In the late 1990s, Warner Bros. announced Superman Lives as the movie that would revitalize the Superman movie franchise after it had fallen flat with 1987’s abysmal Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. With Tim Burton (the man who successfully brought 1989’s Batman to the screen) on board as director and a huge budget behind the action, things looked amazing for The Man of Steel. Soon reports came in that producer Jon Peters had mandated that Superman not fly or wear his iconic costume and that he would be fighting a giant spider. Other reports gleefully announced that parts of Superman’s costume would be transparent so that audiences could see the inner workings of his Kryptonian physiology. Perhaps most damningly, the announcement came that Superman fan Nicolas Cage had been cast as Superman and Clark Kent.

Sound horrible? It did to all of us as well and we all breathed a big sigh of relief when the plug was pulled on Superman Lives less than a month before principle photography was to begin. But as the internet grew, so did the legend of Superman Lives and leaked photographs of Cage in costume seemed to prove how incredibly bad this film would have been.

Filmmaker Jon Schnepp, however, wanted to know (and report) the whole story, knowing that the brief hints of information available were only from pre-production. To find the truth behind this doomed movie, Schnepp embarked on a quest to interview as many insiders as possible to paint the picture of what really happened in the development and demise of this euthanized film.

The result is The Death of “Superman Lives”: What Happened?, a capable, informative and fun documentary about the making (mostly the unmaking) of a legendary film that never was.

Although there are no new interviews with Nic Cage, Schnepp and company managed to get interviews with original screenwriter Kevin Smith, subsequent writers Dan Gilroy and Wesley Strick, comics creators like Grant Morrison and Dan Jurgens (the writer/ artist who indeed did kill Superman in 1993’s Superman #75), costume designer Colleen Atwood, former Warner Bros. head Lorenzo di Bonaventura and famed executive producer Jon Peters. This is in addition to conceptual artists, effects technicians and, indeed, the Holy Grail himself, Tim Burton.

Occasionally TDOSLWH (as the filmmakers abbreviate it) gets a bit slow as seemingly endless parades of concept art flood the screen. Then again, this is about a film that never quite made it out of pre-production, so how else could one successfully tell the story? Further, the title question of “What Happened?” is given a much shorter exposition than “What ALMOST Happened?” This is, of course, why fans should see this film, but the brevity of the document of the fall seems to be in violation of the film’s mission statement.

Schnepp is clearly a fan (even though he gets a key fact in the comic book storyline wrong) and clearly wants to show that this film could have been good, if made, even though the time for this film has passed. Occasionally Schnepp enhances his documentary with flash animated sequences representing some of the more astounding and dumbfounding parts of the script’s evolution. However, Schnepp also includes digitally enhanced scenes of an actor (Matthew Hiscox) in a Superman suit acting out battles with a poorly realized Brainiac and Doomsday. This is obviously a part of Schnepp’s vision but he might have been a bit too close to it (or spent a bit too much money) to realize that these scenes detracted from the film’s quality more than they enhanced it.

Similarly, the film, to an extent, follows a recent trend of making the documentary filmmaker a major character in the film. In the case of TDOSLWH, this works, as much of the film is about the quest Schnepp and company partake to tell this story. Occasionally this takes a bit too much of the spotlight. For example, a scene in which Peters takes a lengthy phone call during an interview while Schnepp drinks bottled water is played for laughs, but actually slows the narrative down considerably. This could have been a fine mid-credits sequence, but fails to work in its current placement.

That said, TDOSLWH overall does a remarkably fine job of telling the story it sets out to tell. The insider interviews are telling not only in the film’s vision and what could have been, but also in the multiple different iterations the storyline took. Industrial Light and Magic, which was set to do effects for the film, had one set of orders, effects technician Steve Johnson had a different set of orders. Some artists designed monsters, others space ships, others costumes, others creature designs. Smith has his perspective, Peters has his own and Burton brings his own surreal take to the proceedings. Editing these interviews together, interspersing the viewpoints and telling the story more or less in chronological order makes for an informative (and often very funny) narrative as well as debate.

One of the many successes of this documentary is in the defense of and proof of the concepts that have been so maligned over the years. Schnepp’s unprecedented access to the archives of Tim Burton and others has allowed for the photographing of hundreds of images of concept art. Most amazing is Schnepp’s inclusion of costume tests in both stills and videos. Schnepp does a great job of explaining these costumes and putting them into context. Suddenly a translucent, light-up Superman suit doesn’t seem like such a bad idea at all. Schnepp treats these sequences as he might any behind-the-scenes documentary of a film that had been made. It’s concept through completion.

The most striking and noteworthy success of The Death of “Superman Lives”: What Happened? is seeing Cage in these costumes and in character as both Clark Kent and Superman. Arguably the most lamentably condemnable thing about Superman Lives was its choice of a leading man. Cage was a strange choice for such a dual role. Leaked images seemed to have proven this. However, in this film we see actual footage and still shots of Cage in costume and these prove once and for all that he could have been a great choice. There are moments when we no longer see Nic Cage, but are looking at a potentially very fine representation of The Man of Steel and a Clark Kent, played by the same actor, that no one would ever believe was also Superman.

Schnepp never acts as an apologist for this film-that-never-was, but showcases Superman Lives as a warts-and-all could-have-been film with some ridiculous concepts along with many excellent ideas. For the first time Superman Lives is actually a movie that I would like to see. It took a documentary like this from a filmmaker like this to make that happen.

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