This weekend, "Man of Steel" finally takes flight. An ambitious, massively expensive project devised by "The Dark Knight" director Christopher Nolan (serving in a story writer/producer role), writer David S. Goyer, and directed by "Watchmen" filmmaker Zack Snyder, the film, while flawed, is an epic rejuvenation of the Superman mythos, encapsulating everything from the destruction of Krypton to the very human feelings of isolation and dread on Earth (you can read our non-spoilery review here).
This version of the Superman movie has formally been in development since 2010, when Snyder signed on to direct (beating out Darren Aronofsky), and it's something of a miracle the movie happened at all, considering the amount of failed attempts at making Superman fly over the years. You don't let a property and potentially lucrative brand like Superman, the lodestone of super hero films sit idle on a shelf, but Warner Bros. were forced to do this for years after "Superman IV: The Quest For Peace" nearly destroyed the franchise. As comic-book movies were finally coming into their own in their early aughts ("X2" was 2003, "Batman Begins" was 2005), Warner Bros. got back in the game with "Superman Returns," Bryan Singer's romantic, very respectful of the Superman-film cannon movie that did decently at the box-office, but didn't connect enough to spawn a franchise. But even before this maligned picture -- a little too safe and familiar with the Superman origin (aside from the kid thing) -- there were several aborted attempts to bring Superman to the screen. Warner Bros. clearly didn't know what they wanted outside of some kind of Superman film, so they developed a ton of ideas that in retrospect, seem ludicrous. Many were "of the time" and definitely foolhardy and could have damaged the brand even more, but they are interesting curiosities and what-might-have-been scenarios in the history of would-be Superman movies.
Read on to find out the one thing that stops a man who can leap tall buildings with a single bound: the arduous, overly-labored Hollywood development process. Though in several cases, we dodged a bullet, pardon the pun.
Perhaps the most infamously tortured iteration was the attempted Superman project that began in 1996, following a detailed outline submitted by former indie darling Kevin Smith. As detailed in a hilarious monologue that accompanied one of his lecture tours, Smith half-jokingly speculates that Warner Bros. initially approached him about the project because they had seen his previous film, "Mallrats," in which two characters discuss a Kryptonite condom. Unhappy with a previous version of the script by Jonathan Lemkin called "Superman Reborn" (more on this in a minute), which Smith described as like a "Batman TV show version of Superman, very campy," the filmmaker set about on writing his own script, this one eventually called "Superman Lives." Where Smith became disheartened was during his dealings with clueless super-producer Jon Peters, who made a number of insane requests, like having Superman "lose the cape" (Peters, a former hairdresser, described it to Smith as being "too faggy"), giving the Fortress of Solitude robotic bodyguards (to which Smith replied: "Why would Superman need bodyguards?"), and having Superman, in the climax, battle a giant spider. (Hilariously, years later Peters would recycle that last idea for his big screen version of the classic TV series "Wild Wild West," much to Smith's shock and horror.)
Tim Burton signed onto the project after Smith submitted his second draft, supposedly seeking a surefire hit following the disastrous response to "Mars Attacks!" (According to Smith, he was the one who initially suggested Burton, and Burton almost signed on to "Scooby Doo" instead.) Peters and the studio had assured Smith that he would stay on as the sole writer on the project, saying that they wouldn't hire "one of these MTV guys" and that he would be able to pen multiple drafts throughout production, but, as Smith notes, "As soon as they hired Tim Burton, that went out the fucking window." Burton hired Wesley Strick, who had worked on Burton's "Batman Returns," to rewrite Smith's talky draft and began assembling a core creative team that included production designer and frequent collaborator Rick Heinrichs, visual effects house Industrial Light & Magic (who had just done impressive work on "Mars Attacks!") and, in the lead role of Superman/Clark Kent, Nic Cage, who Peters stressed (in "Hit and Run," Nancy Griffin and Kim Masters' definitive history of Peters' brief time running Sony) "could convince audiences he came from outer space." Burton signed a $5 million pay-or-play deal, meaning he would get the money even if the movie was never made, while Cage (an outspoken comic book fanatic) signed a similar deal, this time for a whopping $20 million.
