THE DEATH OF SUPERMAN LIVES: WHAT HAPPENED?
** SPOILERS **
In 1998, no one at Warner Brothers Pictures really believed a man could fly. Writer-director Jon Schnepp's documentary The Death of Superman Lives: What Happened? investigates the events that lead to the kiboshing of one of superhero cinema's most intriguing and legendary movies that was never made: Superman Lives, which was to be directed by Tim Burton and star Nicolas Cage as the Man of Steel. On a personal note, as someone who dreaded an idiosyncratic Tim Burton interpretation of Superman and was always glad Superman Lives never got off the ground, I went into watching The Death of Superman Lives under the impression this would be a mockumentary celebrating the folly of the creative types who were en route to making a Super debacle that ultimately was foiled by the wise executives at Warner Bros. This was the impression I held of this failed project for over a decade. Instead, Schnepp's documentary earnestly explores the creative vision behind Superman Lives (Schnepp announces on the outset he'd been honestly intrigued by Superman Lives from the minute he'd heard about it) and argues effectively that Superman Lives' demise, however the movie might have turned out, was ultimately everyone's loss.
The Death of Superman Lives takes us on the Way Back Machine to the go-go '90's: following the failure of the final Christopher Reeve Superman movie in 1987 and the blockbuster successes of Tim Burton's 1989 Batman and the best-selling 1992 DC Comics series "The Death of Superman," Warner Bros. sought to use the comics' story to revitalize the Superman movie franchise. Enter controversial Batman producer Jon Peters, who rather brilliantly acquired the rights to produce a Superman movie, and writer-director-fanboy Kevin Smith. Smith would go on to a very successful public speaking career reiterating the stories of his involvement in Superman Lives: how he crafted a comic geek's dream "fan fiction"-like screenplay with cameos from Batman and the appearance of a "Thanagarian snare beast" (nee a giant spider) to appease the creative demands of Peters. When director Burton came on board to helm the project, Smith and his screenplay were the first to go, as Burton brought in his own people, including writer Wesley Strick and later writer Dan Gilroy, to execute his uniquely personal vision for Superman: that the Man of Steel was an alien outsider riddled by anxiety and questions about his abilities and his place in the world. All the creatives involved seemed to be excited that Nicolas Cage, then a recent Best Actor Oscar-winner for Leaving Las Vegas, was the unlikely choice cast as Superman, citing that the controversial casting of Michael Keaton as Batman in 1988 worked wonders, hence lightning would strike twice again with weary audiences. (All are also glad that the Internet and today's culture of instant online hating was nascent or non-existent at the time.)
Schnepp manages to interview all the major players involved with Superman Lives, save Cage, who appears in archival interviews and fascinating footage of costume fittings where he wears the various Super suits as he and Burton verbally work out their takes on the Superman and Clark Kent characters. Schnepp secured plenty of quality time interviewing producer Peters and director Burton, who are both eccentric in their own unique ways. Whatever fault one finds with their visions for Superman, Burton and Peters, however, were both passionate champions of this project and both were ultimately hurt and terribly disappointed when the movie didn't go forward after millions were spent on pre-production. Talks of casting lead to some interesting discrepancies: Chris Rock was a unanimous choice to play Jimmy Olsen, Burton favored Christopher Walken over Jim Carrey as Brainiac, and Burton openly scoffed at Peters' preference of Sandra Bullock as Lois Lane. Some terrific animation gives us the sense of what key scenes might have looked like, including a Lois and Clark date and a confrontation between Superman and the villain Brainiac's rather cool-looking Skull Ship in space.
With no actors to interview, Schnepp instead spends a great deal of time speaking to the visual effects artists and wizards who came on board early in the process to design the look, props, and costumes of Superman Lives. The running time of the documentary is padded with a terrific amount of detail regarding how the various Superman suits were designed and constructed, what Krypton would have looked like visually, and an intriguing character called "K," which would have served as a major character in the movie: a guardian of sorts for Cage's Superman that would become his new, very 90's-style, sleek black Superman suit after Superman is resurrected. Late in the documentary come the money visuals: concept art of Superman battling Doomsday. It's fascinating to see the multiple versions of Doomsday and also Brainiac the various artists designed, taking their cues from Burton's "crude," in his own words, early drawings. For some reason, spiders were simply vitally, vitally important in Superman Lives. (Later, to Kevin Smith's chagrin, Peters would indeed get his giant spider in the box office failure Wild Wild West.)
What killed Superman Lives? Ultimately, the conclusion reached, it was money and fear. Warner Bros. was mired in a disastrous slate of bombs at that point in the late 90s (including expensive stinkers like Sphere). Tim Burton's Superman Lives, with its way, way out there visual aesthetics and a ballooning $300-million price tag, was a frightening proposition to the executives at Warner Bros. To their credit, Burton and Peters seemed to have fought hard to keep their green light. (This dispels another personal belief I held for some reason, that Burton didn't really want to make Superman Lives. Turns out he still, to this day, desires to see his Superman vision on the big screen, even if he never has quite figured Superman out.) One could argue that the team Peters and Burton assembled didn't really understand Superman; unlike today, where verisimilitude to the comic book source material has proven to reap dividends of money and public acclaim, in the late 1990's, it was a source of pride to not be associated with comic books and to try to "reinvent" comic book superheroes for the big screen. However, by spending quality time with the talented and ultimately well-meaning filmmakers who spent months designing Superman Lives, The Death of Superman Lives' greatest superpower turns out to be changing the mind of someone like me, who was long glad Superman Lives never saw the light of day. Now, I wish Superman Lives got made. As many in the documentary said, it might have been an epic failure, but it could have been an interesting failure. It could also have been a Superman for all seasons.