Take yourself back to 1998: Think about how old you were.
Remember things like Nintendo 64, dial up internet and the horrendous reboot of
Godzilla with Matthew Broderick. Feeling nostalgic yet?
You’re in your college dorm or on a bike on your street just before the street lights came on and someone tells you they’re making another Superman movie. Sounds cool, right? Then someone tells you Tim Burton is directing with Nicholas Cage as the Man of Steel? Yes, please!
The new documentary, The Death of Superman Lives is directed and moderated by John Schnepp and funded by crowd sourcing websites. It exposes what could have been a great late-90s Superman movie after the success of Tim Burton’s 1989 masterpiece Batman. Schnepp interviews almost everyone involved in the production of the failed film, Superman Lives (Originally titled Superman Reborn) except Nicholas Cage who we only see in archival footage.
Famed nerd director Kevin Smith, who wrote the original first draft, weighs in on how he was chosen to write the screenplay and the troubles he had with famed producer, Jon Peters who produced Batman ‘89. The documentary also details many original storyboards, concept art and even suit tests with Cage in a variety of suits that range from “What the hell?” to the final suit, which most of us could probably get behind, even in a world wide web full of nitpicking nerds.
Most interesting about this documentary are the images this failed production gives us about a film that never was. I found myself constantly thinking about how the characters, imagery and effects would look on screen. I ended up spacing out and having to rewind back to catch things I missed.
Burton and Peters talk about their motivations for Superman’s character arc which had my synapses firing on all cylinders, thinking of all the cool things they could show us about a new Superman, only about a decade after they expanded on another beloved superhero, Batman.
It is in my opinion that Superman Lives would have been a massive hit with fans (Critics, on the other hand…), giving us baddies like Lex Luthor, Brainiac and even Doomsday who would eventually kill Supes in a massive brawl. I must say I really enjoyed all of the concept art for Brainiac and his awesome skull ship; having Brainiac take on three forms as a head in a bubble, humanoid and finally the bubble-head as a spider? I was sold!
Oh, and did I forget to mention that Christopher Walken was pegged to play
Brainiac? Let that sink in! After co-starring in Batman Returns, Walken had proved he could play a quirky Burton-esque villain so to see what he would’ve done with Brainiac raises many hypotheticals as it is. Interestingly enough, Kevin Spacey was first choice for Lex Luthor, who went on to play him anyway in Superman Returns while Chris Rock was chosen for Jimmy Olsen and Sandra Bullock for Lois Lane.
Now, for all of the Nicholas Cage haters out there: We’ve all seen the famous photo of Cage as Supes but that was a costume in the middle phase of development and the documentary defends the production by explaining how that photo was taken. You have to remember that Nicholas Cage was a huge star back then.
After his Academy Award for Leaving Las Vegas, he also made a handful of great action films like The Rock, Con-Air and Face/Off. He proved he could take on serious, dramatic roles as well as action and even comedy. The first photo above seems to be the last incarnation of the suit as the production on Lives was three weeks away from shooting while most of us only know of this one:On the downside, there were times I began to think that this doc was simply going back and forth between producer, Jon Peters and people he had pissed off with varying opinions, but the film shifted focus back on Superman’s suits and more concept art and I was happy and content to learn more. Yes, there is a bit of bad blood between Peters and the rest of the production, but that fuels more interest as more of a “Who’s really telling the truth?” Also, trying to remember everyone’s names beyond the principals is quite a task. Don’t even think about who’s-who and just watch and listen.
With Superman V. Batman: Dawn of Justice coming out in less than a year and DC’s plan to emulate Marvel’s multiple film universe, Superman Lives would never happen in today’s world. Even if Warner Bros. did a complete 180 and planned the same film to come out in a year or two, Superman Lives, as it was meant to be, is dead while the “What if?” aspect of Schnepp’s documentary adds to the mystery of what it would have been like, changing urban legend into fan boy fact.
In this reviewer’s opinion, that same film could not be made today; no matter what, it would never be the same. After seeing this newly released photo, seeing the concept art I am convinced that this film would’ve been better than most people expected it to be. It was going to be a different kind of superhero film and what this documentary tells us is that Warner Bros. was afraid of the unknown, even with a proven director like Burton and an actor like Cage behind it.
In the documentary, artist, Sylvain Despretz says, “Highly creative people have a hard time getting their movies made…because they bring stuff that blows everyone away. As much as they claim they (studios) want original, they’re terrified.”
Combining the concept art with late 90s practical effects, Superman’s character arc, Luthor, Doomsday, Brainiac and that Tim Burton flare I am convinced this would’ve been the film to give new hope to future superhero films, which were looked upon as dirty by movie executives in the late 90s…Maybe one of them will learn to take a chance on something different.
Check out the original documentary trailer below.