Strick completely overhauled Smith's script, which was surprisingly emotionally resonant (one of its more famous set pieces involved Superman and Lois having a heart-to-heart atop Mount Rushmore) and featured Braniac sending Doomsday to kill Superman, in an adaptation of the best-selling "Death of Superman" comic. The script was full of nerdy comic book miscellanea like the inclusion of The Eradicator, a somewhat obscure character (an "artifact from Krypton") created in the late '80s (utilized in the script to help resurrect Superman), and Smith's referral to Superman, at different points in the script, as The Man of Steel, the Man of Tomorrow and Kal el. In Strick's draft, Lex Luthor and Braniac somehow become a single entity referred to in the script as "Lexiac," with Superman brooding about his outsider status (a must for any Burton project) and eventually being killed by the villain.
While Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, was chosen as the primary shooting location (to double for the mythological Metropolis), design work continued, with Peters emphasizing the toy-selling possibilities of the new movie. The studio became unhappy with how expensive the project was turning out to be, so they hired Dan Gilroy to bring the movie in at a more manageable scale. His two drafts turned off Tim Burton, who by that point had designed a new Superman suit that pulsated with colored lights (seriously), and in April of 1998, months before the movie was originally slated to hit theaters, and just shy of the character's 60th anniversary, the project was shelved. Burton left to do "Sleepy Hollow" and, armed with Gilroy's draft, the project went out to other directors, all of whom passed, and a year later William Wisher Jr. (of "Terminator 2" fame) completed a new draft that retained a lot of the "Death of Superman" stuff. In 2000, Cage left the project too. A year later Paul Attanasio, who wrote "Disclosure" and "Donnie Brasco," was paid $1.7 million for what most assume was an entirely new draft, entitled "Superman: Destruction." This too was universally ignored.
In 2002, attempts at turning the "Death of Superman" comic into a big screen adventure were put aside. J.J. Abrams, then a dazzling young writer of prime time fiction, came on board to write a jazzed-up origin story that would reinvent a tired franchise (sound familiar?). Abrams script, which was subsequently leaked and savaged on nerd site Ain't It Cool (whose withering review paraphrased the original film's ad campaign by taunting, "You will believe a franchise can suck!"), involved the evil twin of Superman's father, a fully intact Krypton, and Lex Luxor recast from a billionaire land developer villain to a CIA agent obsessed with UFO phenomena who has potentially otherworldly origins himself…
"Rush Hour" director Brett Ratner became attached in 2002, with a 2004 release date loosely scheduled. While a number of actors came close to signing on to the title role, with Josh Hartnett offered $100 million for three films (Ratner envisioned the movie as the beginning of a trilogy which he would direct). The next spring, citing difficulties with casting and – shocker! – difficulty working with Jon Peters, Ratner left the project. McG, who had flirted with an earlier version of the movie, returned. McG busily began overhauling "Flyby," installing Josh Schwartz, the wunderkind behind the McG-produced television series "The OC," to rewrite Abrams' script and instructing Stan Winston to construct a prototype suit (a thread throughout all of these abandoned Superman projects seems to be that they always built a suit; if you want your version to succeed, don't make a suit). Intriguingly, Henry Cavill, who plays Superman in "Man of Steel," auditioned for the role back during the McG era, and according to some was the next in line for the red-and-blue cape. Sadly, the project fell apart in 2004 when the studio insisted that the movie be shot in Australia (where they had just made the two "Matrix" sequels back-to-back) and McG, who has a crippling fear of flying, bowed out of his commitment and went on to do "Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle" instead. He was replaced with Bryan Singer and the whole movie took on an entirely new life of its own. Singer's take on the Superman mythology involved returning to the world Richard Donner had established in the first two "Superman" movies. His "Superman Returns" would open in 2006. For some of the early iterations of "Flyby," Ashton Kutcher was considered for Superman, and Scarlett Johansson was up for Lois Lane. Shia LaBeouf could have played Jimmy Olsen and Johnny Depp was thought about for Lex Luthor. Imagine that?