By James Hancock August 3rd, 2015
I’m a little late to the game in reviewing this documentary but as a backer of The Death of ‘Superman Lives’: What Happened? on Kickstarter, I’ve had my free copy of the movie staring back at me from my inbox for several weeks. The Death of ‘Superman Lives’: What Happened? is a documentary about a Superman movie that was supposed to be filmed in the late 1990s by director Tim Burton only to be abruptly canceled a few weeks before cameras were about to roll. I’m a comic book freak, I love superhero movies and I particularly love movies about filmmaking so I have little explanation for my delay in watching this documentary. From the campaign video I suspected early on that purely from a technical standpoint this was not going to be a movie on par with Jodorowsky’s Dune (2013), my all-time favorite movie about filmmaking. I backed director Jon Schnepp’s Superman documentary more out of interest in the topic rather than my faith in his abilities as a filmmaker. I take no satisfaction in reporting that Jon Schnepp’s skills as a director are a little clumsy, at times bordering on amateur. That said, this documentary features fantastic interviews with all the essential filmmakers involved with the failed project and an abundance of raw information about the movie that might have been. Jon Schnepp clearly devoted an enormous amount of time and energy to the movie and I’m proud to have backed the project, but only hardcore superhero geeks or rabid Tim Burton fans are likely to take an interest in this movie, one that feels like a glorified DVD extra on steroids.
But now that I have gotten the necessary review out of the way, I can sink my teeth into the content. There is a lot here for raging nerds like myself to explore. I’ve been gathering information about Superman Lives piece by piece for almost 20 years. During my first summer internship in 1997, I had a chance to read the first draft of the screenplay, one that the 26-year-old Kevin Smith was famously paid $1 million to write. The late Nineties was a strange time for comics where cheap gimmicks such as hologram covers or the killing off of iconic characters were the order of the day. Readers knew they were being shafted and the industry justifiably contracted by 80%. This was the only period of my life where I gave up on reading comics altogether. But given the opportunity to read Kevin Smith’s script I was overjoyed to have the excuse at work to dip my toes back in those waters. The script from my point of view was a pretty damn solid attempt at adapting the notorious Death and Return of Superman storyline from the comics but with Brainiac and Lex Luthor thrown in for good measure. Kevin Smith relates his experiences writing the screenplay and working for the eccentric producer Jon Peters in the videos below. Kevin Smith’s anecdote about trying to write a screenplay within the studio system is easily his finest hour and is essential viewing in my opinion.
Fast forward a few months, when I heard that Tim Burton and Nicolas Cage had come on board to direct and star in Superman Lives, my feelings were mixed. This was a period where I still got excited about the prospect of seeing a Tim Burton film but the Nicolas Cage of this era was just beginning his infatuation with starring in muscle-bound action flicks like Con Air (1997) and my interest in him as an actor was taking a serious nose dive. When I heard that the film had been scrapped, there were a lot of rumors as to why. The prehistoric days of the internet at that time were not at all like what we have today and there was no way to confirm or deny why the film had been shut down. We all simply assumed that Warner Bros took one look at Nicolas Cage in the suit and said, ‘No thanks.’
Well thanks to Jon Schnepp we now have what is likely to be the most comprehensive look at this failed production that we are ever likely to see. Throughout the film he interviews the multiple screenwriters, producers, studio heads, costume designers, & conceptual artists that struggled to bring this movie to life. Looking back, it is easy to see why the film disintegrated. Producer Jon Peters was and remains to this day completely insane and perfectly personifies every negative stereotype of a power-mad delusional producer spreading confusion with every meeting he takes. The army of artists and designers at work had no clear idea who was in control of the project but obediently went to work on any assignment that was set in front of them whether those jobs were consistent with Tim Burton’s vision or not. After hiring multiple screenwriters to deliver a series of new drafts, Warner Bros was hemorrhaging millions of dollars at a time when they were already experiencing a seemingly endless cold streak of flops and disappointments with nearly every film they made, including Joel Schumacher’s ridiculous Batman & Robin (1997). When Warner Bros eventually realized that Tim Burton was planning a film that would cost roughly $200 million to produce, during a time period where that figure was hilariously unrealistic, Warner Bros finally decided to reinvest those funds into yet another failure, Barry Sonnenfeld’s Wild Wild West (1999), a film where the categorically strange storytelling ambitions of producer Jon Peters were finally allowed to reach the screen.
But looking back at what might have been, I have to admit I am no longer so quick to look condescendingly on what Tim Burton was planning to do with the material. I love the reimagining of Brainiac through the lens of a Tim Burton at the top of his game. Plus the designs of Superman’s regenerative suit that brings him back from death are a pure geeky thrill that any comic fan can appreciate. You have to remember that this production was being put together at a time when nobody had any idea how the superhero genre would explode in the 21st century. The real game changers from an industry standpoint were X-Men (2000) and Spider-Man (2002) but in the late 1990s, big-budget Superhero movies were incredibly rare. Most of the half-hearted attempts at superhero movies like Steel (1997) and Spawn (1997) were downright awful. Tim Burton was the only bankable director working in that genre due to the roaring success of his interpretation of Batman in 1989. Watching this documentary, when I see some of the storytelling and design ideas Tim Burton hoped to achieve, he was rightly or wrongly completely reinventing the mythology of Superman from the ground up in a way that could never be imagined today when every leaked picture from a set potentially results in millions of death threats on Twitter about not remaining true to the roots of a character. I love a good faithful adaptation of a great character, but being faithful is not always the best approach as James Gunn proved in abundance last summer with Guardians of the Galaxy. The late 1990s was the last era where a director could make a superhero movie with relatively little public scrutiny and I can’t help but wonder how radically the trajectory of the superhero genre might have been affected if Superman Lives had ever reached the screen. The Death of ‘Superman Lives’: What Happened? is not a great movie, but the documentary gives us all the evidence we need to envision a movie that will go down in history as one of the great unmade big-budget superhero extravaganzas. I would not surprise me at all if my fellow superhero freaks and geeks were to continue to debate the pros and cons of this failed production for as many years as superhero movies continue to be made (which will hopefully be forever).
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