Ever since Richard Donner first made audiences believe a man can fly with 1978’s “Superman,” fans have been dreaming of a day when the last son of Krypton could be portrayed onscreen in all his supersonic glory.
With any luck, this weekend’s release of “The Man of Steel,” starring Henry Cavill, could fulfill that dream.
But it’s only after a series of false starts, near misses and one overly nostalgic box-office dud.
In fact, “The Man of Steel” isn’t even the first time Cavill has been cast as the Big Blue Boy Scout.
Almost a decade ago, the 30-year-old British actor was attached to star in a version of Superman that would have been directed by McG (“Terminator Salvation”) based on a script by J.J. Abrams (“Star Trek Into Darkness,” the upcoming “Star Wars” sequel).
This pre-“Superman Returns” version of the character was far enough along that Cavill had even attended costume fittings.
Somewhat ironically, though, the entire production, titled “Superman: Flyby,” ended up getting shut down due, of all things, to the director’s fear of flying.
But “Flyby” is just one of several wildly different takes on the character that have almost come to fruition over the last 20 years.
For anyone who thinks Superman’s lack of red trunks in “Man of Steel” is an unforgivable departure from the comics, just check out what some of the biggest filmmakers in Hollywood have tried to do.
Here’s a rundown of the Superman movies audiences almost got to see.
Who: After original “Superman” producer Ilya Salkind gave up on making a fifth installment with Christopher Reeve, producer Jon Peters (1989’s “Batman”) bought up the rights, sensing huge merchandising potential. He hired TV writer Jonathan Lemkin to work on a script, which was later rewritten by Gregory Poirier.
What: Lemkin’s screenplay attempted to adapt the 1992 “Death of Superman” storyline, which saw the hero killed in battle by an alien named Doomsday (only to resurrect later on).
But Lemkin’s version made a few big changes: Just before Superman dies, his life force somehow jumps from his body into Lois Lane’s. This causes her to give birth after just a few days to a super-powered son who matures into adulthood within three weeks, becoming the new Superman and ultimately saving the world — but not before Lois is killed off.
In Poirier’s rewrite, which did away with the virgin birth, Superman’s powers are revealed to stem from a mental discipline known as “Phin-yar” — basically, a Kryptonian version of the Force. After resurrecting, he has to use a high-tech mechanical suit à la Iron Man until he’s able to relearn his abilities. Poirier also introduced the android Brainiac as the film’s arch-villain with Doomsday as one of his creations.
Who: With Peters still attached as producer, indie filmmaker Kevin Smith (“Clerks”) was hired to write an entirely new script. Tim Burton signed on as director with Nicolas Cage set to star. Burton also brought in Wesley Strick, one of his “Batman Returns” scribes, to do yet another major rewrite (although not the last).
What: “Superman Lives” has become legendary as one of the biggest near-train wrecks in comic movie history.
According to Smith, he was hired on three conditions: First, Superman had to wear an all-black costume; second, Superman couldn’t be seen flying; and third, the movie’s final act had to include a battle with a giant spider.
And it only gets stranger from there.
Burton’s film would have seen Superman facing off not only against Doomsday and Brainiac, but also Lex Luthor — as well as a two-headed Luthor/Brainiac hybrid called Lexiac.
And once again, the finale would have involved Superman wearing a sentient robotic costume, this time with a detachable “S” emblem (“S” for “science,” according to one draft) that could be used as a blade weapon.
He also had miniature “S” emblems that he threw like batarangs, and on Peters’ request, Brainiac was given a robotic sidekick.
Leaked concept art and production photos of Cage in costume occasionally pop up on the Internet, reminding fans just how narrow a miss “Superman Lives” really was.
“Batman vs. Superman”
Who: Academy Award-winning writer Akiva Goldsman (“A Beautiful Mind”), who also wrote 1997’s abysmal “Batman & Robin,” was tapped to do a rewrite of a script by Andrew Kevin Walker with Wolfgang Petersen (“Troy”) attached to direct. Everyone from Matt Damon, Colin Farrell, James Franco and Jude Law were rumored for either of the two lead roles.
What: Completely ditching the “Death of Superman” arc, “Batman vs. Superman” pit the two heroes against each other before finally having them team up to face Lex Luthor.
The story saw both characters after significant turning points in their lives. Clark Kent had recently divorced Lois Lane, and Bruce Wayne was recovering from the deaths of Alfred, Robin and Commissioner Gordon.
With separate, standalone Superman and Batman projects being developed at the same time, however, Warner Bros. ultimately decided against a team-up, which opened the door for 2005’s “Batman Begins.”
Who: At one point, Brett Ratner (“X-Men: The Last Stand”) was attached to direct Abrams’ script with offers out to Paul Walker and Ashton Kutcher to star. The job eventually went to McG, who preferred to hire a relative unknown like Cavill.
What: Although still not as zany as “Superman Lives,” Abrams’ script has earned its fair share of scorn among fans for its wholesale changes to the Superman mythos.
In “Flyby,” Superman’s home planet of Krypton isn’t destroyed, but ravaged by civil war. His parents aren’t dead (at least not for a while), and he’s actually sent to Earth to fulfill a prophecy before returning to Krypton at the end of the movie.
Lex Luthor receives a major revamp, as well, becoming a UFO-hunting CIA agent who, in a particularly maligned third-act reveal, turns out to be a Kryptonian spy.
The script’s other villains are a small army of Kryptonian soldiers led by Superman’s evil cousin Ty-Zor.
Oh, and Superman and the rest of the Kryptonians fight in midair with super-powered kung fu like characters from “Dragonball Z.”
Untitled Superman trilogy
Who: After the disappointing box office of Bryan Singer’s “Superman Returns” in 2006, comic writer Mark Millar (“Superman: Red Son”) and director Matthew Vaughan (“X-Men: First Class”) approached Warner Bros. with their own pitch.
What: Millar described his vision for the character as the “Magnum Opus of Superman stories” — an eight-hour saga released in three installments, each a year apart.
"It's gonna be like Michael Corleone in the ‘Godfather’ films, the entire story from beginning to end, you see where he starts, how he becomes who he becomes, and where that takes him,” Millar told Empire in a 2008 interview.
"I want to start on Krypton, a thousand years ago, and end with Superman alone on Planet Earth, the last being left on the planet, as the yellow sun turns red and starts to supernova, and he loses his powers."
Ultimately, according to Millar, Warner Bros. rejected his pitch on the grounds that he was too strongly associated with Marvel Comics, DC’s archrival.
A native of Utah Valley and a devoted cinephile, Jeff Peterson is currently studying humanities and history at Brigham Young University.