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Catching up on 2015: The Death of “Superman Lives”: What Happened?

March 11th, 2016
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Back in the mid-nineties, Tim Burton came very close to directing a Superman movie, to be titled Superman Lives, that would have starred Nicolas Cage in the title role.  This is one of the great cinematic what-ifs.  What on Earth would a Tim Burton Superman movie have been like?  What would Nic Cage have been like as Superman?  The mind boggles.

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That image, above, is one of the few images that had been made public about the planned film.  It’s pretty ludicrous-looking, and seems like strong evidence that Nic Cage would have been horribly miscast as Superman.  Much of the rest of what little I — and most other fans — knew of this aborted project was Kevin Smith’s hilarious story of his year-long experience writing a few drafts of a script for the film.  If you haven’t seen this, from An Evening with Kevin Smith, this is a must watch.  (Sorry for the Spanish subtitles and the story being split into two parts, but this was the best I could find on youtube.  But seriously, settle in and watch this:)

But in the documentary The Death of “Superman Lives”: What Happened? filmmaker Jon Schnepp sought to dig deeper and to uncover as much as he could of the behind-the-scenes story of this film that never was.  The documentary has two goals: First, to tell the story of the development and eventual cancellation of this planned film.  Second, to try to reconstruct as complete as possible a look at what the film would have been.

Both aspects are fascinating.  I always love behind-the-scenes stories, and the twisted path of Superman Returns is a particularly juicy Hollywood story.  It’s a compelling story, and Mr. Schnepp has assembled most of the key players in the film’s production to help tell it.  I particularly enjoyed getting to see producer Jon Peters attempt (not entirely successfully) to rebut Kevin Smith’s depiction of him as a deranged lunatic.  All of the film’s screenwriters get a chance to tell their stories (including Kevin Smith, who retells many of the stories that he told so memorably in the above clip from An Evening with Kevin Smith).  What was most impressive to me was that Mr. Schnepp got Tim Burton to sit down for a lengthy interview, to describe in-depth the story of his involvement with the planned film and also his intentions for the film.

Just as Jodorowsky’s Dune (a magnificent documentary that I reviewed here) sought to reconstruct filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky’s planned but never-made film adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune, so too does this film attempt to reconstruct what Superman Returns would have been like.  Mr. Schnepp’s detective work is impressive.  This is a film that has been much discussed over the years but it’s one that most fans actually knew very little about.  To shed light on the planned film, Mr. Schnepp has assembled a robust array of interviews with the film’s production team, from the writers to the designers to the costumers.  There is a huge amount of production art included in the film for us to see, and some fascinating behind-the-scenes footage.  Most impressive is that Mr. Schnepp managed to get footage from Nic Cage’s costume tests.  Among other juicy clips, we get to see the costume fittings from which the much-circulated embarrassing image at the top of this review came.  I’m still not convinced that some of these crazy costume ideas would have worked, or that Nic Cage wouldn’t have been miscast as Superman, but it’s great fun to see what the filmmakers actually had in mind, and to see that Mr. Cage didn’t look as ridiculous in the Superman costume as one might have suspected.

The film’s biggest weakness is Mr. Schnepp himself, who for some reason insisted on being on-camera with most of his interview subjects.  Most of the film looks like this:

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It feels very amateurish putting himself constantly on-screen like that.  I’d forgive this more easily if Mr. Schnepp was an interesting on-screen presence, but sadly he’s not.  He mostly just sits there, nodding his head while his subjects talk.  This was a big mis-step and hurts the film.  It’s sort of painful to watch.

Also, at 104 minutes, I felt the film was too long.  It would have benefited from some tighter editing.  This is a story that I am fascinated by, and yet I found my attention waning in the film’s second half.

I remain unconvinced that Tim Burton’s version of Superman would have been anything other than a huge swing-and-a-miss.  I think Tim Burton’s Batman is a phenomenal movie, but I think it’s a poor version of Batman.  And what was acceptable in 1989 in terms of Hollywood making a lot of changes to beloved super-hero characters (the Joker killed Bruce Wayne’s parents??) doesn’t fly nearly as well today when we’ve been blessed with so many far-more faithful adaptations of beloved characters from books (see: the Harry Potter films) and comics (see: pretty much every single Marvel Studios film so far).  (I was just talking about this a few days ago when I was writing about the planned Dark Tower film adaptation.)

Still, despite the documentary’s flaws, I quite enjoyed Mr. Schnepp’s efforts in bringing to light everything that Tim Burton and the other men and women involved with this project had in mind for Superman Lives.  It might not have been great, but it sure would have been interesting.

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