Script Review: Lobo by Jerrold E. Brown

lobo123UPDATE: Revised introduction/history section. Thanks to Angel Dean Lopez for clarifying my errors, and for being such a good sport!

The 90s were a particularly strange time in comics. A time of violent anti-heroes and jagged, spiked, Rob Liefeld-illustrated pencils. Lobo, created by Keith Giffen and Roger Slifer, was one such colorfully violent character, a charming, frag-the-world kind of guy, the perfect cult icon of the decade. Giffen says he designed the character as a critique of violent, law-bending characters like Wolverine and the Punisher. “And somehow,” Giffen says, “he caught on as the high-violence poster boy. Go figure.”

With this inexplicable catching-on spurred the film division of parent company Warner Brothers and writer/producer Angel Dean Lopez to quietly express interest in developing Lobo for the big screen, backed by legendary Lethal Weapon producer Joel Silver, and later not-so-legendary producer/writer of pretty much every terrible DC Comics adaptation, Akiva Goldsman. Two drafts of the script were written by Lopez himself before he departed the project, leaving writer Jerrold E. Brown to step in and pen a new draft, which was presumably shelved following the failure of Batman & Robin.

In the months that followed, WB approached Giffen himself to write a Superman vs. Lobo movie, which was passed on after the writer submitted his treatment. “They don’t know what to do with it,” Giffen commented in the pages of Superman vs. Hollywood. “Believe me, I’ve read some of the scripts and oh, my god, they’re horrifying.” Only in 2009 did buzz finally begin to pick up again, when Warner officially announced development on a Lobo film. Brown’s script was unshelved, dusted off, and rewritten by Don Payne, a draft which changed hands over the next three years from directors Guy Ritchie (Snatch) to Brad Peyton (Journey 2: The Mysterious Island), the latter of whom rewrote with a mind for Dwayne The Rock Johnson to star, a not altogether terrible choice.

What didn’t change, and what WAS altogether terrible was each subsequent draft. Seemingly nobody could make compelling the dull, cookie-cutter template of Lobo coming to Earth, meeting a young girl, and fighting off a band of alien criminals all on Earth in a decidedly neutered PG-13 context. Not only did the fish-out-of-water concept feel as dated as its protagonist, but by 2009, the overly-safe approach to such a C-list character simply stuck out like a sore thumb in a world where big, bold, creative godsends like The Dark Knight and Iron Man existed. The game had changed, and Lobo was too rooted in yesteryear to be salvaged.

In years since, the separation of producer Silver and WB, as well as recent comments from Johnson, it seems a Lobo film has all but completely faded away. Few fragments of the production remain, but script collectors know well this lone leaked draft, the second of Jerrold E. Brown’s, dated May 13th, 1998. And “horrifying” doesn’t even begin to describe it.

Brown’s script opens with an alien prison carrier slowly floating through space, somehow labeled as “TRANTOR MAXIMUM SECURITY PRISON” in perfect English. As we cut to the inside, Brown writes, “The technology is impressive, but prison is prison. It’s dark and dismal, just like prison should be.” Way to paint a picture, Brown. Is it also filled with prisoners like a prison? Maybe there are armed guards walking around like in a prison? I’d like to see how Brown fares writing poetry.

“Um, there’s a field of flowers. They’re…uh…beautiful, like flowers should be.”

We meet prisoner Armand Throke, a supercriminal quietly building a makeshift gun in his cell. A guard robot approaches to confirm that he has information on a planned prison escape. Throke tells the robot warden he’s the one who plans to escape, and does so by shooting the gun he made at the robot, for some reason described in heavy detail followed by “(Got that? Good).” One by one, we are then introduced to our supporting antagonists, all aliens with different sets of powers, including one made completely of water/ice. I’m getting a strong Ghost Rider vibe from this, which can’t be a good sign. So the criminals ditch the prison ship into a nearby sun and make their escape.

