos), and Ashton Kutcher who pulled out over the supposed “Superman curse”. Ratner’s attempted film wanted to cast Christopher Walken for Perry White, Ralph Fiennes as Lex Luthor and Anthony Hopkins for Jor-El.

McG’s second run at the film involved some more strong casting choices, including Scarlett Johannsen for Lois Lane and Shia LaBeouf as Jimmy Olsen, while Johnny Depp was being considered for Lex Luthor.

The story and ideas

Superman: Flyby was pitched as a reinvention of Superman. Abrams’ first script began with a civil war embroiling Krypton, and the faction heads being Jor-El and his unscrupulously evil brother Kata-Zor. Before his evil brother sentences him to prison, Jor-El sends his son Kal-El to Earth to fulfil a prophecy. (It’s worth noting that Krypton doesn’t explode in a fiery ball of flames, unlike almost every other version of Superman.)

The script, which is available in full online, has plenty of scenes across the globe to establish Superman as Earth’s defender, not just America’s. It’s full of exposition and it definitely reads like a J.J. Abrams script, and as you’d expect, old Supes doesn’t stop much of the destruction.

Official concept art. Image: Phil Saunders

Many years after Kal-El arrives on Earth, long after he’s adopted by Martha and Jonathan Kent, Clark Kent announces himself to the world as Superman. When Superman goes public, Jonathan Kent immediately dies of a heart attack. The script doesn’t make it markedly clear if this is anything more than coincidence. Clark Kent is roughly college student aged in this, befriending Lois Lane at a frat party. A young Superman is really fun, and I’d wager this script indirectly lead to Smallville‘s creation.

It turns out that Kal-El landing on some farm in the Midwest and being adopted by the Kent family was completely planned. The script shows Jor-El specifically picking the Kents to foster his son, having gone to Earth many years prior to scout out some potentially good parents.

Superman’s evil cousin Ty-Zor is then sent to Earth alongside three other Kryptonians to more or less conquer the planet — Superman’s aforementioned prophecy is to protect Earth from this specific event. Chosen One storylines now are seen as played out and dull, but at time of this script, The Matrix had just come out.

The Rouser mech Image: Phil Saunders

The ending involves Superman fighting a giant robot mech piloted by a Kryptonian. Superman dies but is very quickly resurrected to definitively save the day — which would be a lot more plausible if he wasn’t completely invincible except for this one bit in the film.

Lex Luthor’s role is far more interesting, representing a government agent investigating UFO-related incidents. Luthor steals most scenes according to the scriptwriting: he’s funny, cunning, and not really Superman’s nemesis. It culminates into a very disappointing finish, where Luthor’s revealed as a Kryptonian sleeper agent that’s keeping tabs on Superman.

Kryptonian ship Image: Concept Art World

Superman will always be very tough to adapt into a feature film. While he’s the gold standard superhero, there still has only been two good Superman movies. A ratio of two for seven is poor, and reading about Superman: Flyby as well as Nicolas Cage’s Superman Lives reveals a lot about the struggle.

The key takeaway from Flyby’s development to me is that Warner Bros. didn’t know what they wanted from a Superman movie, only that it had to be out by 2005. The script’s ideas are interesting, but even if Flyby had kept a director, it wouldn’t have been greenlit ahead of a safer bet like Superman Returns.