The Death of Superman Lives: What Happened? Review
In 2013, we got "Man of Steel." While it was met with lots of controversy, I still stand by the review I wrote back in that summer. I think it is a great Superman movie, and its been something I was waiting for for a very long time. I was not much of a fan of "Superman Returns." I thought some scenes and ideas were nice, but the movie ultimately didn't work for me. I thought Lex Luthor's plot was terrible. I thought the idea of Lois and Superman's child was dumb and cliche-ridden. Its not a movie I was overly-enthused about. I will say, that I think "Superman Returns," was way better than what could have been.
For some reason, Warner Brothers struggled over the years to get DC Superheroes on the big screen. Sure, Superman worked for a little bit in the 1970's, Batman worked off and on, but nothing else has. I am hoping that streak changes next year with the arrival of the DC Extended Universe of movies. But there was a time where Warner Brothers clearly just didn't get it. "Superman Lives" was a movie we almost got in the mid-1990s. This is the documentary of that Superman movie we never got.
"Superman Lives" was to kickstart the hero in the 1990's. Warner Brothers executive Jon Peters wanted to bring Superman back to the screen and in style. Peters wanted Tim Burton to direct the movie, yes the guy behind "Batman" and "Batman Returns." Why not? He successfully brought the Caped Crusader to the big screen, couldn't do the same for The Man of Steel? Burton signed on to make "Superman Lives," and he pursued Nicolas Cage to play Superman.
Yep, its true. Nicolas Cage was almost Superman. While you may be laughing right now, or revolting in horror. Please remember one thing, everybody rejected the idea of Michael Keaton playing Batman in the late 1980's, and he ended up being one of the best actors to play the role, and that happened under Burton's watch. Could Tim Burton get Nicolas Cage to be Superman? Could Nic Cage get us to believe him as Superman? Even though it never happened, I would kind of kill to see it, even if it turned out to be a trainwreck.
So Burton had Cage as Superman, Sandra Bullock as Lois Lane, Chris Rock as Jimmy Olsen, Christopher Walken as Brainiac and Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor (which actually ended up happening.). Burton was working from a script whose first draft was written by Kevin Smith, yep Silent Bob himself. Smith is actually a big comic book guy, and his script was actually pretty cool. Smith's Superman script would have been the first shared universe, as he had several aspects of the DC universe in his script, including a Batman cameo. But Jon Peters wanted three specific things in the movie, Superman couldn't wear his signature suit because Peters thought it was "too faggy" (yep, the exact words of a studio exec), Superman couldn't fly, and Superman had to fight a giant spider. Why, I don't know and I don't get it. I guess Peters thought it would be exciting. Of course, when Peters was interviewed, he denied everything, so we will never know if what Smith claimed he said was true.
So Smith's script got scrapped and re-written, and that's when the crazy ideas REALLY took hold. Imagine seeing Brainiac and Lex Luthor sharing a body, with a twisting head represented both characters. Imagine a small robot following Superman around and being his sidekick because I guess that's what Superman needed. Imagine a scene where Superman randomly fought polar bears in the Fortress of Solitude. Oh, and that big Spider? Brainiac would have become that by the end of the movie.
As silly as that all sounds, it was a movie that almost got made. Nicolas Cage went through several costume tests, several costumes were made, concept art was created. There was lots of money spent on this, and right before the date of filming, WB scrapped the idea! The movie never got made.
What's fascinating about "The Death of Superman Lives" is it really captures all of the effort and ideas that go into making a movie. Its a showing of how an idea sparks, how it hits a page and begins to become a reality, even though this particular film didn't become a reality. Its amazing to see how much effort was put into a movie that didn't get made. It is both humorous and interesting to look at something that could have been. Would a Nic Cage-led Superman movie had worked? We will never know, we will never know if Burton could have got him to work as the character.
Documentary director Jon Schnepp gives us a great glimpse of what could have been. He makes its entertaining, funny and wisely insightful. This is a different kind of documentary, but something that was a great watch, something that should be seen by anybody who loves movies. As a comic book fan, I was glued to this. Did we dodge a bullet? Who knows, but the ride was quite fun.
FINAL GRADE: A