Up, up and… where did it go?
There are countless movies that were in development but never got made, but Superman Lives is pretty notable for just how big a project it is, the names involved and just how far along it got before the plug is pulled.
In fact, one of the most interesting things about the new documentary The Death of Superman Lives: What Happened? is finding out just how close the movie came to being made. While the internet was part of our lives in 1998, it still wasn’t what it is now – especially when it comes to following the minutiae of movie-making (which, admittedly, IGN is part of). If a freaking Superman movie collapsed today, this close to production, there would likely be a lot more attention paid to it, that’s for sure.
Director Jon Schnepp found himself personally fascinated with the “what could have been” of Superman Lives and what sounded like a notably offbeat take on the Man of Steel – so much so that he has now made this feature length documentary, backed by impressive research, never-before-seen production art (a ton of it) and behind-the-scenes video and interviews with almost all of the key players in this story behind an unseen story.
In a day and age where comic book movies are now released all the time, it’s fascinating to look back at how different things were in the late 90s – and how a studio like Warner Bros., despite arguably being the ones who’d had the most success adapting comic books before, thanks to the Superman and Batman films, still were very uncertain how to proceed in this arena. Lest we forget, this was the same era when Warner Bros. released Batman & Robin after all.
Schnepp speaks to all the screenwriters who wrote drafts of Superman Lives, including Kevin Smith (Clerks), Wesley Strick (Cape Fear) and Dan Gilroy (Nightcrawler), director Tim Burton (Batman), producer Jon Peters (Batman) and many others who were involved in developing the film’s production design, creatures, sets, costumes and more. While you can find drafts of the script online, the documentary goes much further into the approach the filmmakers had and what it’s like taking the sketches Burton does for all his films and extrapolating them into something that will be seen onscreen.
Some of these stories will be familiar, particularly those from Smith, given his prolific second career as a monologist and podcaster. But there’s plenty of new information throughout – since Smith only wrote the early drafts, he’s not nearly as present as the documentary continues, and hell, he’s always funny telling these stories, so it’s still entertaining to hear them again. Plus, it’s actually pretty great to hear him note that Superman Lives, and working with Jon Peters, essentially launched this second career – since it was these stories that first got him attention in the “telling long, funny stories from his life” arena.
As Smith himself noted at a screening of the documentary I attended, Jon Peters is pretty much the star of The Death of Superman Lives. The hairdresser turned incredibly successful producer is a character unlike any other – a man who boasts about being in “500 street fights”, antagonizes the crew by his callous reaction to their work (and method of choosing which creature designs he likes) and someone almost everyone else interviewed either makes subtle or not-so-subtle pointed comments about. While the Peters interview was secured shockingly close to The Death of Superman Lives’ release, Schnepp and his editors incorporated it very well – including moments where we cut back and forth between Peters and those talking about Peters, such as Smith, in a fun “point/counterpoint” manner, as Peters certainly sees things differently in many cases. Also, film fans should get a kick out of the interview with Burton being done in the director’s own home in the UK, which is just as Tim Burton-y as one would hope.
The Death of Superman Lives gets a bit bogged down in the middle. There’s certainly a lot of interesting material on the approach to Superman’s costume the filmmakers were taking, which would have involved multiple suits that served different functions. Costumer designer Colleen Atwood (who’s gone on to design the costumes for the current TV versions of Arrow, The Flash and Supergirl) discusses what Burton asked of her and we see a lot of interview material with special effects creators tasked with designing some completely out there concepts, including a suit that was filled with lights. While this material is worthwhile for sure – Schnepp clearly wants to show why people have been wrong to snark about aspects of the film they didn’t actually understand, context-wise – it does go on a bit too long, with a bit more specificity than perhaps is needed.
Overall though, The Death of Superman Lives: What Happened? is well worth checking out for film geeks, comic geeks and the increasingly intertwined place the two meet. It becomes increasingly clear that if nothing else, Superman Lives would have been something different – something very out there that was taking risks with Superman. Would it have worked? Who knows. It’s easy to envision the final film just being a mess. But it also could have been inspired. Either way though, it’s clear many people were giving their all on it.
Yes, it’s disappointing that Nicolas Cage, who would have starred in Superman Lives, is the only notable person involved with the aborted film who declined to participate in the documentary and isn’t interviewed. However, Schnepp makes up for this via the interview material about Cage others participate in, a couple of archival interview snippets of Cage discussing the project and, most importantly, the videos shot during costume tests the actor did with Burton and Atwood in the late 90s. These videos are wonderful, fly-on-the-wall documents, showing an unguarded Cage trying out various incarnations of the costume as it was being developed, and candid moments where he and Burton discuss aspects of Superman, Clark Kent and what these alter-egos represent.