The Death of “Superman Lives”: What Happened? (2015)
Although the book world has chronicled the making of unmade movies for decades, only recently has cinema itself caught on. Now, documentaries of Films That Might Have Been include Lost in La Mancha, Jodorowsky’s Dune, Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau and, for the purposes of this review, The Death of “Superman Lives”: What Happened?
After the Cannon Films-funded failure of 1987’s Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, nearly 20 years passed before Warner Bros. and DC Comics were able to get another Man of Steel movie off the ground. But it wasn’t for a lack of trying! Since Tim Burton had ignited the cultural craze of the multiplex modern superhero craze at the multiplex with 1989’s Batman, producer Jon Peters enlisted him to shepherd DC’s other caped MVP back to the silver screen.
With a long-haired Nicolas Cage signed on to portray Krypton’s last son, Superman Lives began production in 1998 and was primed to be … well, who can say for certain? With a way-out concept heavy on the sci-fi and a mounting price tag heavy on the ninth number to the left of the decimal point, the project was killed by nervous studio heads in the wake of such Warner high-priced bombs as Tarzan and the Lost City, Sphere and Steel (the latter, ironically, a Superman spin-off). We have only the events of this tell-all documentary as a guide to gauge what Burton may have wrought.
And since writer/director Jon Schnepp (TV’s Metalocalypse) indeed has rounded up all but Cage to tell, their stories vary. Initial screenwriter Kevin Smith (Clerks) appears in his Kevin Smith costume to confirm that his script was essentially “fan fiction.” Long cast as a villain in tales of Lives’ unmaking, a project-passionate Peters actually emerges as sympathetic. Burton still seems a tad peeved about having his baby smothered in the crib, yet admits, “But I also wanted Sammy Davis Jr. for Beetlejuice.”
In the end, it’s hard to say where and how his vision for a reboot would have landed, if completed and released. Schnepp gives viewers absolute riches of concept art and test footage that exude positive vibes, yet also anecdotes of baffling corporate decisions that do the opposite, such as ideas that Superman should wear basketball shorts and fight ninjas. That we get a glimpse of both sides, however, is why The Death of “Superman Lives” succeeds as an informative and entertaining peek into the gears that grind Hollywood’s blockbuster machine. I only wish Schnepp and his untucked shirts didn’t appear onscreen for the interviews; it’s not like he’s a known quantity à la Michael Moore. With Schnepp nodding distractingly like a bobblehead throughout as his subjects speak, his creative choice to be part of the action is as questionable as Peters’ insistence upon a third-act giant spider. —Rod Lott