The Death of “Superman Lives”: What Happened? (2015)

24 Feb

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith


This is a photo taken at an early costume fitting session for which Nicolas Cage was trying on a new Superman suit, because he was going to play the Man of Steel in a Superman project in the late 1990s, titled “Superman Lives,” to be directed by Tim Burton. In this photo, Cage’s eyes are barely open, his long hair looks ridiculous, and the costume looks sillier than the other Superman-suit renditions. People all over the Internet look at this photo and scoff, laugh, groan, or all of the above. Director Bryan Singer, who helmed 2006’s “Superman Returns,” apparently even showed the picture to his crew members, reminding them of how much worse their movie could be.

Now, take a look at THIS photo…


Now, that’s Superman—albeit a somewhat different version, but you can still see how a new, improved Superman could look rather awesome. This is the photo most people seem to ignore.

“Superman Lives” was called off just three weeks before production, and people nowadays wonder what would have happened if it were made. Would it have been a welcome new addition to the Superman franchise or would it have been as memorably bad as late-‘90s comic-book movies such as “Batman & Robin”? We’ll never know. But with this documentary, “The Death of ‘Superman Lives’: What Happened?” we now have a good idea about the kind of movie it could’ve been.

Writer-director Jon Schnepp, of Collider Movie Talk on, was apparently as intrigued about the doomed project’s backstory as everyone else, which would explain why he delves into so deeply, with insights into Hollywood insider power and comic book geek behavior, as well as engaging in-depth interviews with Tim Burton, screenwriter Kevin Smith, producer Jon Peters, former Warner Bros. executive Lorenzo di Bonaventure, among others. (Cage unfortunately wasn’t interviewed, but don’t worry—there are wonderful pieces of archival footage of him mentioning the film in talk-show interviews and even footage of him trying on the costume.)

One of the more fascinating interviewees is Peters, who started out in Hollywood as a hairdresser and then went on to become a successful producer/studio executive. He’s very open about certain topics of discussion and speaks candidly with Schnepp about the process of the film’s pre-production. And it turns out the others have things to say about him too, particularly those who have fought him on numerous things. For example, Smith, who was the first person called upon to write the film, mentions three particularly strange demands Peters had for him—1) Superman should never fly, 2) Superman shouldn’t wear the silly costume, and 3) Superman should fight a giant spider. (These are allegations that Peters denies.)

Maybe Nicolas Cage could have pulled off the role of Superman. We know him today as a crazy actor who will take just about any role thrown at him, but what we forget is that he can be a damn good actor (and “Superman Lives” was being planned at the height of his career, having come off an Oscar win for “Leaving Las Vegas”). He’s not the first choice people think of in the role of Superman, but then again, neither was Michael Keaton for the role of Batman, which the documentary reminds us of. One of the common things mentioned in this film is the mixture of fear and ignorance when news is delivered to comic book geeks and how they will react when an actor they don’t favor is considered for a Hollywood adaptation of their favorite artworks.

“The Death of ‘Superman Lives’: What Happened?” is an engaging documentary to learn from about the planning of a notorious failed project, to listen to these infamous artists talk about it, and even to discover some notions about odd behavior presumably brought upon by Hollywood. (Watch the movie and you’ll see what I mean, the more you learn about Peters.) The inside material is fascinating, the interviewees pleasing, and the overall story intriguing.

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