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Films of Steel: A review of Superman: Flyby (2002/2003)

In honor of the upcoming Superman reboot "Man of Steel" which I'm slowly being convinced may be better than I originally thought (despite my continued reservations about the suit) it got me thinking and digging into the Superman films of the past. Particularly the failed projects from 1987 to 2006. So I've picked some of the concepts that really piqued my interest and I've decided to just talk about them. Review them, just let people know what might have been or in some cases what should have been.

In the aftermath of Superman IV: the Quest for Peace; which despite it's well-intentioned message of nuclear disarmament failed critically and commercially, interest in Superman films seemed at an all time low. The Salkinds, the producers responsible for the first three Superman films, regained the rights from Cannon Films. They later sold the rights to Warner Bros. in 1993 who immediately began attempts to revitalize the franchise. I'll talk about some of these another time: especially Superman Lives and Superman and Batman.

But my first choice was one that's really latched onto my brain; and that is Superman: Flyby, as close as we got to a Superman film before Bryan Singer began work on Superman Returns. It was written by the mind behind Lost, Alias, and the director of great movies Star Trek and Super 8, J.J. Abrams. He's an extremely talented writer and director and I respect his work immensely and I can see what he was trying to do - revitalize Superman for modern audiences. This is tough because there are elements that I really like about the script but there are also a lot that just doesn't work. Allow me to elaborate...

Superman: Flyby starts of course on the planet Krypton - a planet besieged by civil war. This war is between the king of Krypton, Jor-El, and his tyrannical brother Kata-Zor. As it happens, Jor-El is on the losing side. Just as he and his wife are about to be captured, Jor-El and Lara place their infant son Kal-El into a rocket to be sent to Earth. No, Krypton doesn't blow up. At all.

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As has to happen Kal-El's ship lands on the Kent Farm where he is discovered by the kindly couple, Jonathan and Martha Kent. They decide to adopt the small innocent space baby as their own and name him Clark. We then see Clark's childhood and the progression of his abilities. Emphasis is placed on Clark's alienation and his fear of abusing his powers. Especially after Martha is almost raped by the Kents' landlord. A few years after that a 14 year old Clark discovers the Superman suit while searching for Christmas presents. In this universe the suit was contained in a football sized canister and is very much like the symbiote from Spider-Man: it starts as just this metallic liquid that wraps onto Clark. After finding the suit and learning to fly - albeit barely - his parents tell Clark his origins. It doesn't go over well and crushes any ounce of good feeling Clark has after finding the suit - which was a lot.

Back on the un-imploded Krypton - Lara is captured by Kata-Zor's soldiers. In order to find the location of Kal-El, whom he's been searching for desperately - Kata-Zor has his son Ty-Zor, kill Lara in front of Jor-El's eyes. Jor-El of course doesn't talk.

Soon enough we see Clark in college; where he we see that he's pretty extraordinarily wimpy. At a frat party he briefly meets a young (but still headstrong) Lois Lane; which inspires him to enter into professional journalism.

From there we move ahead a few more years - we finally meet Doctor Lex Luthor, here a CIA agent obsessed with UFO phenomenon. At a supposed alien crash site - Luthor discerns that the entire thing was a set up - well thought out and done by Lois Lane to expose the CIA's extensive spending on UFO hoaxes and projects, you get the idea.

After that, we finally go to the Daily Planet - we see Jimmy Olsen, Perry White, and finally see an all grown-up Clark Kent; the demigod of insecurity. Clark meets everyone; reintroduces himself to Lois before they head off to a press conference held by Luthor - who talks about how real-life UFO crashes have occurred and how the CIA and by extension the government view such occurrences as a viable threat. Luthor reveals that nine years previous a true UFO crashed and something was inside - something that left. (Dun. Dun. Dun.) Of course this causes Clark to freak out, just a little.

While Lois is off to interview the President on Air Force One - naturally this won't end well. Of course the plane begins to crash - but Clark, passed out on his bed in his apartment in Metropolis bolts into action after hearing of the emergency on the radio. He puts on the Super suit and flies into action. He saves Air Force One and chats up Lois briefly - once he returns to his apartment he does what Superman always does. Has an anxiety attack. What he doesn't know is that due to the rush of hearing of Clark's superheroic feat - Jonathan Kent suffers a fatal heart attack.

Back on the not-so doomed planet Krypton. Ty-Zor reveals to his creepy old man Kata-Zor that they've found Kal-El. Kata-Zor gives Ty-Zor the permission to go to Earth and kill his anxiety induced cousin.

After Jonathan Kent's funeral; Clark vows to never wear the suit again. While on the East Coast Lex Luthor is trying to convince his superiors to hunt down the mysterious stranger who saved the life of the President. They pretty much tell him to shut his face and live with it. Back at the Daily Planet Lois names the heroic stranger: Superman, due to the gigantic 'S' on his chest. Perry, being Perry, chastises Lois for not getting an interview. Back in Smallville, Clark learns that Jor-El himself had come to Earth and chosen the Kents to adopt his son. After a rousing speech by Martha; Clark dons the suit again and goes around the world solving crises.

Meanwhile, Luthor decides to go rogue with a couple of fellow hardcore UFO-nerd agents, and shows them the way to kill Superman - Kryptonite...just go with it. As this happens, Ty-Zor and four of his compatriots send a 'Rouser' (a twelve story tall, Kryptonian war robot) to Earth. Lois discovers Luthor's plan and before he can kill her - he disappears and continues to go rogue - killing some military people and snatching up some Kryptonite.

Clark returns to the Daily Planet just as Lois is getting fired - predominately for still not getting an interview with Superman. To save Lois' job, Clark dons the costume and pretty much strong arm's Perry into giving Lois her job back. As he leaves, we can see - people go nuts for Superman. Most of all Lois Lane; there is a very obvious attraction between them. They have the interview but Superman has not a single clue who he is or where he's from. So, it goes by fast and ends with kissing.

