So this weekend I finally checked out a documentary with a pretty unwieldy title, The Death of “Superman Lives”: What Happened? It was an exploration of the proposed late 90’s film, Superman Lives. You may know it as the movie that Tim Burton tried to make that had Nicholas Cage as a long haired Superman.
It was a pretty good documentary, but I feel like it’s naturally going to be compared with the much better Jodorowsky’s Dune since they both revolve around exploring an ambitious film that never got made. I feel like both movies were equally nuts and fascinating, but I felt like the Dune one worked better because it just let the people gush about their passion project. I feel like the Superman one’s biggest flaw was that the director was in every interview, pretty much just sitting there nodding. It felt like it was more about him injecting himself into the narrative of this failed movie instead of just letting the stories unfold. I never really like documentaries that are more about the director learning things, I prefer to just watch the story. But this wasn’t intended to be a review of the documentary, I more wanted to talk about the utterly batshit movie that we missed out on, Superman Lives.
So in the late 90’s infamous Hollywood producer and known wacko Jon Peters bought up the film rights to Superman, and worked with Warner Brothers to reboot the Superman series. A series that was half good. But a mix between Peters’ crazy wishes, corporate mandates, and three disparate screenplays (one of which was written by Kevin Smith) made the proposed film pretty nuts. I don’t really want to get into all the behind the scenes drama, like how screenwriters were replaced and production woes, I really just want to talk about some of the crazy stuff that the documentary dug up.
I’d heard about this movie a bunch in the past, usually paired with that insane picture from the costume test, but I never knew how nuts it would have been. I also never really thought about the time frame it would have come out. I have a serious soft spot for the two Tim Burton Batman movies, so I guess in my mind I always thought about this movie in that context. But this would have been produced around 1998, sandwiching it in between Mars Attacks and Sleepy Hollow, a particularily crazy era in Burton’s career. This would have been an insane sci-fi superhero movie made by a guy who was in a fixation with 50’s B-movies esthetics. I think this really came into view for me when they showed some concept art for how Burton wanted Braniac to look.
That’s awesomely nuts. They wanted him to be a crazy brain in a jar with big spider legs that would also stand up with a cloak to make him look more human. Most of the aesthetics of the movie would have been bonkers. I’ve always thought that Superman movies should be more sci-fi. He is an alien after all. Now, Man of Steel tried to go that way with all of it’s interminable Krypton scenes, but man, that movie hit the mark. But let’s not bash that movie again. And this movie would have really embraced the sci-fi elements of Superman by having a crazy regeneration suit, a robot sidekick, and a super complicated plot involving two of Superman’s more spacey villains, Brainiac and Doomsday.
So, from watching the documentary, I can’t quite tell what the plot of the movie was supposed to be. They hint a lot, but frankly, the amount of stuff the hint at felt like it should have been a trilogy, not a single movie. They wanted to reintroduce Superman, have some conflict with Lex Luthor, romance with Lois, workplace fun with Perry and Jimmy, flashback to Krypton, introduce Brainiac, fight Doomsday, die, be reborn, and save the day while setting up a new franchise. Holy crap. That could be a jam-packed trilogy, let alone a presumably two or two and a half hour long movie. There would have been three different villains, two of which would have been new to the series. And then there’s the weird tidbits that would have been introduced. At some point there would have been a part where Superman has to go to the Fortress of Solitude, and Brainiac would have shown up to fight him, but first has a fight with polar bears that are guarding the Fortress for some reason. The evil robotic space spider would have killed some polar bears on camera in this movie. They also said that Brainiac and Lex Luthor would eventually meld into one being, either with two separate heads, or possibly with a crazy revolving head like the mayor in the Nightmare Before Christmas. There also would have been a dragout subway fight between Superman and Doomsday, leading to both of their deaths. Superman would then have a crazy funeral that they admitted would have been based on Princess Diana’s funeral, leading to Superman’s resurrection, because apparently they just threw out all the subtlety about the Christ metaphor.
But as crazy as the plot would have been, the cast was spectacularly nuts. Of course we know that Nic Cage would have been the mulleted Superman, but the rest of the cast made me super excited. For Lois Lane they wanted Sandra Bullock, which for the time would have been a good pick, and for Jimmy Olsen they actually cast Chris Rock, which is unorthodox but would have been fun. Then there’s the villains. They predicted the future by wanting Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor, which would have been great since I feel like he was the best part of the Superman Returns film that he was actually in, but the best choice was for Brainiac. Christopher Walken. Christopher Walken would have been an evil alien robot spider. Yes!!!
Now, I’m not saying that I think Superman Lives would have been a good movie. Quite the opposite actually. I feel like it would have been a train-wreck. But a glorious one. Not really in the same territory as stuff like The Room, Birdemic, or Troll 2, the people making this movie would have been competent filmmakers. No, this would have been a really special kind of bad movie, a big budget Hollywood mess. Think more along the lines of Battlefield Earth or Jupiter Ascending. Movies that had star power, real money behind them, and people who actually knew what they were doing, but instead of making something good, laid enormous eggs. This wouldn’t have been an amazing movie that kickstarted the superhero movie boom a decade early, but it would have been something that generations of college students would watch stoned in their dorm rooms. A beautiful mess that would serve as a shining example of hubris. I would have watched this movie a thousand times, laughing pretty much the whole time. Whereas you watch Jodorowsky’s Dune and feel bad because we missed out on an ambitious and strange art film, I finished The Death of “Superman Lives”: What Happened? and was crushed that we missed out on a wonderful bomb.
The Death of “Superman Lives”: What Happened? was written and directed by Jon Schnepp
Categories: Reel Talk