With “Deadpool” about to premiere, and under two months to go until “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice,” the next wave of superhero movies is right around the corner. 2016 will be chock-full of comics-based superhero film fare, from “Captain America: Civil War” and “X-Men: Apocalypse” to “Suicide Squad” and “Doctor Strange.”
Yet as we saw in Part 1, the world wasn’t always so receptive to comics-turned-film. Today’s look back includes projects from folks who went on to some pretty big gigs in the sci-fi/fantasy/superhero realm, but whose earlier superhero fare might have been hit or miss.
Codenamed “Flyby”, it takes some significant liberties with the legend, namely that Krypton never exploded, baby Kal was sent to Earth to escape a bloody civil war pitting Jor-El against his brother Kata-Zor, and Lex Luthor is an extraterrestrial hiding as a government agent. The script opens with a flash-forward to the middle of a city-wrecking super-battle, now reminiscent of “Man of Steel.” (In fact, the city itself is Gotham, which is ironic considering “Batman v. Superman’s” backstory.)
All the Kryptonians are fantastic martial artists, including Jor-El. Pa Kent dies from a heart attack when Superman reveals himself to the world, Lara is a casualty of war, and young Clark beats up Ma Kent’s would-be rapist. After saving Lois from a Kryptonite-laced deathtrap, Superman dies and is revived a couple of scenes later, because he still needs to fulfill an ancient Kryptonian prophecy. Jor-El commits suicide to go to the afterlife and tell his son about the prophecy. Apparently the S-shield represents five Kryptonian ideals, and Supes will learn more about them from an old Kryptonian cleric. Luthor joins up with the Kryptonian bad guys, but Supes convinces all the world’s militaries to put Kryptonite in their ammunition. All this world-building indicates that this was to be the first part of a series, and so “Flyby” ends with Supes leaving Earth to return to Krypton.
Parts of the script (which was revised in 2003) feel very much like classic Superman, but overall “Flyby” gilds the Superman mythology with unnecessary, self-justifying “chosen one” elements. It’s like Abrams wanted to make a beefier version of “Superman II” — there are four evil Kryptonians, not just three! — but thought the source material wasn’t sufficiently convincing. Since “Flyby” gave way to Bryan Singer‘s homage-filled “Superman Returns,” evidently the source material won out.
Speaking of source material…
BATMAN (YEAR ONE) ’03
Contrary to his own assessment, George Clooney might not have “killed” the Batman movies all by himself — but the series was pretty much dead regardless. In its place, Warner Bros. envisioned a Batman reboot, based on the “Batman: Year One” arc from writer Frank Miller, artist David Mazzucchelli and colorist Richmond Lewis. To that end Miller himself wrote a “Year One” script (to be directed by Darren Aronofsky) which stayed mostly true to the comics’ plot, but deviated significantly from the underlying Bat-mythology.
In Miller’s script, Bruce Wayne didn’t spend his formative years wandering the world learning how to maximize his physical and mental potential. Instead, immediately following the murder of his parents he was taken in by Big Al and Little Al, a pair of inner-city auto mechanics, who raised him to repair cars. Nevertheless, disgusted by Gotham’s ever-present street crime, young Bruce eventually decided that superstitious and cowardly criminals needed to be scared and beaten up (not necessarily in that order), and fashioned what we might call a thrift-store approach to Batman. Over the course of the script, “the Bat-Man’s” gear gets more and more elaborate, until by the end of it Bruce has claimed his inheritance and moved back into Wayne Manor.
The general thrust of the story is true to its inspiration, following the dual tracks of Bruce’s war on crime and Gordon’s struggles with Gotham corruption. Both Bruce and Gordon narrate their respective stories in voiceovers, but Bruce’s narration is directed to his father. It’s very much of a piece with Miller’s comics scripts, except turned up a couple of notches for Bruce and maybe down a bit with Gordon. Set pieces include the Bat-Man attacking Commissioner Loeb’s mansion and escaping in his Lincoln Continental-based Batmobile; and the Bat-Man eluding SWAT teams as an abandoned tenement building crumbles around him. As in the comics, the climax involves the Bat-Man rescuing Gordon’s pregnant wife from Loeb’s thugs; and as in the comics, Gordon can’t make out the Bat-Man’s unmasked face without his glasses. The problem is that Bruce’s single-minded determination tends to substitute for any real characterization, making it harder to root for him apart from fannish excitement over the emerging Bat-Man. Almost everyone else comes off better, including Gordon, Harvey Dent and Selina Kyle.
Finally, as with “Flyby”, this “Year One” may simply have been too different for the studio. It would certainly have signaled a course correction after “Batman and Robin” and it was definitely sequel-ready, but it would have been like Tony Stark spending 90 percent of 2008’s “Iron Man” in that cave.
WONDER WOMAN ’06
While the first glimpses of next year’s “Wonder Woman” look promising, for a long time fan hopes rested with Joss Whedon’s 2006 version of the Amazing Amazon. When Whedon climbed aboard the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the potential of his “WW” script became even more tantalizing. Whedon presents Diana almost as a force of nature, communing with animals both on Themyscira and in Gateway City. The story, which has a present-day timeframe, begins with Steve Trevor’s crash landing and includes an abbreviated trial-by-combat where Diana fights her mother for the right not just to return Steve, but to keep him alive. After a sequence in Albania (Steve’s an ex-airman who’s now part of a refugee-assistance group) where Diana fights a warlord, the action shifts to the international crossroads of Gateway City, and things start to get a bit creaky. The villains, a powerful female CEO named Callas and her supernatural ally Strife, are affiliated with the Spearhead corporation, headquartered in, yes, a spear-shaped skyscraper. Spearhead essentially has its finger on the world’s evil pulse, profiting on all sorts of ills.
Despite a salacious Amazon who wants to inspect Steve’s special area, the script’s heart is mostly in the right place. Its main strength is the Diana/Steve relationship, but it uses the Lasso of Truth to good effect, and Diana ends up recruiting one minor bad guy to her side. Nevertheless, Whedon (via Steve) paints Diana — only rarely is she “Wonder Woman” — as imposing her will, benevolent as it may be, on Gateway City. At the end of the second act, Steve goes off on her, accusing her in fairly vivid language of not having a real connection to man’s world, and therefore no real stake in the consequences of her actions. I wasn’t expecting mansplaining in a Wonder Woman story, but there it is.
Later, Diana agrees to be chained in order to save Steve from Strife, and spends a couple of scenes “humbled” in a remote jungle village. It’s not the most comforting thing to read, not least because Diana hasn’t really asked for a comeuppance; but of course it ends triumphantly. Now in full Wonder Woman regalia, Diana speeds back to Gateway and fights the Khimaera, a giant machine not unlike the Chitauri whale-things, as it rampages through the city. When it’s destroyed and Strife is dead, Ares himself appears, basically tells Diana they’ll be fighting in the sequel, and poofs away.
This would have made a pretty entertaining movie. It reduces the Amazons’ exile to a title card and skips the details of Diana’s birth entirely (we don’t know where she got her powers, or even if her abilities are unique among the Amazons). It makes Diana distinctly different from other superheroes, and Superman in particular. It’s got a good sense of humor: when a little girl tells Diana her cat’s stuck in a tree, she advises the kid to start climbing. It even works in the Invisible Jet. However, for various reasons it wasn’t made — according to Whedon, he was just told to stop working on it — and we’ll just have to wait a year to see how close Patty Jenkins and Gal Gadot came.
GREEN LANTERN ’06
The “Jack Black ‘Green Lantern’ movie” is a somewhat infamous bit of cinematic lore, embodying in four words all the dread fans feel about their favorite genre not being taken seriously. However, the script (by veteran comedy writer Robert Smigel, who among other things created the Ambiguously Gay Duo) works pretty well on its own terms. The problem is, those terms amount to a broad but loving parody of the GL mythology. Essentially, Abin Sur’s ring is drawn to one Jud Plato, a 30ish slacker in a thankless stockroom job, because it sees Jud on an extreme-eating reality show and figures he must be fearless. Jud’s best friend Seth is a comics fan who knows all the relevant lore (yellow impurity, 24-hour charge, etc.). For that matter, most people in the film have at least heard of Green Lantern, fueling a running gag about him being the eighth-to-tenth most famous superhero.