MEANWHILE AT THE HALL OF JUSTICE (no, really)…

INT. IMPERIAL HALL OF JUSTICE – CORRIDOR

An alien named Cardoon and another drone determine that the escapees will be heading for Earth to steal a Drell, a dangerous and powerful weapon hidden on the planet 3,000 years ago. This sequence lulled me into a false sense of security, because I was imagining a largely alien world with some cool, Rick Baker-designed, Men in Black-esque effects for the aliens. The robot magistrate wants to destroy Earth altogether to prevent the criminals from getting ahold of the Drell, but after Cardoon pleads them not to, the two parties eventually agree to release the captive Lobo, a bounty hunter, whom they will hire to capture the escapees on Earth within 24 hours, or else Earth will be destroyed. It’s here that it seems as though the script is starting to really pick up, when in fact it is exactly the opposite.

We cut to…oh god.

INT. SOUND STAGE – THE JERRY SPRINGER SHOW – DAY

No.

Where a crowd is going wild for that scrape-the-bottom-andgive-
everybody-a-taste showman of showmen, JERRY SPRINGER.
He waves to his loyal market share.

Goddamnit.

*Sigh* So…fucking Jerry Springer is interviewing Emily Urgess, a 30-year-old who believes she’s the ambassador for all alien life on Earth and is currently putting out a new book based on her…theories. If this is to be our female lead, it’s an absolutely terrible way of establishing her, because we don’t know what to think about her. Is she crazy? Attention-whorish? A liar? The female equivalent of Randy Quaid in Independence Day? For that matter, would anyone, even a crazy person (so…Randy Quaid) really consider the Springer show to be the best outlet for what they’re trying to pass off as serious information? That’s all aside from the fact that this script sticks Jerry Springer in a damn comic book movie, an obvious and idiotic pandering to the mainstream. Next.

Elsewhere in the galaxy, we watch as a legion of troops blow open a heavily barred cell containing Lobo, described exactly as he looks in the comics, cigar-smoking and all. After a mildly amusing exchange with Cardoon, Lobo agrees to the terms outlined above as long as his bounty hunting license is restored and his bike returned. “Anything else?” asks Cardoon. “Nope,” replies Lobo. I liked this bit, even if it did yet again fool me into thinking this script might have some merit to it.

We cut back to Emily speeding down the road on the phone with her agent. Do all people appearing on the Springer show have agents? He tells her her publishers want to meet with her to exchange notes, and describes her as, “on a roll.” Yes, because everyone knows that an appearance on Springer means you’re “on a roll” and someone to be taken seriously. How exactly is she being taken seriously again? Then again, how are the Kardashians, or the cast of Jersey Shore? But I digress. Emily doesn’t want the publishers to compromise her material, but the threat of going back to writing about fires and dogs or something jars her out of it. “Baby wants a new Porche” she says. Our heroine, ladies and gentlemen.

This brings us to the first big problem with this script – the Earth scenes suck. It’s just too jarring a contrast to the comic-y alien world of the comics, which doesn’t see a lot of screentime for what are clearly budgetary concerns. Remember how Green Lantern featured Van Wilder in space for all of ten minutes? Good to know some things don’t change.

Lobo and Cardoon argue over who Lobo gets to kill, ending with Lobo blasting off towards Earth on his bike. Then we get this diddy:

Lobo doesn’t wear any kind of space suit, so he
should freeze, suffocate and his head should explode. But
none of these things happens. Even his cigar doesn’t go out.

Thanks for the science lesson, Dr. Dipshit. It’s a fucking comic book. If Lobo can survive travelling through space without a suit, then just show that and move on. Drawing attention to it is just gonna make executives scratch their heads even more. How about instead just, “Lobo blasts off towards Earth on a flying motorcycle with no space suit, because that’s just how Lobo rolls.”

