Of all comic book adaptations, Superman seems to be the only one that has a hard time satisfying the fans and general audiences alike. Though Richard Donner’s 1978 film starring Christopher Reeve was the most faithful take on the Man of Steel, the subsequent films and television shows have struggled to make an outer-worldly god in red and blue tights relevant to the changing times. As Jon Schnepp’s recently released documentary The Death of “Superman Lives”; What Happened reveals, we came very close to having a movie that could have either reestablished Superman for a new generation or a massive box office bomb that could have prevented the superhero craze in cinema as we see it today.
Schnepp, a cartoon producer and director for such shows as Aqua Teen Hunger Force, had a longtime fascination with the aborted Superman Lives project which was set to star Nicholas Cage under the direction of Tim Burton. He ran a successful Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for the project and it was money well spent. The documentary includes interviews with most of the key players including Burton, Kevin Smith (who wrote the initial draft), and the infamous producer Jon Peters. There’s loads of never before seen costume tests of Cage in a redesigned Superman suit as well as conceptual designs for Brainiac, the Daily Planet, Lexcorp, and a plethora of monsters created by several artists.
Over the years, stories about Peters’ insistence on having spider monsters and a “no flying” clause had surfaced in various magazines and movie websites. The documentary goes even deeper to dispel some rumors while also confirming others. We discover early on in the documentary how Kevin Smith went to town in his original script which could have pleased the fanboys and how he was let go in favor of Burton’s more versatile take on the Man of Steel. The latter resulted in some wild and crazy conceptual designs that could have made the movie less like Superman and more like 2001: A Space Odyssey meets Alien.
Though the documentary succeeds in delivering the skinny on the makings of the film, Schnepp seems to come across as too much of a fanboy and less of a hard hitting documentarian. For a movie that had too many cooks in the kitchen and failed to go into production due to Warner Bros’ bad luck streak in the late 90s, more could have been addressed about the studio politics that went on. There’s also no mention of the aborted SUPERMAN: FLYBY project that J.J. Abrams wrote afterwords. Perhaps that will be saved for a sequel.
My personal take on the Superman Lives project after watching this documentary is that everyone involved was setting themselves up for failure. This film was trying to hard to be a darker, more versatile Superman in the same way Burton’s Batman had done in 1989. This was a time where studios were trying to tie in more toys and other merchandising as top priority for a movie as opposed to being a BI-product. For anyone who thought the movie could have been successful, think again. Burton’s films have become more commercialized in recent years and Cage has been reduced to self-parody in straight to video fare. But as bad as this movie could have been, both Bryan Singer’s Donner-esque take on Superman Returns and the Zack Snyder-helmed Man of Steel have been met with heavy criticism as well. Either it’s not enough action or too much destruction and death; however, they kept the tradition intact instead of going off the creative deep end. In any case, the death of Superman Lives was arguably a turning point in comic book movies for the better.