The film includes the Guardians of the Universe, who agree to monitor Jud. Before long he’s summoned to Oa, and meets assorted familiar Lanterns including Tomar-Re, Sinestro, Salakk, and Kilowog. They train him (using Muppets at one point to get more on his level) and send him back to Earth. Eventually, Sinestro becomes so disgusted with Jud that he wants to impose his (unintentionally comedic) sense of order on the planet, in order to protect it from “Emerald Dawn’s” Legion. After Sinestro’s defeat — which involves Jud being actually and somewhat convincingly heroic — Legion shows up in the form of a giant asteroid. Jud saves Earth by creating a power-ringed Superman to move the planet out of Legion’s way. Sinestro is banished to Qward, Katma-Tui becomes his successor, and Jud ends the movie “fixated” on her.
This sort of fidelity to the comics makes me wonder how the script would have been received if the main character were named Guy Gardner and the image of Jack Black hadn’t been associated with it so strongly. Smigel’s script is very reminiscent of the Keith Giffen/J.M. DeMatteis “Justice League International” style of comedy, and while this “GL” wouldn’t have been a tentpole franchise (or a DC Cinematic U building block), it could have done well with a general audience.
JUSTICE LEAGUE ’07
Officially titled “Justice League: Mortal,” the script (by Michele and Kieran Mulroney) opens with a superhero’s funeral. The identity of the deceased is a mystery, although anyone looking at this League’s lineup would probably be able to guess pretty quickly. The roll call includes Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern (John Stewart), Aquaman, Martian Manhunter and the Barry Allen Flash.
The plot is basically a mash-up of two relatively recent Justice League storylines, 2000’s “Tower of Babel” (in which Ra’s al Ghul steals Batman’s secrets for defeating his teammates) and 2006’s “Sacrifice” (part of “The OMAC Project” story, wherein Max Lord mind-controls Superman into beating Batman senseless, leading Wonder Woman to snap Max’s neck). Here, a scorned Talia steals the JLA Protocols for Max, who creates a giant OMAC robot, which Flash defeats at the cost of his own life. Brother Eye’s involved as well, and the superpowered Wally “Kid Flash” West does some legwork (no pun intended) for the team. As you might expect, it’s full of comics lore, including a trip to the Fortress of Solitude and a gaggle of Easter eggs. Everyone gets a spotlight, even Aquaman and J’onn. One big set piece pits a mind-controlled Superman against the rest of the team. Instead of Wonder Woman killing Max, though, Batman does it.
The climax of the script involves Max’s brain taking over Talia’s body and combining it with Brother Eye’s cybernetics. From there they can control all the people who’ve eaten food containing Max’s OMAC nanites. It’s an “Avengers”-style battle against hordes of OMAC troops. At the end the League says goodbye to Barry and welcomes Wally as the next Flash.
There doesn’t seem to be a simple answer for what stopped this “Justice League” film. Like “Superman Lives,” there’s a proposed documentary, but it’s waiting on permission from Warner Bros. “Mortal” would have been directed by “Mad Max’s” George Miller, and its big action scenes are even more tempting in light of “Fury Road”. However, with a cast of relative unknowns and a plot steeped in comics lore (Wally’s powers have virtually no explanation, and the average filmgoer wouldn’t have known Talia or Max Lord before “Dark Knight Rises” and “Supergirl”), it might have tried to do too much too quickly.
GREEN ARROW ’08
Justin Marks’ “Green Arrow: Escape From Supermax” script is similar to Andrew Kevin Walker’s “Batman vs. Superman” and “Justice League: Mortal” in that it introduces our hero well into his costumed career. From there it sends Green Arrow to the lowest point of that career, as he’s framed for murder, exposed as Oliver Queen, and sent to supervillain prison. There he has to break out and clear his name with the help of some of the bad guys he put away. It’s not a bad setup, and the idea of a computer-controlled structure which essentially reorganizes itself every night sounds like a challenge big enough for a longtime Justice Leaguer. The prospect of tying this into a larger DC Universe — by using other characters’ villains, like the Pied Piper, Icicle and Tattooed Man — was probably also enticing.
