Sorting Through Tim Burton’s Promising Wreckage:

The Death of Superman Lives: What Happened?

We have all probably heard, even if just in passing, of the great lost Superman film of the 1990s, but probably only rumours of goofy costumes and questionable casting. The recent independent documentary The Death of Superman Lives: What Happened?, directed by Jon Schnepp, tells the whole story, from beginning to end, and fills in many gaps. Probably the most interesting thing about the documentary is how it gives us a sense of what Tim Burton’s Superman Lives would have been like. Defying all odds and running counter to contemporary fan sentiment, in retrospect it could have been a truly great film, presenting a new and fresh take on the character, grounded in, of all things, the comic book itself.

Many of us got most of this story originally from An Evening With Kevin Smith, way back in 2002. In the filmed lecture series, Smith shares a long amusing anecdote with a College audience about his time on the film, his experience working with eccentric producer Jon Peters and his contribution to the development of the script. At first, if Smith is to be believed (and while some elements of Smith’s story are disputed in the documentary, this one isn’t), the script for Superman Reborn was in terrible shape. Exuding camp and a lack of understanding of the mythology of the character, as originally conceived, Superman Reborn might have been the Batman and Robin of Superman films. Smith’s assignment was to give the story some heft, and some sense of continuity with the character as he had appeared in previous films and comics.  Smith’s most lasting contribution to the film project was to suggest the title Superman Lives, and he came up with a story pulled straight from the pages of then-contemporary Superman comics involving Brainiac, the death of Superman, and his eventual rebirth thanks to Kryptonian technology.

Jon Peters, the producer of the film, is a quintessential Hollywood man, having risen from hairdresser to major producer by his own efforts and charm. In the documentary, Peters holds forth from his couch/office (at one point in his interview he stops to take a phone call and do some business), seeming no more or no less odd than many other such producers. He denies much of Smith’s story, and simply says that he was impressed with the younger man “talking a great game” and appreciates in retrospect his contribution to getting the project on a different tack. But he’s also rather dismissive of Smith’s writing efforts, saying his script wasn’t compelling and had “no structure”.

One of the more famous stories from the trenches of Superman Lives was that Peters insisted that “Superman fight a giant spider in the third act”, which, when Smith tells the story, is a simple laugh line. But the documentary explores this in depth and it actually isn’t as outrageous as it seems. Brainiac himself would be the afore-mentioned arachnid, and from the concept art, this wouldn’t be any more outrageous than the villain using Lex Luthor’s body as a vessel, for example (from the Alan Moore-penned comic “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow”), and would actually have presented a creepy and challenging opponent. This sort of historical revisionism is replete in Schnepp’s story, and illustrates just how much the film would have drawn from the spirit and style of the comics.

Smith, of course, was fired from his writing duties when Tim Burton came into the picture with his own vision, keeping very little of the earlier script drafts, save a broad outline and the title. Two other writers, both Burton veterans, worked on getting the script into some kind of shape and Burton’s fertile imagination kicked into gear. It’s important to note, as the documentary does, that Burton was at this point fresh from Ed Wood and Mars Attacks! and still hadn’t produced his lamentable 2000 Planet of the Apes re-make. We can imagine, based on what’s shown here, how film history may have been different if he had manage to finish Superman Lives just at this moment, rather than diving back into his own comic-Gothic world for 1999’s Sleepy Hollow. Both Burton’s career, and the course of superhero and comic book cinema, could be in a very different place today.

The casting of Nicholas Cage as Superman is another of Smith’s laugh-lines, but we should remember that at this time, Cage was fresh from an Oscar win for Leaving Las Vegas and was establishing himself as an off-centre action star in Con Air and The Rock. Although at first improbable, his casting makes increasing sense as Schnepp shows us photos and video of costume tests, showing how enthusiastic, intelligent and collaborative Cage and Burton were at the outset of the project. (Cage, by the way, is one of the few major players who doesn’t sit for an interview in the documentary. Burton, surprisingly, is very candid and friendly, with clear memories and a lingering passion for the film, although he laughs from his home in England today about how long ago all of this was, and how many different turns the production could have taken, if it had been allowed to carry on.)

