One of the good things about the Internet is that you get to read some interesting backstories on things ranging from history to science to film. One of the bad things is that you don’t always get the full story. Films stuck in development hell, i.e. films that someone wants to make, but they just can’t get from the development stage to actual filming have always fascinated me. Such films include a Planet of the Apes film starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Batman: Year One, Aliens vs. Predator and others. As you probably can tell, some of these films eventually got made, however in a different manner than originally intended.
One such film is Superman Lives!, a film that was supposed to relaunch the Superman film franchise after the less than stellar Superman III and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace . Superman Lives! has become a running joke amongst comic book and film fans based on a test photo of Nicholas Cage as Superman and nothing short of crazy rumors surrounding the film. Conventional wisdom is that it was a good thing the film never got made as it would have been a disaster. However, conventional wisdom is often wrong and the documentary The Death of Superman Lives! suggests that the film might actually have been very good.
Given all of the successful superhero films over the last sixteen years, it’s hard to figure out DC’s failure with Superman. Superman Returns wasn’t a box office failure but it was lukewarm enough that Warner Brothers chose to reboot the film rather than continue on with Brandon Routh as Superman (after watching Routh in Legends of Tomorrow, I think he could have been a good Superman but the film’s script was boring and the plot derivative of Superman: The Movie). Warner went with Zach Snyder to reboot Supes in Man of Steel, going with an origin story and battle with familiar foe General Zod. DC then looked for cinematic success via the shared universe route, ditching a Man of Steel sequel for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.
Superman: The Movie proved that not only would you believe a man can fly but that Superman could be a compelling character for a general audience. This should come as no surprise given the character’s success in other media such as radio, animation, film serials, and television. Superman: The Movie and Superman II were entertaining films that showed that comic book films could be successful at the box office. That was forty years ago when special effects were limited to practical effects and blue screen and when the Batman TV series had created serious doubts about the marketability of comic book TV shows, let alone films. With the first two films, Warner Brothers seemed to have a new franchise on their hands.
Unfortunately, the franchise stumbled when the producers decided to take Superman in a comedic vein with Superman III, an uneven entry that focused more on comedian Richard Pryor than the title character. The low-budget and heavy-handed Superman IV: The Quest for Peace put the franchise in the Phantom Zone. Two years later, Tim Burton’s Batman showed that there was a market for an entertaining superhero film. Sadly, Warner didn’t learn the lessons of Superman III and IV, and the Batman franchise stumbled with Batman Forever, then self-destructing with Batman and Robin.
After "The Death of Superman" comic book storyline proved to be a hit, Warner Brothers set its sights on a new Superman film. Producer Jon Peters went through scripts until Kevin Smith was hired to rewrite a previous script. It is at this point that the documentary begins its look at what might have been.
This documentary features interviews with screenwriter Kevin Smith, the film’s producer Jon Peters, director Tim Burton, and other people involved on the film. Unfortunately, Nicholas Cage does not appear in the documentary other than test footage of him in the Superman costume. His presence might have shed light on what the film was aiming for and his interpretation of the Superman character.
One of the film’s highlights is the interviews with Kevin Smith, who wrote an early screenplay for the film. While I’m not a big fan of Smith’s comic book work (there are many reasons but Smith’s inability to meet deadlines and his bizarre takes on characters such as Batman’s bladder explosion are reasons enough for me), the script had potential. It would have incorporated the “Death of Superman” storyline with Superman returning from the dead in a new costume. Smith provides some funny insights into what it was like working on the film, particularly producer Jon Peters.
The casting of Nicholas Cage was controversial (to say the least) but as points out, so was the casting of Michael Keaton as Batman in Tim Burton’s Batman. Kevin Smith remarks that the casting of Cage nearly broke the Internet just as the casting of Keaton would have broken the Internet had it existed (for the general public). I still remember the furor over Keaton’s casting. Many fans feared that the star of Mr. Mom and Beetlejuice meant the film was going for a campy tone. Keaton proved them wrong and Batman succeeded, leading to three sequels (albeit only two with Keaton).