Emily meets with the executives and refuses to take their notes. The executives tell her, quite rightly, that she’s a fake and her books are garbage, “spoon-fed crap” put out there just to make money. Oh, sweet, sweet irony. She replies that her book is supposed to be serious, and that she doesn’t want to, “appeal to the lowest common denominator.” Yes, this lying, cheating con artist who claims aliens are real just wants to be taken seriously!

Armand Assante and the alien escapees reach Earth and immediately kill an innocent hobo by ripping out his brain, because apparently Armand can, “alter his molecular density at will.” The scene plays like a more cartoony version of, “So this is Planet Hooston!”, which I honestly didn’t think was possible until now. One of the aliens, named Volarian, uses her power and sucks the life force out of one of the cops that drive up to the scene. The rest of the cops open fire, and Calysto, the water/ice alien, drowns one of them by engulfing him in water. The rest of the police get similarly destroyed. Nearby, Emily watches in horror as all this unfolds, and after being discovered by the aliens, gets thrown and knocked out against a brick wall.

The clichés continue when Lobo touches down and rides through the streets on his bike. The cops, apparently unaware that several of their units just got annihilated by aliens across town, give chase. They pull up alongside Lobo and yell at him to pull over, to which Lobo responds by casually jamming his hand through the hood of their car and yanking out the engine before speeding away. This might be an amusing scene if the dialogue didn’t completely ruin it. It’s the kind of audience-winking dialogue you’d expect from such a scene, where both cops look at each other incredulously, mouths agape. Brown might as well have typed, “LOOK HOW ABSURD THIS ALL IS!! HAW HAW HAW!!”

Emily wakes up and finds Lobo surveying the scene. After retrieving Armand’s discarded neck collar, Lobo interrogates her and she says she doesn’t know anything. She asks, “Who are you people?” Lobo tips his sunglasses to reveal his glowing red eyes and replies, “We’re aliens.” Uh, wouldn’t only people from Earth actually call them that? To Lobo, wouldn’t Emily and the rest of humanity be the aliens? For that matter, how the hell is Lobo speaking English?

So Emily is discovered by the cops and taken into an interrogation room. The cops don’t believe Emily’s story because of, you know, her being a pathological liar and all. Emily is locked away in a cell. I really, really hope she stays there for the duration of the script. Meanwhile, Lobo visits a bar and, when he doesn’t have Earth cash to pay for his drinks with, the bartender points the barrel of a .45 at him, which Lobo promptly takes a bite out of. It’s moments like this that illustrate just how jarring this Earth setting really is. This script is essentially treating Lobo like a Looney Toons character in the real world, a contrast which doesn’t even work for the Looney Toons characters themselves.

Oh, how I hate thee.

Anyway, Lobo overhears on TV that Emily, the “ambassador for aliens,” is being held at the prison and, thinking she’s the Earth-authority he’s meant to contact, goes to see her. Specifically, he breaks her out of jail nonchalantly, to the tune of several misspellings of “your” with “you’re.” Emily says she doesn’t want to ride on his motorcycle because they have a “high mortality rate.” Yes, the motorcycle is the least of your problems lady. Oh, and while being carried out of prison by Lobo, she comes out and admits she’s a liar. So, even less sympathy for her than if she was just batshit crazy. And now on top of that, she’s a prude when it comes to motorcycles. Why, the waiting line to audition for this role must’ve stretched well around the block! Haha, just kidding. There’s no way this piece of shit would ever even get near the casting stage.

So while the alien fugitives butt heads and start collecting supplies that they need to bust open the portal containing the Drell at a place called the Heads of Boro (I don’t know, just go with it), Lobo and Emily speed away in a police cruiser Lobo steals. Here, Lobo finally explains the lack of a language barrier, albeit flimsily, passing it off as a “weird coincidence.” Admittedly, Lobo does get in a few funny lines. Emily reads through a list of the escaped prisoners and discovers one of them is a machine, wondering why anyone would bother locking up a machine when they could just reprogram it. “Where’s the fun in that?” Lobo replies. Right, there’s a galaxy filled with countless super-criminals hell-bent on the destruction of worlds, and they’re using cell space for robots they could just reprogram because it’s “fun.” Oh, Brown. Even you know this script makes no sense.

