While there have been new cinematic takes on the Superman legend since those days, the one film that still generates a lot of buzz is the one that was never made. Funded by a Kickstarter campaign, Jon Schnepp went in search of the reasons behind The Death of Superman Lives or as the subtitle puts it, What Happened?
Back in the late 1990s, Warner Brothers looked into the possibility of reviving Superman on screen, some time after the dismal failure that was Superman: Quest for Peace. The plan was to adapt the popular "Death of Superman" saga from DC comics that revitalized interest in the iconic hero. At least three scripts were written, one of them from director/writer Kevin Smith, a smart choice given his knowledge of the genre. However, his first meeting with producer Jon Peters was the first of many red flags to be waved on this road to movie making madness:
Smith's script was abandoned as soon as director Tim Burton was attached to the project, who wanted to do a different take on superheroes that would challenge him a bit more than his previous success with the Batman films.
However, Burton's casting choices for this film started off on a truly wrong foot as Nicholas Cage was set to be Superman(he also wanted Christopher Walken to play Brainiac) and when a few photos leaked out of the redesigned super suit that Cage had done costume tests for, fans were quickly in uproar.
Jon Schnepp was actually able to include footage of those costume tests in his documentary, along with interviews with major players in this undertaking like Tim Burton, Jon Peters and Academy Award winning costume designer Colleen Atwood, who really did take this project as a real creative challenge:
Schnepp also talked to the two other screenwriters who were called forth as well as the artists and designers who worked for two years on the concepts that both Tim Burton and Jon Peters wanted for the film(Peters still has one of the demo models displayed at his house).
You have to hand it to Schnepp not only for getting most of these people to speak freely about a failed project(Nic Cage was not one of them) but to present the long and strange process that went into preparing Superman Lives in a way that's not mocking the hard work that was put into this production.
He shows a sincere interest in what might have been, even when Jon Peters(who openly admits to putting a staff member in a headlock and bringing in his kids to give critiques on the work in progress) stops to take a business call during their interview. Peters alone is a hoot, with his bizarre take on what should be in a movie like this. One of his ideas was to make Superman's cape a weapon that he could throw at people "to cut off heads", I kid you not!
Fortunately, the testimony is nicely balanced out by likes of producer Lorenzo Di Bonaventura and screenwriter Wesley Strick, who was tapped by Tim Burton to make his vision for the Man of Steel come to life on the silver screen:
Eventually, the studio pulled the plug on Superman Lives, due more than likely to the projected budget(which would've been amazingly high back then) and a string of flops that year that made the powers that be hesitant to go forward with such a risky production.
In my opinion, that was a wise decision as neither Burton or Cage were suited(pun sort of intended) for a Superman film and the ever-changing tone of the scripts would have made this movie more infamously awful than Batman and Robin.
The stories behind this story are worth checking out as they give an authentic account of how Hollywood works, both for good and bad. The Death of Superman Lives: What Happened is available to watch online and on demand(the Showtime channel has it on their line-up, which is how I came across it this past weekend).
Jon Schnepp's enthusiasm for exploring what might have been a truly unique version of Superman makes this documentary a charmingly geeky delight to behold and certainly offer some fantastic food for thought when it comes to making a superhero shine on screen: