ByBrian Finamore, writer at
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Brian Finamore

The feature-length documentary film about the unfinished Superman Lives film is nearing completion. In an effort to raise the finishing funds for The Death of ‘Superman Lives’: What Happened?, producer/director Jon Schnepp released a full trailer featuring plenty of footage from the original film’s early production, as well as interviews with almost everyone involved in the film, except for its roster of actors.

As many comic book fans know, back in the mid to late 90's, there were plans for a new Superman film called Superman Lives. With the success of "The Death of Superman" comic book storyline, Warner Bros. purchased the film rights of Superman from the Salkinds in early 1993, handing the project to producer Jon Peters. Jon Peters produced Tim Burton's Batman, and originally started out as Barbara Streisand's hair dresser.

After going through some scripts by different writers, eventually Warner Bros. brought cult indie writer/director Kevin Smith on board to handle the writing duties. Anyone who has seen the extremely entertaining documentary An Evening With Kevin Smith knows what happened next:

Kevin Smith pitched Peters his story outline in August 1996, and was allowed to write the screenplay under certain conditions: Peters wanted Superman to wear an all-black suit, and also did not want Superman to fly, arguing that Superman would "look like an overgrown Boy Scout." Smith wrote Superman flying as "a red-and-blue blur in flight, creating a sonic boom every time he flew." Peters also wanted Superman to fight a giant spider for the climactic showdown. Smith accepted the terms, realizing that he was being hired to execute a preordained idea. Peters and Warner Bros. also had Smith write a scene involving Brainiac fighting polar bears at the Fortress of Solitude, and Peters wanted Brainiac to give Lex Luthor a space dog, stating "Chewie's cuddly, man. You could make a toy out of him, so you've got to give me a dog." Peters' additional Star Wars similarities were due to the recent rerelease of the original Star Wars trilogy, such as Peters' insistence that Brainiac's robot assistant L-Ron was to be voiced by Dwight Ewell, calling the character, "a gay R2-D2 with attitude." Peters was able to recycle his giant spider idea in Wild Wild West, a film he produced.

Smith's draft (titled Superman Lives) had Brainiac sending Doomsday to kill Superman, as well as blocking out the sun to make Superman powerless, as Superman is fueled by sunlight. Brainiac teams up with Lex Luthor, but Superman is resurrected by a Kryptonian robot, the Eradicator. Brainiac wishes to possess the Eradicator and its technology. Powerless, the resurrected Superman is sheathed in armor formed from the Eradicator itself until his powers return, courtesy of sunbeams, and defeats Brainiac. Smith's casting choices included Ben Affleck as Clark Kent / Superman, Linda Fiorentino as Lois Lane, Jack Nicholson as Lex Luthor, Famke Janssen as Mercy, John Mahoney as Perry White, David Hyde Pierce as the Eradicator, Jason Lee as Brainiac and Jason Mewes as Jimmy Olsen.

Robert Rodriguez was offered the chance to direct, but turned down the offer due to his commitment on The Faculty, despite liking Smith's script. Smith originally suggested Tim Burton to direct his script, and Burton signed on with a pay-or-play contract of $5 million. Warner Bros. set a theatrical release date in the summer of 1998, the 60th anniversary of the character's debut in Action Comics. Nicolas Cage, a comic book fan, signed on as Superman with a $20 million pay-or-play contract, believing he could "re-conceive the character." Peters felt Cage could "convince audiences he [Superman] came from outer space." Burton explained Cage's casting would be "the first time you would believe that nobody could recognize Clark Kent as Superman, he [Cage] could physically change his persona." Kevin Spacey was approached for the role of Lex Luthor, while Tim Allen claimed he was in talks for Brainiac, a role heavily considered for Jim Carrey. Courteney Cox was reported as a casting possibility for Lois Lane, while Smith confirmed Chris Rock was set for Jimmy Olsen. Michael Keaton confirmed his involvement, but when asked if he would be reprising his role as Batman from Burton's Batman films, he would only reply, "Not exactly." Industrial Light & Magic was set for work on special effects.

Filming was originally set to begin in early 1998. In June 1997, Superman Lives entered pre-production, with an art department employed under production designer Rick Heinrichs. Burton hired Wesley Strick to rewrite Smith's script. Smith was disappointed, stating, "The studio was happy with what I was doing. Then Tim Burton got involved, and when he signed his pay-or-play deal, he turned around and said he wanted to do his version of Superman. So who is Warner Bros. going back to? The guy who made Clerks, or the guy who made them half a billion dollars on Batman?"

Burton chose Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania as his primary filming location for Metropolis, while sound stages were reserved but start dates for filming were pushed back. A minor piece of the Krypton set was constructed but then destroyed, and Cage had even attended a costume fitting. The studio was also considering changing the title Superman Lives back to Superman Reborn. Deeming Wesley Strick's script too expensive, Warner Bros. enlisted the help of Dan Gilroy to rewrite it into something more economically feasible. Gilroy lowered the $190 million budget set by Strick's draft to $100 million. However, the studio was still less willing to fast track production, due to financial reasons with other film properties, having Gilroy turn in two drafts. Ultimately, Warner Bros. chose to put the film on hold in April 1998, and Burton left to direct Sleepy Hollow. At this point in production, $30 million was spent, with nothing to show for it. Burton, citing various differences with Peters and the studio, said, "I basically wasted a year. A year is a long time to be working with somebody that you don't really want to be working with."

The trailer looks fascinating for anyone who's a Superman fan or just a fan of movies in general. I always find documentaries about the failed making of a film fascinating, like the excellent 2002 documentary Lost in La Mancha, about Terry Gilliam's doomed The Man Who Killed Don Quixote project.

What's interesting, other than the fact Superman Lives/Reborn looks like a total 90's superhero film, one dominated by marketing and toys, is the alien nature of Superman they wanted to explore, which has been done in recent incarnations of Superman, like Zack Snyder's awful Man of Steel. One of the weirder ideas they had was a new look regenerative suite for Superman. Which looked something like this:

It's clear the failed project took it's toll on everyone involved, especially Tim Burton, who seems reluctant to talk about it, and Kevin Smith, a huge comic book fan, who got the dream job of his life. What's ironic is now the people putting together this documentary on it's failure are themselves having trouble financing and finishing the documentary. Here's hoping that things work out for them, because based off the trailer I think a lot of comic book fans would be interested in seeing it.


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