Mattson Tomlin’s blockbuster cred came out of nowhere. The new Netflix sci-fi thriller Project Power marks the writer’s first produced project, but in the next few years, he’ll share co-writing credit on Matt Reeves’ The Batman, pen a TV pilot for the comic series Fear Agent, adapt James Tynion IV’s Memetic for Lionsgate, and write a tentpole vehicle for none other than Mega Man.
Of course, like so many before him, Tomlin has hustled for years, fully aware that Hollywood superpowers don’t come in pill form. In 2014, after graduating from the American Film Institute with hopes of becoming a director, he began churning out scripts in order to “write my way to the table.” His goal was to pen 10 screenplays a year. “The deal I made with myself was that I didn’t need those scripts to be good, I needed them to be finished,” Tomlin tells Polygon, “and giving myself permission to be bad actually made me pound for pound a better writer in those early days. I was just I was learning more and getting over writer’s block and getting over the fear of being bad.”
He finally caught a break when he dabbled in the forever-in-demand comic book movie mode. He wrote Project Power on spec, imagining his favorite movies like Eight Mile and Collateral with superpowered characters. “I approached it from this original quadrant because I knew that I wasn’t going to get invited to work on anything Marvel or DC.”
DC eventually extended the invitation for The Batman, and it’s easy to see why: As much as Project Power owes to the last 80 years of superhero comics, Tomlin has built a grounded fantasy world whole cloth. The high-school-aged Robin (Dominique Fishback) finds herself on the wrong side of the law dealing “Power” pills in order to pay for her ailing mother’s treatments. New Orleans PD cop Frank (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) pops the illegal drug to wage war on the criminals enhanced by them. Art (Jamie Foxx) is a wanted man, but also a living government experiment — part of a long history of Black citizens tested on against their will — whose permanently empowered daughter has been kidnapped. Ideas are bubbling under every bit of action.
“I love fight the system movies, and I knew that this was going to be one,” Tomlin says of delving into a story with racial and social implications. “When I started writing, Ferguson was very fresh in everybody’s mind. These ideas aren’t new ideas. They were around in 2016 and 2017, and they were around 50 years ago, unfortunately, as well. I thought there was a way to comment on the systems of oppression, whether it’s the government or whether it’s the school system or whether it’s just the way that cities work. The military, you could say, is a system of oppression, too. I looked at that, and thought there was a way that connects to real-life stuff that is happening in our world. But also if we do it through character, and we do it openly and honestly, then it has a fighting shot at resonating with people.”
Tomlin wrote and abandoned hundreds of scripts in an effort to break in, but Project Power is one he relentlessly rewrote until it was ready. Early on, when Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman (Paranormal Activity 3) signed on to direct, the action shifted from Portland to New Orleans to accommodate shooting, a move that imbued the drama with even more political overtones (“New Orleans has has not been treated well over the last 20 years,” he says). He also spent countless weeks reworking the mythology of the pill and its capabilities. The connection between animal evolution and superpowers came later on in working with Joost and Schulman, in order to give the more extraordinary action scenes credibility. “The animal kingdom is so nuts,” the writer says upon reflection. “And there’s a bunch of stuff that we came up with that that didn’t end up in the movie that that you know, we’ll see the light of day if we are so lucky to do a sequel.”
A sequel is certainly on Tomlin’s mind. Though the movie ends conclusively with Art, Frank, and Robin preventing the wide-scale distribution of Power, and Art’s promise to expose the operation, the writer says the contained nature of the story that could allow it to explode in different direction in a Project Power 2.
“There were a lot of conversations specifically about the power pill,” the writer says. “Is it something that the whole world knows about? Is it something that everybody has? Is it urban legend? And through the development we were always putting that on the table, and judging if we were making the right choices.”
For Tomlin, Project Power was always about interrogating the most fantastical comic book concepts through a realist lens. The film’s opening salvo, a fight between Art and Machine Gun Kelly’s Power-enhanced gangster, who’s exploding with fire as he punches threw walls, began with a simple question: Why doesn’t Johnny Storm burn down buildings when he flames on in Human Torch mode? “I didn’t think I’d seen a panel where he sits on a couch the couch has melted,” Tomlin says with a laugh. A grounded movie like Project Power could ask that “what if?”
Even the grand finale, and the way Tomlin wraps up the mythology of the film’s contained story, asks that question — and makes a promise for what could come next.
“We ended up where we ended up in, in large part because we wanted to be able to go somewhere in the event that we’re lucky enough to do sequel. For me, [Power] is urban legend and people aren’t quite sure. And that means there’s a very exciting opportunity: How does the world change once everybody knows that this exists? It will change the fabric of how all of life is potentially lived. And I think that that’s a really cool place to go.”