While we now live in an age of comic book blockbusters with major studios looking to develop and greenlight every property under the sun, or at least put them in some form of production, it is only in the very recent past that this attitude was not the case. The late Eighties and Nineties were dominated by one superhero only, that being Batman, after Superman had been run into the ground with The Quest for Peace and the other movies based on earlier pulp heroes like The Phantom (who figured the audience for Billy Zane in purple spandex would dry up so quickly?) as well as The Shadow (actually a very underrated film, starring every major player of 90’s film, check it out) failed to excite the box office.
However, The Man of Steel wasn’t always relegated to riding the pine while Bruce Wayne had all the fun in the Scrooge McDuck pool of money it made (and maybe mercifully avoided the critical and audience drubbing that later outing like Batman & Robin still get). In the 90’s Warner Brothers had the idea to bring Tim Burton into the fold again to reinvent Superman for a modern audience, and try to make something unique, based off a script that was written a few times over (first by none other than Kevin Smith, director of Clerks, Wesley Strick, scribe for Batman Returns and even Dan Gilroy, who appeared to at least once in his life partake in the “tsunami” of superhero films, he railed about late last year). The film was also to star recent Oscar winner and box office draw Nicolas Cage (ah, to be 1998 again!) and was named Superman Lives…until it was canned and put permanently in development hell after years of costumes, tests and designs.
Jon Schnepp, alongside other comic book fans, seemingly wondered what they missed out on, and Schnepp wanted to get the whole story on the life and death of Superman Lives (outside of Smith’s famous bit about his experience). In doing so, he made the movie The Death of Superman Lives: What Happened? and fortunately, in getting great interviews with the people involved including Smith and Tim Burton as well as maligned producer John Peters, The Death of Superman Lives: What Happened? is a great look at one of the greatest films not coming to a theater near you, as well as a look at blockbuster filmmaking paired with an ode to the hard work done by people who have to roll the dice on if their work ever gets to be seen by an audience.
Schenpp gets great responses from his interviewees and cuts the film in a certain way that makes it feel like a conversation, or at least a debate of what happened. The antagonist, it would appear is Peters, who is the only person willing to defend himself against the opinions of all else involved (Burton uses the euphemism “force of nature” while others are less tactful in calling him out as a macho, bloviating, schoolyard bully) an to even get Peters into the movie as a rebuttal casts off the pre-judgement of this documentary as a piece of fanboy love against an evils studio. Schenpp cares to get all sides, and even rebuffs the same fanboys who many would say this film caters too, giving a rebuttal to a long sent picture of Nicolas Cage, looking high as a kite, in an early costume that seemed to be a sort of Halloween Superman costume (Burton’s analogy, not mine) which poisoned the project enough to kill interest in a larger picture (there’s a neat anecdote about Bryan Singer keeping this picture with him at all times on the set of Superman Returns to palm off anyone who questioned his aesthetics). The film also gives a great look at what this movie could have been, about a movie from the ultimate outsider as well as evolving from what Smith calls his “fan fiction” to Gilroy’s more nuanced and character driven take (for budget reasons). The displays of great artwork and suit tests as well as old footage of Nicolas Cage in better suits also help the thesis of the documentary that this movie could have been special.
Sometimes however, it can get caught up in the art as well as discussions of ho this movie was ahead of its time in terms of crafting a universe (Smith had a Batman cameo in his draft, as well as making a giant spider [Peters’ idea] into a “Thanagarian Snarebeast”, a nod to Hawkman) as well as making Peters to be more like a antagonist by showing footage of him rudely accepting a phone call in the middle of his interview with Schnepp (CORRECTION: The team behind the movie has told me that this scene was meant as a joke, not as something that actually happened during the interview unexpectedly, however it does feel a bit out of place but I thank the team for clarifying), his attitude as well as his dismissal of almost everyone in the production was enough to show that he may be trying to place himself in a better light (including dismissing claims by Smith that he didn’t want Superman to fly or wear his famous red and blue suit).
That aside however, The Death of Superman Lives: What Happened? is a must see for not only comic book movie fans but movie fans in general who want to see all the work that is put into a movie before its even greenlit, and appreciate all the art and love that as put into the stagecraft and designs. It’s an intriguing and wonderful experience that may change minds about this doomed project, with hopes that it may live again in the future.
The Death of Superman Lives: What Happened? is available to buy or stream on its official website