Emily turns to a page all about Lobo. She reads that Lobo was charged with 164 counts of first degree murder – turns out Lobo had been tracking a bounty that had himself cloned 164 times, and rather than spend time determining who the original bounty was, Lobo just killed all the clones. Wouldn’t that make 165 counts of first degree murder? Either way, the dialogue in these scenes makes me sad, because Lobo is such  a fun, colorful character who could be so awesome in a setting more faithful to the comics, and a career-defining role for whoever would end up playing him.

So the alien gang head to a nuclear power plant to get the first item, plutonium. Calysto kills a technician and literally wears the dead man’s engorged, sputtering body around as water leaks out of him. I’m just going to assume they also stuck a fake mustache on the guy for good measure. The disguise fails when the body collapses, and confused workers flee in terror, only to be held at bay by Shrak, one of the other aliens, holding a machine gun. Which makes this scene utterly pointless, a sequence designed to show off what would’ve likely been some pretty shitty effects, even for late ‘90s standards.

Lobo gets to the plant to kill the aliens and, for some reason, requires water to make his high-end gun grow to usable proportions. I’m not familiar enough with the comics to know if Lobo’s add-water-watch-it-grow gun is from the comics or not, but in this context, it’s stupid. Lobo enters and exchanges a few clichés with Shrak before the two literally just stand there and unload on each other point blank, bullets bouncing off the other like reasons not to make this movie to a studio executive. I’m not sure why they’re even bothering with the guns if they’re this ineffective, to the point where even Brown writes, “This has to be the dumbest gunfight anyone has ever seen.” It’s like he’s doing my job for me.

After a long fight, Lobo ends it with a grenade, tosses what’s left of Shrak into a vial, and he and Emily go to find the others…but not before some HILARIOUS hijinks at the supermarket! Get this: in a bit of truly inspired wackiness, Lobo pushes around a cart that’s “filled to the brim” with raw meat! Then, he sees a magazine with Gene Simmons on the cover and gets mad that the singer stole his look! Stop, my sides!

So let’s pause here and point out another major problem with this script – how it laughs AT the characters, being all too aware of the absurdity of its pulp roots, rather than laughing WITH them, embracing their universe and letting the humor of it flow naturally from it. It’s not funny when you’re constantly hitting the audience over the head with, “LOOK! IT’S WEIRD! LAUGH DAMMIT!” It’s a sign of fear, a hesitance to fully commit to what you’re selling. Warner is basically the scared little kid who never wants to bring out the more obscure of his action figures to play with the other kids because he’s afraid of being judged.

Lobo and Emily take a breather at an abandoned warehouse, where we get kind of a lazy retcon of Lobo’s comic origin. While he’s still the last survivor of a race of Czarnians, (which, irritatingly enough, Brown regularly misspells as “Czarians”), Lobo reveals that the Drell the aliens are after actually destroyed his home planet, not he himself, despite “planning to do it [himself] the following week.” It’s a cheap way of making the stakes more personal to Lobo’s character, like Joker killing Batman’s parents, sans actual thought. So they somehow manage to take that vial with the piece of Shrak in it and resuscitate the alien, getting him to spill the beans on the alien’s next stop: sapphires from a jewelry store. Makes sense. Shrak then leaps out a window to his death, presumably to get out of this script as quickly as possible.

Afterwards, we see the police on the hunt for both Emily and what they call a “male, 6-5, 400 pounds. Blue skin. Red eyes with no pupils.” They discuss that maybe Emily wasn’t lying and that the aliens she described were real. They then devise a plan to catch the alien, even directly naming E.T. in the process. There really is not a single original thought in this script, is there? The cops, fearing Emily might blow the plan, resolve to “take care of her.” DUN DUN DUUUUUN.

Pictured: concept art for Lobo.

