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Death of Superman Lives

D: Jon Schnepp / 104m

With: Tim Burton, Kevin Smith, Jon Peters, Lorenzo di Bonaventura, Colleen Atwood, Wesley Strick, Dan Gilroy, Steve Johnson, Rick Heinrichs, Derek Frey, Nicolas Cage (archive footage), Jon Schnepp

In 1993, producer Jon Peters purchased the rights to Superman from the Salkinds (makers of the Christopher Reeve Superman movies), and approached Warner Bros about making a new movie entitled Superman Reborn, from a script by Jonathan Lemkin. Lemkin’s script was later rewritten by Gregory Poirier, but although Warner Bros were happy with it, in 1996 Kevin Smith, creator of Clerks (1994), was asked by Peters to write a script for “the fans” – but with three provisos: Superman couldn’t be seen flying, he wasn’t to wear his usual outfit, and he had to battle with a giant spider in the final act. Smith agreed to Peters’ terms and produced a script he titled Superman Lives, and which was based on The Death of Superman comic book storyline.

Smith’s script was accepted and Tim Burton, Peters’ first choice as director, came on board. He immediately jettisoned Smith’s script and brought in Wesley Strick to rewrite it. Nicolas Cage signed on to play Clark Kent/Superman, while Peters sought Kevin Spacey for the part of Lex Luthor, Courteney Cox for Lois Lane, and Chris Rock for Jimmy Olsen. The movie went into pre-production in June 1997, with Rick Heinrichs brought in as production designer. While various artists were hired to provide drawings of alien beasts, Krypton, and the main characters, Cage attended a costume fitting that was overseen by Colleen Atwood and Burton, and which brought an entirely new look to the character of Superman.

Strick produced his rewrite, emphasising Burton and Cage’s idea of Superman as an outsider, making him more of an existentialist. However, the cost of making Strick’s script was prohibitive, and Warner Bros asked Dan Gilroy to contribute a further version that would reduce the cost. Gilroy did so, but by this time Warner Bros were having a less than successful time at the box office, with many of their movies failing to make their money back. By this time, April 1998 (two months before the movie’s original planned release), $30 million had been spent on the production without anything to show for it. Warner Bros decided to put the film on hold, and Burton left to make Sleepy Hollow (1999).

Peters continued to try and get the project resurrected and offered it to several directors, none of whom accepted the challenge. In 1999 another script was written by William Wisher Jr with input from Cage, but in June 2000, Cage withdrew from the project, and despite further efforts by Peters to get his Superman movie made, the whole idea was abandoned in favour of a new approach in 2002.

Death of Superman Lives - scene

The question in the title, The Death of “Superman Lives”: What Happened?, is surprisingly easy to answer: Peters and Warner Bros wanted to repeat the success of Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992) while at the same time abandoning the very special qualities that made Superman so unique a character. It was a movie doomed to fail from the beginning because, as Smith correctly asserts, it was being made by people who had no feel for Superman or his place in comic book history. By taking Superman, one of the most iconic superhero figures of all time, and removing most of the traits that made him so iconic, Peters et al were practically guaranteeing their movie’s failure.

Those of you who have seen Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987) will know just how bad a Superman movie can be, but under the auspices of Peters, a man who thinks giving Superman a makeover is an acceptable way forward, Superman Lives was always bound to founder. Hearing him talk about the movie it’s clear that whatever previous success Peters may have had in the past it’s of no relevance to the project at all. At one point he instructed Smith to include a scene at the Fortress of Solitude where Brainiac, the movie’s villain, would fight two polar bears. When Smith asked the reason for this, Peters’ response was, “They could be Superman’s guards” (Smith and Schnepp’s reaction to this is priceless).

Here, Smith is a vocal critic of Peters and the script he was asked to write (and he’s been equally critical elsewhere), and he makes several important points about the production’s inherent flaws. But nothing can prepare you for the sheer absurdity of Nicolas Cage’s costume fitting, where he and Burton try to make insightful remarks into the character but without ever finishing any of their thoughts or sentences. While Cage sports an awful shoulder-length wig as Superman, it’s actually nothing compared to the brief scene in which we see him as Clark Kent, dressed as if he’d just stepped out of a thrift store and looking like a beachcomber.

Atwood talks at length about the difficulties in coming up with a new costume for Superman, and the movie looks at this process in some depth, along with interviews with several of the concept design artists (many of whom did their work with little in the way of context to go by) that illuminates the ramshackle nature of the pre-production period. Burton, wearing his customary sunglasses, and still unable to finish a sentence that contains more than ten words, is a frustrating interviewee, vague on several points and misunderstanding several of Schnepp’s questions. Against this, everyone else, even the dreadfully misguided Peters, responds to Schnepp’s enquiries with candour and sincerity, all of which makes this examination of one of recent cinema’s most well-known follies an absorbing and fascinating watch.

Rating: 8/10 – there’s more to Peters’ doomed project than is covered here, but The Death of “Superman Lives”: What Happened? covers the salient points with admirable clarity; having Cage’s recollections as well would have rounded things off nicely but considering Burton’s reticence, it’s maybe not much of a surprise that he didn’t take part.