Welcome to the third installment of Page One Rewrite, where I examine comics-to-screen adaptations that just couldn’t make it. This week, we’re traveling back to 2008 to examine David S. Goyer and Justin Marks’ aborted Green Arrow project, Super Max.
The version of the script that’s leaked online has the full title Green Arrow: Escape from Super Max, for what it’s worth. Also, only Justin Marks has the writing credit, but all of the reports at the time list Goyer as a co-writer and likely producer. The premise of the film has Green Arrow framed for murder and sentenced to an ultra-high security prison for supervillains. As Marks explained to MTV n 2008: "It's a very, very awesome prison. I majored in architecture in college, and design is how I actually started in. For Super Max, designing that prison, it had to be the kind of thing that was a character in and of itself. We're in a world where instead of just trying to contain a guy who's really big, you're trying to contain a guy who can — in the case of Icicle — who can freeze things. What kind of a cell would a guy like that need in order to have his powers neutralized? So to escape from Super Max they have got to go through the most elaborate heist we've ever seen, involving superpowers. Because the prison itself kind of has superpowers!"
Much like the early episodes of the Arrow television series, the film's narrative often shifts between the present day and the events of the past (five years back on the show, 12 years in the film), to the story of young socialite Oliver Queen washing up on a deserted island.
Unlike Arrow, however, Super Max is far less concerned with detailed explanations for how Queen evolved from pampered rich kid to survivor. It’s treated more as shorthand in a script that’s just barely over 100 pages (which means its runtime likely would be about 90 minutes).
The premise has Queen as the Green Arrow for 10 years, evading authorities, and acting as a defender of Star City's underclass. Only recently, with the establishment of intelligence agency Checkmate, is there a real focus on apprehending him, though. In the first present-day scene Queen accepts an award, while in another section of Star City, Col. Taleb Beni Khalid is overseeing a new Checkmate installation. The facility is invaded by a mysterious intruder who assassinates Col. Khalid. A dramatic reveal shows his killer is none other than Green Arrow.
The award ceremony introduces Marcus Cross, a rival CEO eager to overtake Queen’s business interests, and Queen’s best friend and lawyer Hackett. Queen has to abruptly leave the dinner to investigate the Checkmate attack, only to find an army of guards waiting. There’s a pretty cool pursuit sequence of Green Arrow attempting to evade the authorities, establishing an elaborate action sequence just 10 minutes into the movie. He’s ultimately captured, and becomes the subject of a high-profile trial.
All of this is covered in only a few pages of the script. The movie is called Escape from Super Max not Trial of the Century, after all; he’s got to get to that prison. The head of Checkmate manipulates the judge into sentencing Queen to “the Alcatraz for super-villains” he operates, as no traditional prison can hold Green Arrow. Queen is flown to a mysterious location, which he believes to be an island somewhere in the Pacific.
The Oliver Queen of the film is apparently based on the Neal Adams design, including the goatee -- until he’s processed at Super Max, that is. His head and chin are sheared (matching the eventual look of Stephen Amell on Arrow) and assigned a green jumpsuit.
Amanda Waller is introduced as “technically the warden of Super Max; she’s more like the priest.” She's described as having a shaved head, beautiful features, high heels, and “piercing dark eyes that exude Zen-like calm.” She serves as a foil for Queen, who’s monitored every second of the day and surrounded by inmates eager to kill him. (Queen did send many of them here, after all.)
As Queen adjusts to prison, recognizing the human-rights abuses of Super Max and slowly seeing the humanity in some of his fellow inmates, the narrative shifts to Star City. Hackett, we discover, had been working with Cross all along. And unless Queen is dead, it’s unlikely his assets can move from Hackett to Cross. Traditional Green Arrow arch-nemesis Merlyn is revealed as the true assassin from the film’s opening. Just as Hackett planned, he’s arrested on other charges and sent to Super Max, where he’ll finish the job and kill Queen.
From there, we have Queen forming uneasy alliances with established DC villains like Gemini, Tattooed Man, Blockbuster, and Pied Piper. Cross has paid off one of the guards, enabling the writers to dance around the “monitored at all times” aspect of the prison, and placing Queen in a few life-threatening situations. Merlyn, who’s able to construct a compound bow from found material and some wire he smuggled in using a fake tooth, fails in his assassination attempt. He does, however, provide Queen with a bow and arrow, enabling the vigilante to have his distinctive color scheme and weapon for this portion of the script.