One big revelation from the documentary is Cage and Burton’s take on Clark Kent. Far from being a mild-mannered Boy Scout reporter a la Christopher Reeve, Cage would have played Kent as a shambolic nineties California hipster, with clashing clothes, baggy pants and cheap sunglasses. The logic – which is frankly quite sound – was that no one would ever suspect such a pathetic and disorganized character of being Superman. It’s as sensible an idea in the late 1990s as having Kent be a straightforward spectacled reporter in the late 1930s, and a great example of how Burton and Cage were taking chances with the character while staying true to his essential nature.

Overall, the documentary illustrates just how original Burton’s vision for Superman was, and ironically for an artist who claims not to be interested in comics, it would have been closer to the portrayal in our favourite medium than anything so far produced. That includes Richard Donner’s Superman and Bryan Singer’s later homage to it with Superman Returns. And moreover, it would have had more fun, more spectacle (the regeneration sequence in particular seems like it would have been fantastic) and more heart than Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel. (Although that may be damning with faint praise: I think a lump of coal has more heart than that particular film.)

It’s entirely fitting that Schnepp has made this documentary for true comic book fans, as they would have no doubt found much to love in Superman Lives. The irony is that the film was cancelled mainly due to the box office and critical failure of Batman and Robin, along with other Warner products, which made the studio reluctant, at least for a while, to invest in yet another big-budget spectacle. Burton, so the rumour goes, was particularly incensed that the franchise he helped create (the original Batman) had been mutated so much by Joel Schumacher that it killed another franchise he was in the process of resurrecting. From the evidence presented in The Death of Superman Lives, we could easily have had a run of great Superman films fifteen years ago, with an Oscar-winning movie star in the title role, rather than the grim spectacle of today’s cinematic Superman. For fans of this genre, the documentary is an ode to a different and more creative era.

The film can be purchased directly from Schnepp’s website, and we’re happy to endorse it here.

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Independent scholar Ian Dawe has been writing for Sequart since November 2013. Before that, he had a mixed background, initially in science (Molecular Biology and Biochemistry), where he earned an MSc from Simon Fraser University and then an MA in Film from the University of Exeter in the UK. He spent a decade teaching at the college level, delivering courses in Genetics, Biochemistry, Cell Biology, Biological Anthropology and Film History. His academic work includes peer-reviewed papers on the work of Alan Moore, Harvey Pekar for Studies in Comics and a dissertation on Terry Gilliam for the University of Exeter. He has presented papers at several major academic conferences including Slayage 2014, Magus: Transdisciplinary Approaches to the Work of Alan Moore in 2010 (in the wizard's hometown of Northampton), Comics Rock and the International Conference of the Humanities in 2012, and at the Southwest Popular Culture Association Conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico in 2014 and 2015. He has contributed to several books, including a chapter about the TV show Archer in "James Bond and Popular Culture" and two chapters on Breaking Bad for "Breaking Bad and Masculinity", both now available from McFarland. At Sequart, he has authored a chapter for New Life and New Civiliations: Exploring Star Trek Comics, A Long Time Ago and two more upcoming books on Star Wars comics. He has also contributed to books on Alan Moore and 1970s Horror Comics. He is currently planning a full-length book on Better Call Saul. Ian currently lives in Vancouver, BC.

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Also by Ian Dawe:

The Cyberpunk Nexus: Exploring the Blade Runner Universe


A More Civilized Age: Exploring the Star Wars Expanded Universe


A Galaxy Far, Far Away: Exploring Star Wars Comics


A Long Time Ago: Exploring the Star Wars Cinematic Universe


New Life and New Civilizations: Exploring Star Trek Comics


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