The Death of Superman Lives: What Happened?, 2015.
Directed by Jon Schnepp.
Featuring Tim Burton, Jon Peters, Kevin Smith, Dan Gilroy, Wesley Strick, Colleen Atwood, Lorenzo di Bonaventura, Grant Morrison.
A documentary about the proposed 1998 Superman Lives feature film that would have starred Nicolas Cage.
Despite never making it to the screen, Superman Lives is a project which it seems will live forever in infamy. Directed by Tim Burton, and with Nicolas Cage set to lead the cast as Superman, it spent several years in development before Warner Bros. decided to pull the plug just weeks before cameras started rolling, leaving fans to forever wonder ‘what might have been’. Well, thankfully we now have writer-director Jon Schnepp’s documentary The Death of Superman Lives: What Happened? to peel back the curtain on Burton’s offbeat take on the Man of Steel as it attempts to answer that very question.
For fans of comic book movies, and particularly those old enough to remember reading tidbits about Superman Lives during its drawn-out development period, The Death of Superman Lives provides a fascinating insight into a movie which – depending on which side of the fence you’re on – either had the potential to deliver a fresh, original take on the Man of Steel, or a travesty of Batman & Robin-level proportions. I’m firmly in the latter camp of that debate, a position I’ve held from the very first moment I read that Tim Burton would be directing Nicolas Cage as Kal-El, but for the most part The Death of Superman Lives remains objective, preferring instead to detail the project from its earliest inception under writer Kevin Smith through to its dying days in 1998.
To tell his story, Schnepp has spoken to pretty much all of the major players involved in the project save for Nicolas Cage, whose contributions are limited to archive footage. However, the rest are all present, from director Tim Burton and hairdresser-turned-crazy Hollywood producer Jon Peters, through to scriptwriters Kevin Smith, Wesley Strick and Dan Gilroy, costume designer Colleen Atwood, and a host of concept artists and production crew. In addition to their unique and entertaining observations, we’re also treated to a wealth of never-before-seen concept art and models, not to mention footage of Nicolas Cage testing out the various Superman suits, including the dreaded “regeneration suit” (which as it happens, would have been worn for 2 minutes of screen time).
Special mention has to be made here to Jon Peters. Nic Cage as Superman. A giant spider/Thanagarian Snare Beast. Brainiac fighting polar bears outside of the Fortress of Solitude. These are just a few of the ideas for Superman Lives that came from the mind of Barbra Streisand’s former hairstylist, a man who wanted Michael Keaton’s Batman to declare, “I’m Batman, motherfucker!”, has writers read their scripts aloud while he lies on a sofa blocking their words out on an imaginary screen on the ceiling, boasts that he’s a veteran of “500 fights”, and seemed to spend much of his time on Superman Lives headlocking concept artists and grappling people to the ground. The guy is bonkers, and surely needs his own documentary.
The Death of Superman Lives does have a few minor shortcomings: it would have been nice to have more of an overview of the plots from the various scripts, particularly for anyone unfamiliar with the project and its proposed storylines, and it’s a shame that Schnepp could not have secured the participation of Nicolas Cage, especially as Tim Burton seems a little reluctant to go into much detail himself. Still, if like me,you can remember reading about / being fascinated by / fearing Superman Lives, or you’ve got an interest in the superhero genre or the inner workings of Hollywood, then this documentary is certainly a must watch and offers up the definitive story of what would surely been the strangest superhero tale of all.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Gary Collinson is a writer and lecturer from the North East of England. He is the editor-in-chief of FlickeringMyth.com and the author of Holy Franchise, Batman! Bringing the Caped Crusader to the Screen.