Following the escape sequence, which features betrayals and noble sacrifices, the audience discovers Super Max is actually located somewhere in Antarctica, raising the stakes and presenting Queen with yet another “impossible escape” scenario.
As the villains continue to drop out of the plot during Queen’s return to Star City, Gemini takes on an increasingly prominent role. She’s Queen’s partner on his quest to expose Hackett and Cross, foregoing her own plans to once again see her 9-year-old daughter, Rouge. Ultimately, Queen gathers the proof necessary to establish his innocence, granting him legal freedom. He also exposes Super Max’s abuses to the world, which leads to Amanda Waller’s arrest.
The final scene depicts Queen visiting Gemini in prison, bringing along his young charge. Queen still believes Gemini will be released one day, but until then, he’s caring for Rouge.
More than a dozen established DC villains are featured as inmates of Super Max. Lex Luthor makes a brief cameo, his intelligence shorted out by Waller. We see Joker’s name written outside one of the cells, and when Queen is sentenced to solitary confinement, the cell has “E. Nigma was here” written on the wall.
Overwhelmingly, the inmates are referred to by their last names only. The stage directions in the script always indicates their supervillain identities, but notes that “fans will recognize him as…” instead of having the characters speak their villainous monikers.
I also suspect the prominence of the shape-shifting Gemini was in response to the popularity of Mystique in the X-Men films. She even has a bit where she flips the bird, just like Mystique does in X2. Also amusing that she has a daughter named Rouge instead of Rogue (a nod to Madame Rouge, Gemini’s mother, in the comics).
PULLED FROM THE SCRAPS
It’s possible this script influenced the flashback angle for the Arrow TV series. Elements of Super Max were also adapted for the seventh season of Arrow, in which Oliver Queen is sent to Slabside Maximum Security Prison after he’s exposed as Green Arrow.
THAT’S JUST WEIRD
A pivotal plot point turns on Merlyn exposing Cross and Hackett … following an off-screen conversion to Christianity in prison. There are also numerous sequences of the Pied Piper communicating to Queen in his cell by having his rats sneak in and form the shapes of words. This maybe wouldn’t be so ridiculous if he “spoke” in two or three words … but Piper is prone to verbose paragraphs!
DID WE DODGE A BULLET?
There’s some showing, not telling here, as we only witness Queen in action once, briefly, before he’s sent to prison. The audience has to take it on faith he’s this great hero of Star City … and that he’s so slippery, the government doesn’t think a normal prison can hold him. Comics fans could bring their own understanding of the character, sure, but this seems an odd choice for a movie aimed at a mainstream audience.
Also, is this really the Green Arrow we know from decades of comics? He plays more as a blend of Mr. Miracle (expert escape artist) and Bullseye (can form a weapon out of anything … including ink pens in one scene, which is very much Bullseye’s gimmick). The trick arrows make a few appearances, but for most of the script, Green Arrow is not in a position to use his traditional arsenal.
But, assuming the audience accepts this obscure hero (pre-Arrow, naturally), and comics fans are OK with the traditional Green Arrow disappearing after 10 minutes, this is a fun script. The origin presented is loyal to the comics, while blending in well with the reality of the script and never slowing the pace. Queen is presented with an increasing series of insane challenges, but the story rarely feels as if it’s cheating when he works his way out of them. And it’s clear the writers have affection for the lore, with numerous nods to the comics and a refusal to present any of this as camp. None of these characters is a generic background figure, like whips-his-hair-guy from Dark Phoenix. They’re pulled from the DC mythos and treated respectfully.
Just the idea of a Supervillain Super Max movie is interesting, and possibly enough of a hook to sell a mainstream audience on the idea. Actually, a film featuring various villains dealing with life in Super Max, not to mention Amanda Waller, could work as a film, even without a superhero attached.
Really, my biggest complaint is playing Amanda Waller as truly criminal. I like the thought of her possibly skirting the edges of legality, but honestly believing in her work and doing what’s necessary to protect the public. Her animated appearances nailed this portrayal, but it’s apparently too nuanced for the big-budget screenwriters to grasp. Yeah, a Green Arrow movie would be nice, but so would CCH Pounder starring as “The Wall,” dealing with villains her own way. I suppose we eventually got that movie with Suicide Squad, but it’s something I’d rather forget.
So that’s all for now. Until next time, check out the G. I. Joe novels I wrote for the Kindle Worlds project for free over at Smashwords.