Robert Downey Jr. Was Almost Lex Luthor To Henry Cavill's Superman
Superhero fans seem pretty thrilled with the (still unconfirmed) reports that alpha nerd Henry Cavill might get to play Superman again -- ideally, in a movie that's less "Dragon Ball Z meets the Bible" and more, you know, Superman. Well, here's a reminder that, almost 20 years ago, Cavill got pretty close to wearing the iconic blue pajamas in a movie that wouldn't have screwed with the Superman mythos quite as much as the Zack Snyder ones did. It would have screwed with them more.
In fact, there are so many nutty details surrounding the unmade Superman: Flyby project that most articles about it usually forget to mention one of the craziest: according to the director, Robert Downey Jr. would have played Lex Luthor ... who would have been an alien.
Superman: Flyby was written by J.J. Abrams, probably right after he saw The Matrix for the first time, hence his idea that both Superman and the Kryptonian villains know kung-fu and engage in dramatic mid-air slo-mo battles. Although a lot of actors were considered for the main role, Cavill was one of the few who actually put on the costume and did a screen test, which is why this photo exists:
Right off the bat, the movie changes Superman's origin by revealing that his planet didn't blow up: Superman's biological dad, Jor-El, sent him to Earth because he wanted to fulfill an ancient prophecy about a "Prince" who would save Krypton from the civil war currently ravaging the planet, but a key part of that prophecy stated that Prince Superman had to be raised in another planet. So, like any rational man of science would do in this scenario, Jor-El decided to stuff his baby into a rocket and shoot it off into space.
Later, we find out that Jor-El had previously visited Earth himself and personally selected the Kents to raise his child. When the child grows up and becomes Superman, his evil uncle and cousin on Krypton see his exploits on TV via interstellar cable and decide to invade the planet, aided by a traitorous government agent, Dr. Lex Luthor. Of course, at the end of the movie, it turns out Lex wasn't a traitor to his race after all since he was a sleeper Kryptonian agent who had gone to extreme lengths to hide his powers, including not using them to help his friends while they got their asses kung-fu kicked by Superman throughout the film.
Another major plot point involved Superman being murdered by the other Kryptonians, going to Kryptonian heaven, and meeting his Jor-El, who gives him a pep talk and inspires him to come back to life. Wait, wasn't Superman's dad still alive? Yep, he was, until he sensed that his son had died from all the way in Krypton and disemboweled himself with a rock to help him out in the afterlife. Kinda tragic that Kryptonians had never heard of autoerotic asphyxiation.
The last director attached to this script was McG, of Charlie's Angels, Terminator Salvation, and the video for Smash Mouth's "All Star" fame. In 2016, he confirmed that he and the studio "liked" Cavill for Superman and revealed that "We had Robert Downey Jr. locked up to be Lex Luthor, which I think would have been extraordinary." It's hard to imagine RDJ playing Tony Stark in the timeline where this movie got made: if it bombed, that probably would have scared him off from doing more superhero movies or made Marvel think twice about casting him. Or, who knows, maybe his charisma would have saved the crappy script, McG would have gotten a trilogy like he wanted (Luthor is left alive at the end, setting him up as a returning villain), and we'd be on our 27th McGverse DC movie by now.
Ironically, what doomed Superman: Flyby, and potentially saved the MCU, is that McG was afraid of flying. Warner Bros. wanted him to shoot the movie in Australia, but when the time came for McG to take the jet there, he refused on get in and was "thrown off the movie" on the same day. And that's why your little cousins love Ant-Man and Groot instead of The Atom and Solomon Grundy.
Thumbnail: Warner Bros. Pictures, Marvel Studios