Is it a Bird, is it a Plane, No! It’s Superman: Flyby!: J.J. Abrams Reflects on a Superman that Never Was

Few franchises have as many stalled entries in them as Superman (apart perhaps from Batman, but at least the Caped Crusader never spent 19 years out in the cold as Superman did between Superman IV: The Quest for Peace and 2006’s Superman Returns).

Among the tombstones of these abortive projects – which include Kevin Smith’s infamous Superman Lives, which featured a giant mechanical spider foistered on him by producer Jon Peters – was recent Star Trek director and cult TV creator J.J. AbramsSuperman: Flyby, the treatment for which leaked earlier this week after a decade in the trashcan.

In the May 2013 edition of Empire Magazine (no, we’re not time travellers – they just have a habit of getting ahead of themselves), Abrams had this to say about  the direction in which he would taken the Superman franchise:

 “The thing that I tried to emphasise in the story was that if the Kents found this boy, Kal-El, who had the power that he did, he would have most likely killed them both in short order, and the idea that these parents would see – if they were lucky to survive long enough – that they had to immediately begin teaching this kid to limit himself and to not be so fast, not be so strong, not be so powerful. The result of that, psychologically, would be fear of oneself, self-doubt and being ashamed of what you were capable of. Extrapolating that to adulthood became a fascinating psychological profile of someone who was not pretending to be Clark Kent, but who was Clark Kent. Who had become that kind of a character who is not able or willing to accept who he was and what his destiny was. The idea in the movie was that he became Superman because he realised he had to finally own his strength and what he’d always been. I don’t know if that’s what Zack [Snyder] and Chris [Nolan] are doing, but it looks like that’s part of the idea and I could not be more thrilled to see that movie. That to me was always the way to go.”

Apart from the generic title, Superman: Flyby sounds like it might have been a halfway decent version of The Last Son of Krypton, at least based on Abrams’ description. As with Zack Snyder’s upcoming adaptation, Man of Steel, which Abrams mentions in the above interview, the focus here seems to on the psychology of Superman, how being the world’s most powerful being might well lead to some severe neuroses.

Personally, I’ve always been a bigger fan of Abrams’ production than his direction, which I feel – lens flare aside – sometimes lacks personality. No one, for better or worse, could ever accuse Snyder of this: his glossy, music video visuals and heavy reliance of slo-mo have been equally panned as applauded.

The question Superman: Flyby would seem to ask is a different but no less interesting one from that highlighted in the trailers for Man of Steel: namely Clark/Superman’s choice to embrace his destiny or try to live a normal life vs. his inevitable use of his power, either as savior or as tyrant.

In the latter case, Zod is the logical choice of villain, representing, as he does, the dark path along which Superman may choose to tread, with his long-dead biological father, Jor-El, trying to lure him towards the light; Kevin Costner’s Pa Kent is the sole advocate of Clark’s ability to make his own choice. More so even than Christopher Reeves’ iconic first appearance in the role, both Abrams’ and Snyder’s stories would seem to be about Superman coming into himself, which, for a reboot, is no bad thing.

We could have done without – and hopefully will be going without – the non-destruction of Krypton (in terms of origin stories, might as well go with the non-death of Batman’s parents), not to mention the revelation of Lex Luthor’s alien identity and Superman’s knowledge of martial arts. Oh, and both Brett-X-Men: Last Stand-Ratner and Mc-Charlie’s Angels-G were, at different points, onboard to direct. In retrospect, we’ll take Bryan Singer’s flawed but solid Superman Returns.

Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel is due out on June 14th, 2013.

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Robert Wallis

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