Expensive development, aesthetic over-compensation, a studio already licking too many financial wounds: That is what happened to Superman Lives. Or was it Superman Reborn? Regardless, Tim Burton and Nicolas Cage’s angst-addled, alienated take on the Man of Steel came very close to being released in the summer of 1998. That fact alone is interesting enough pub trivia. But that’s the thing with comic books: There’s always a demand for more stories.
The neat documentary The Death of “Superman Lives”: What Happened? provides ample archival material and funny interviews as director and Supes fanboy Jon Schnepp digs into one of the most popular stories of development hell in Hollywood history. The film features a cavalcade of talking heads involved with the production, fabulous production art, and almost regret-inducing home videos.
Over the years, pictures of Nic Cage in a Superman suit have popped up online and the Superman Lives Wikipedia page is bursting with notes on productions. Director Kevin Smith somewhat immortalized the fiasco film in his uninhibited stand-up bit about producer Jon Peter’s insistence on adding spiders and polar bears to Superman Lives’ screenplay. “Fiercest killers in the animal kingdom,” Smith and even Peters reiterate here. With this new doc, Schnepp wants to make an omnibus out of a 20-year-old rumor mill.
The comic movie was meant to be a hip, unexpected take about the death and rebirth of DC Comics’ most beloved, kinda bland hero. Can a man that is in every essence perfect have flaws? Anxieties? A robot sidekick with rejuvenating powers that would have cost a mint for Industrial Light and Magic to articulate? Everyone that worked on Superman Lives for a couple of well-publicized years in the late ‘90s seemed to think so.
To echo one of the Comic-Con talking heads interviewed, The Death of “Superman Lives” is like a high-level game of “what if?” Maybe this could have been a cool movie. Lord knows tons of comic book movies have gotten by critically and commercially without scripts. Jeff Bridges told us so in regards to Iron Man. But that was 2008, when the market for these films were about to explode, not 1998 when Kevin Costner’s films nearly blew up studios. Schnepp purports a multitude of reasons for the ‘90s Superman failure, while sharing anecdotes and art from designers, producers, and Burton and Kevin themselves. Perhaps Jon Peters’ idea for vicious polar bears made Warner brass hang their heads. Who knows? The dirty laundry, Superman’s red undies, are here. Schnepp really immerses himself in the inside business of it all.
Yet Death of “Superman Lives” seems more interested in trying to get the skinny on Superman, rather than making a grand statement about the industry, trends in comic films, or the mythos of Superman itself. What we get is a somewhat sloppy labor of love from a fan. Nothing more, nothing less.
Perhaps it’s a comic-dweeb-only proposition, or something for fans of Hollywood gossip (this guy right here), but at the very least, Death of “Superman Lives” provides more than enough curiosities. A mechanical spider Braniac? How would you go about designing that in 1997? And right there, a number of people just asked, “What the hell is a Brainiac?” Perhaps if this film was made, that would be moot, but still. Schnepp is clearly in it for his own edification, but at least he’s kind of upfront about it, and happy to drop some deets on Kal-El’s failed flight.