In execution, though, Marks’ script pays too much attention to those concerns and not enough to its headliner. The Green Arrow of 2008 wasn’t Stephen Amell‘s grim, driven urban avenger, just an aging crimefighter famous for left-wing politics and distinctive facial hair. “Supermax’s” Ollie has those, but little of the swashbuckling style that distinguished Green Arrow from Batman. Indeed, it wouldn’t take much to turn “Supermax” into a Batman-in-prison script. There are the requisite twists, turns and strange bedfellows, but it all ends up about like you’d expect. Besides, Warner Bros. has embraced the main elements of “Supermax” in more familiar ways, both with the “Arrow” series and the upcoming “Suicide Squad” film. All in all, “Supermax” has some neat ideas but can’t quite justify its own existence.
THE FLASH ’06-’11
The history of a big-screen “Flash” adaptation goes back to 2006 and David S. Goyer‘s take on both Barry Allen and Wally West. Goyer’s script starts with Barry as The Flash, an “urban legend” who’s stayed mostly unseen. However, while fighting the Turtle, Flash has to “go nova” to stop the villain from stealing his speed. He vanishes (as Wally watches), apparently for good. Despondent after Barry’s death, Wally gains super-speed while visiting the Flash’s memorial statue, and becomes the Flash in order to earn money from publicity stunts. All his friends (including Iris Allen, Tina McGee and Barry’s ex-partner Hunter Zolomon) want him to be less mercenary, and of course he does, starting by rescuing a crippled 747.
From there the plot thickens, as we learn that the Turtle has been giving super-speed to a new villain, Zoom, and three guesses who Zoom turns out to be. The Turtle captures Wally, who also “goes nova” and meets Barry in the Speed Force, where Barry sacrifices the last of his speed to get Wally home. Wally then fights Zoom (who’s already killed Turtle) in skirmishes across the globe, and kills him by overloading him with super-speed energy. If this sounds rather dark for a Flash film, you’re not alone. Goyer has described the experience as “frustrating” and the studio moved on.
In 2007, Chris Brancato delivered another Barry/Wally script. This one didn’t dwell so much on Barry as the Flash, but it did depict Wally as a reluctant, jaded hero. Barry dies during an accident that splashes Wally with chemicals, but Wally’s powers don’t activate until a lightning storm during which Iris dies. Having learned Barry’s secret from her, Wally becomes the Flash, whose speed is expressed frequently as a kind of teleportation-meets-time-manipulation. Communicating through the Speed Force, Barry trains Wally, who goes on to fight Vandal Savage, Weather Wizard and the rest of the Rogues’ Gallery as they try to destroy Keystone City. This version seemed have a little more humor, but deviated unnecessarily from the source material.
Finally, anticipating the success of 2011’s “Green Lantern” movie, WB turned to its writers Greg Berlanti, Michael Green and Marc Guggenheim. Their script will sound very familiar to anyone who’s seen the current “Flash” TV show, executive produced by Berlanti: a Barry Allen who works with a team of S.T.A.R. Labs scientists, a particle accelerator built by the legendary scientist Eobard Thawne and Barry having grown up with Iris West. Turns out Thawne comes from another reality where he’s the Flash’s number-one foe, so he came to this one to kill Barry’s mother and generally ruin his life before stealing his speed and returning home. Captain Cold (called just “Cold” here) is an ice-themed serial killer who dies during a Flash battle. Early in the script Flash disassembles a tornado, and at the climax does much the same to a black hole. A post-credits teaser has him meeting Ryan Reynolds’ Green Lantern.
It’s pretty easy to see where Warner Bros. went after “Green Lantern” tanked. Fortunately for the “Flash” TV series, Berlanti and company got a lot of their darker, grittier impulses out of the way with “Arrow,” leaving the Fastest Man Alive to be as bright and cheerful as a Silver Age comic.
Catch up with The Biggest Superhero Films That Didn’t Happen, Part 1
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