Wednesday, June 2, 2021

Inside that big Steel reveal on SUPERMAN & LOIS

Most of you know I've spent the last year-plus as the writers' assistant on season 1 of SUPERMAN & LOIS. Last week, our seventh episode "Man of Steel," was built around a reveal that I've spent over a year terrified would leak early - that the man addressed by his armor as "Captain Luthor" was actually John Henry Irons from another Earth.

Superman fans will recognize John Henry Irons as the hero who becomes Steel, first introduced as a replacement Superman back in the REIGN OF THE SUPERMEN story in 1993. Thus far, the character's only live action appearance has been in the 1997 Shaquille O'Neal movie STEEL, but he's long been a fan favorite in the comics. His arrival on the show was a big deal. Just check out some of these reaction videos (conveniently queued up to the moment just before the big reveals.):

I was extra giddy to see these reactions and to watch our fans on Twitter completely lose their minds for the twist during the East Coast feed. The reason for that is... revealing "Luthor" as Steel was MY pitch.

A little SUPERMAN & LOIS behind the scenes. When we first met as a room in late February 2020, I walked in with a list of about 15 characters I hoped we could use. I've spoken many times before about being a Superman fan and even more specifically, a fan of the REIGN OF THE SUPERMEN, so it's probably not a surprise that I came in hoping to introduce elements from the Post-Crisis comics I devoured as a kid.

When I saw the deck of characters already approved for us to pull from, three of my biggest hopes were on there. I remember staff writer Jai Jamison got VERY excited when he saw Steel was on the list of people we could use, if so inclined. I remember thinking, "If I don't get a good Steel pitch in soon, this guy's gonna get there first!"

Early on, the room was tasked with figuring out the backstory and motivations of the character known in the pilot as The Stranger. His dialogue suggested a knowledge of the multiverse and likely some kind of connection to CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS. His armor also addressed him as Captain Luthor, but beyond that, nothing was set in stone. We brainstormed a number of pitches and motivations, but nothing really seemed to stick. I tossed out the idea that, "What if he's a Luthor from a world where Superman is evil and Luthor is the only hero?"

If you're a comic book fan, you'll recognize that as a premise that originated in storylines from the mid-60s, where the JLA explored Earth-3, a world where all their counterparts were evil. This shift to making "Captain Luthor" less of a villain and more of an antagonist or an anti-hero seemed to open up a lot of doors and the staff latched onto this idea.

I do not remember if I also pitched the fact that that Earth's version of Luthor was married to Lois Lane. I have a vague sense that once we started discussing alt-universal possibilities, someone else came up with that independently. With this backstory being developed, we set out to do some broad sketches of the first several episodes and start to fill in how we'd use all of the characters.

For about six weeks or so, the Stranger really was Alex Luthor, a good Luthor on an Earth with an evil Superman. The more we filled out how we were gonna use this guy, and how he was going to interact with Lois, the more it became clear that while he presented as an antagonist, he had a very empathetic, honorable storyline, and that his trajectory was more akin to an eventual ally than a recurring foe.

Then it hit me. On April 10, 2020, I sent our Co-EP Brent Fletcher my pitch, wanting to test the waters with him before going to our showrunner Todd Helbing with an idea that could upend what we'd been talking about. I proposed we reveal Alex Luthor was actually Steel. Brent got back to me almost immediately. He loved it. He told me either he'd tee me up to pitch it to Todd, or if he saw an opening, he'd pitch it to Todd himself and credit me. 

The latter scenario ended up being how it played out. A couple days later, Todd came into the writers' Zoom room and said, "I think it's fucking awesome. We're gonna do it!"

At this point in the season, we were still breaking the third episode and the script for the second episode had yet to be written. With a big reveal like this, it's not uncommon for the creators to be asked, "When did you know? When did you decide?" So just to be clear about this: every script after the pilot was written with the knowledge that the Stranger was actually another world's John Henry Irons.

My understanding is that Todd Helbing eventually let our Stranger actor, Wolé Parks, in on the secret in June 2020. We didn't start filming until October 2020, so Wolé had plenty of time to prepare. I'm not aware of if any of the main cast knew before they received the script to 107, so I can't speak to their reactions.

So when I say we had to keep this secret a long time, I mean we had to keep this secret a LONG time.

Amazingly, aside from the occasional odd guess here and there, it remained a completely hidden twist until last week. Writing TV for the online age comes with a lot of hazards. Between Twitter, Reddit and other places for fans to congregate, writers now have to outsmart an entire collective. It often feels like if one person figures out a secret, the entire group mind now knows it. I'm delighted we were able to blindside a ton of the audience.

Another great joy of this was that once we settled on the Steel reveal, Jai Jamison lobbied hard to get the big John Henry Irons episode. In an Entertainment Weekly interview, Jai recalled, "I just got so excited. Todd will tell you, I spent so much time thinking about John Henry's Earth and background. I came in one day and was like, 'and then all this happened and then this happened, and then this.' And we're not going to see any of it, but…"

Todd interjected, "It's funny because Jai came in one day [after] emailing me [with] just a machine gun of ideas. And I was like, 'Dude, don't take this the wrong way, just pump the brakes a second. We got to slow down just a second. I haven't had this many ideas thrown…' No, but it was awesome, because you want the staff, everybody, to be that enthusiastic about it. So it was fantastic."

I have deeply enjoyed working with the staff this season and that interview, as well as every other interview surrounding it, demonstrates the caliber of people I'm working with. Just look at this exchange in full:

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Let's start with you, Todd. How early in the development process did you know the Stranger would actually be John Henry Irons?

TODD HELBING: It was a little bit of a problem. We knew from day one that we just didn't want to do a classic villain. We wanted to do something cool with Luthor. And then it was pretty early on where it was pitched by our writers' assistant, Adam Mallinger, that we should make him Steel. I mean, that was really early on. And I can't remember when I called you, Wolé. That was in like June or something, right?

WOLÉ PARKS: Yeah, it was like June or July. Or something like that.

HELBING: But it was just one of those pitches where you're like, "Oh my God, this just takes it to a different level! And then we can do Nat, and we can just expand this family." And it was just one thing after the other. And then the story got so much richer and deeper.

In all my years of reading about TV, I can't think of too many instances where a showrunner went out of his way to credit an idea to a writers' assistant - BY NAME - in a national publication. To say I was incredibly touched that Todd did so doesn't begin to convey my gratitude.

Jai also dropped my name in virtually every interview he did about his episode. Those are the kind of stand-up people I've been working with and hope to continue to work with for a very long time. I didn't expect them to go the extra mile and it was even more rewarding as a result.

There are some rooms where the writers assistants aren't even allowed to contribute, so to be in a room where I was encouraged to speak up, heard when I pitched a good idea, and then singled out as the person who had the initial pitch is incredibly rare. It was a highlight of this year, and probably will remain a highlight of my career.

The entire staff had their hands in the Steel storyline and in each episode. It was a delight to work with them and a real thrill to make a contribution to screen Superman canon.

No comments:

Post a Comment