Meanwhile, back in space, Cardoon’s ship is on its way to Earth with a giant plasma cannon in case the operation goes awry. He tests out the cannon on Pluto, destroying the not-planet completely. Curiously, this has absolutely no repercussions whatsoever to the rest of the Solar System. Back on Earth, Emily steals a phone book from a phone booth (hey, remember those?) at a nearby gas station. As Lobo refuels the police cruiser, he takes a swig of gasoline from the pump and gets some more incredulous stares, because we haven’t had someone give Lobo an incredulous stare for almost seven pages. Cut back to the police station, where we learn Emily is their number-one suspect for the alien cop killings earlier. Yes, because a rational police mind would conclude that the female author who held a gun once briefly at the scene is far more suspect than the giant, 400-pound, blue-skinned alien.

Emily and Lobo head to the jewelry store and discover the remaining three aliens. Lobo tries to swing his trademark hook chain, but misses thanks to Armand’s telepathic abilities. Armand escapes in a truck outside and Emily gives chase, with predictably unsuccessful results – a spider-looking device disables her engine and causes her car to flip. Somehow, she staggers out with little to no injury. Cut back to Lobo taking on the robot M-4, Calysto, and later Volarian, the latter of whom sucks out his life-force like a parasite. Afterwards, the cops show up and take down Lobo with tranquilizers.

Then…oh, this is great. This is exactly what comic book fans want to see. With Lobo’s fate in Emily’s hands, the writer finds Lobo’s motorcycle, hesitantly gets on, steals the restraining collar Lobo retrieved earlier, puts on his sunglasses for some reason, then speeds off. Hey, you can’t sell a toy of Lobo’s motorcycle if it’s only in one scene. Emily dicks around with the weapons on the bike, which all read like, “FRAG-BOMBS,” “FRAG-GUNS,” etc. You know Brown, “frag” isn’t actually funny when it isn’t being used as a substitute for “fuck.” She takes out a pursuing cop car with FRAG-ACID, which melts away the entire car and apparently the officer’s uniforms with it. “Get me some damn clothes!” one of them says to the other officers who get to the scene too late. Genius. Absolute genius.

Emily frees Lobo from a police van up ahead and tells him it’s 5:17 a.m. Lobo gets worried. A giant hologram of Cardoon’s head appears in the sky and tells Lobo that time’s up and he’s destroying the planet. Lobo argues that he needs more time. Cardoon refuses to give it to him. “Who is this…creature?” asks Cardoon. “She’s the local authority I made contact with. Her name is…something, and she’s the official ambassador to non-humanoid life-forms.” That’s actually pretty funny, because let’s face it, Emily is an entirely trivial character in all this. Emily asks if there’s anything he hasn’t told her. Lobo admits the Earth is going to be destroyed. But instead of reacting like someone with an actual personality, Emily just doesn’t react at all, because it’s “too much for her to take in.”

Somehow, the script has taken a step back in time as it’s now 5 a.m. according to the slugline, with Lobo and Emily sitting at a diner wallowing in defeat. Brown describes Emily as wearing, “that face people get when their planet is about to be nuked into rubble.” A little kid approaches their table and asks Emily to sign a copy of her book for him, but Lobo scares him off. Emily has a heart-to-heart with Lobo, lamenting her lack of a male suitor and her complete sham of a career. “When you’re running a scam you can’t have anyone in your life who might turn around and expose you.” Oh, boo-fucking-hoo lady! You lie to the entire world and somehow make millions off these idiots, including that gullible little kid just now that no doubt wasted his hard-earned allowance money on your book, and we’re supposed to feel bad for you because it doesn’t get you laid?! Suck. My. Dick.