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The next day the Rouser lands in Washington D.C., naturally Superman and the Rouser duke it out in spectacular fashion. Just as Superman stops the Rouser, Luthor makes contact with Ty-Zor. Once he's defeated it, however, Superman sees that people now fear him. Just as Lois and company are going to arrest Luthor, Ty-Zor and his friends show up. It really doesn't end well. Just as Ty-Zor is about to kill Lois, Luthor stops him - apparently they've formed an alliance. Ty-Zor draws Superman to battle; where he and his friends pummel him with Kryptonian kung-fu skills. In a fight that ranges from Egypt, Paris, the Atlantic Ocean, Gotham City, and Cape Canaveral; Superman dies from Kryptonite poisoning while saving Lois' life...

Back on the un-shattered Krypton, Jor-El senses his son has died. Kata-Zor is elated and gifts Earth to Lex Luthor for his help in killing Superman.

On Earth they hold a massive funeral service for Superman; millions of mourners arrive at Arlington National Cemetery to pay their respects. While on Krypton, just as Kata-Zor is going to tell Jor-El the news; Jor-El commits ritualistic suicide. Jor-El and Superman meet in what is basically Kryptonian heaven where Jor-El explains that Superman is the "Chosen One" who will save Krypton from evil. You get the idea. Superman rises from the dead - now more prepped than ever and gets the governments of the world to work with him to stop Ty-Zor and his goons. It involves taking all the Kryptonite on Earth and using it against them.

Superman draws Ty-Zor and the others into a fight - this time having the same Kryptonian kung-fu magic that they have. The fight ends with fighter jets from over twenty nations firing Kryptonite laced rounds at the Kryptonians - the jets kill Ty-Zor's allies. Then we have the big confrontation - Superman vs. Ty-Zor. Before Superman is killed; Ty-Zor is incinerated by Kryptonite bombs. Just as Jor-El knew Kal-El died, Kata-Zor knows his son is dead - and he goes crazy.

Back in Metropolis; Superman shows up at the Daily Planet and has a chat with Lois. He explains that he's returning to Krypton in order to save it, but he will be back. They kiss - then Luthor shows up. Luthor reveals that the alien that went missing from the crashed UFO nine years ago...was him. (Double Dun-Dun-Dun). Superman and Luthor fight - Luthor loses. Just after Superman leaves Earth to go to Krypton Lois realizes his secret identity and we await for the sequel.

That's Superman: Flyby.

Like I said there are elements of it that I actually like. There is a great deal of humor injected into the characters, not too much but enough to make them enjoyable. I really respect Abrams thinking outside of the box; his ideas for Krypton were very intriguing. The fights were spectacular; big, bold, and had impact. The relationship between Superman and Lois was enjoyable to read; it had a very natural flow to it, and I'd have loved to have seen that make it to the screen. As much as I hate it; I like the idea of this Superman's suit, the execution is pretty poor however.

But the cons, sadly, outweigh the pros with this. Abrams thinking outside of the box also shot him in the foot. It's essential for Superman that Krypton blows up; that he knows where he came from. The notion of Superman being a "Chosen One" is unimaginative to say the least. I like the idea of Clark choosing his destiny; it makes more impact than it just being shoved in front of him. A lot of the characterizations are way off - particularly Perry White and Jimmy Olsen; Perry is really unlikable and Jimmy's sexual identity is put at the forefront constantly. His Superman is something of a jerk; like I mentioned he strong arm's Perry into giving Lois her job back; which isn't very Superman. My biggest characterization problem is with Clark Kent; he's made so insecure, so alienated, and lacks so much self-confidence it gets annoying; fast. It rings more puny Peter Parker than Clark Kent. Also the whole Lex being a Kryptonian is just...bizarre.

In all actual fact; the movie would work much better if it had nothing to do with Superman. It's a solid science fiction movie without him. Since this is a review I must pass a numeral judgement. So: as a Superman script I give it 4 out of 10. As a straight-forward sci-fi script it's a 8 out of 10. It has a lot of unique ideas, but not all of them work for the world of the Last Son of Krypton.

After Abrams submitted the script in 2002, Brett Ratner signed on to direct. Ratner dropped out in 2003, after the extensive difficulties with casting the film and his disagreements with producer Jon Peters (the giant spider guy). After Ratner had left, director McG (who was planning to make 'Superman and Batman') signed on.

Numerous actors and actresses were attached for various roles; Ralph Fiennes, Johnny Depp and even Robert Downy Jr. were in the running for Lex Luthor. Selma Blair and Scarlett Johansson for Lois Lane, at varying points. Anthony Hopkins for Jor-El. Shia LaBeouf was rumored for Jimmy Olsen. The biggest hurdle was the Man of Steel himself. There was a lot of talk of casting an unknown (as Donner had done in 1978) for the role. This was a sentiment endorsed by Christopher Reeve. But actors such as Josh Hartnett and Jude Law were in talks for the role, with Hartnett being offered a 100 million dollar deal for three Superman movies, but turned it down. Actors who auditioned and tested included Henry Cavill (yes that Henry Cavill), Brendan Fraser, Matthew Bomer, and Jared Padelacki (Sam Winchester from Supernatural, and my personal choice).

But in the end the production went un-casted; due to concerns regarding filming locations (McG wanted New York City to stand in for Metropolis while Warner wanted to use Sydney, Australia for example) and the budget. In the end, McG dropped out and Warner Bros. offered the Superman franchise to Bryan Singer which brings us to Superman Returns and the rest is history...

So that's it, next up I will over-review the aborted Superman Lives - why? Nicolas Cage as Superman. That's all I need to say.