Lobo flips through her book and after seeing a picture of Stonehenge, reveals that the structure is actually a Cenobite toilet. He spots the Heads of Boro (that place the aliens found the portal to the Drell at from earlier), recognizes the language on them as Czarnian, and asks Emily where it is. Apparently they are at a museum, which Lobo and Emily get to and proceed to fight Calysto in…again. Then, oh my god, Calysto DOES THE WATER DISGUISE THING AGAIN WITH ANOTHER SECURITY GUARD. AND LOBO FUCKING FALLS FOR IT. I slam my head on the desk repeatedly as Lobo and Emily realize they’re both severely retarded and go after him. Lobo continues fighting Calysto, when finally the alien tries to drown Lobo like he did the cop at the beginning. Lobo just inhales him and spits him out into a nearby cement mixer, where he’s turned into hard cement. It’s probably the cleverest thing this script has done so far.

So Armand and…what’s-her-name, Volstagg? The other alien chick and him manage to open the portal and release the Drell, who promptly kills Voltron Voluptuous Volarian. Armand orders it to kill everyone. The Drell goes crazy, so Lobo comes in and fights it off. But wait! Armand devilishly informs Lobo that the Drell gets stronger with every hit it takes! So the thing hurls some kind of plasma at Lobo and turns him into a statue. Then it goes after Emily while Lobo heals, and finally pushes it back into the portal with a medieval battering ram hung in the museum. The two are then thrown into what Brown calls Dimension-X. As the beast readies another plasma shot, Lobo winds up and kicks the Drell in the nuts (ugh), then throws it down a bottomless pit and escapes through the portal as it quickly closes around him.

Defeated, Armand takes ahold of Emily and threatens to kill her if Lobo comes closer. Lobo, quite sensibly, tells him to go ahead. Honestly, I’d have to give this script some credit if…nope, Emily pulls out Armand’s restraining collar and slips it on his neck, rendering him powerless and stuck inside a pillar. Lobo hurls the pillar into the portal just as it closes. When the cops arrive, Emily elects to stay behind and be arrested, stupidly enough. But then, just as Lobo takes to the skies on his motorcycle, a handcuffed Emily is engulfed in a white light and suddenly disappears. Okay…

We cut to Emily in front of a giant congregation of alien beings, who offer her the position of official ambassador for Earth…for real! So remember kids, if life doesn’t hand you what you want, just lie to everyone about being whatever it is you want until you actually become that thing! But then, after all the horrible things this character has done, after still somehow getting this illustrious, exclusive job offer, Emily has just one question for the aliens.

“By the way, what does this pay?”

Seriously. Fuck. this. character.

We then, quite unnecessarily, cut to Armand in Dimension-X giggling to himself, then Lobo drinking and riding his bike through space. The end.

At first I didn’t hate this script, because it’s not entirely unreadable. There are words, which in turn make up sentences, and I suppose that’s worth something. But really, I do love Lobo as a character and I don’t think the script does a particularly bad job with his cigar-smoking, devil-may-care attitude and snarky one-liners. But as soon as Lobo leaves space behind for Earth, everything goes to shit due to the studio’s pre-packaged tripe of a template. Earth doesn’t work as a backdrop because it’s such a jarring contrast to Lobo himself, who’s also the blunt of several bad jokes and thus muffled from being the complete badass we know and love. Emily doesn’t work because she’s such a shitty, empty character. The alien antagonists don’t work because they’re all morons and spout clichés. It’s all evidence of Warner distrusting the material to hold its own. Lobo’s world from the comics is so imaginative, creative, and funny, and this script and its alien inventions are…not.

What’s most inexcusable, I think, about the whole thing is that this same, hackneyed template was STILL being actively developed in subsequent drafts ten years later. It’s the equivalent of Warner dusting off Gilroy’s Superman Lives instead of producing Man of Steel – infinite rewrites won’t change the fact that the core template is shit. Perhaps most disheartening is that Warner’s overly formulaic approach hasn’t changed for little-known DC characters – the live action Green Lantern suffered from many of the same problems. A Lobo movie really does need to be set mostly in space to do justice to the comics.

Summed up, we can be thankful this is a project somebody had the good sense to place in the proper receptacle, even if it did take over ten years for them to do so.

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