I'm sure that most people are aware that the road between Superman IV: The Quest for Peace and Superman Returns, a period that spanned almost 20 years, was rife with false starts and movies that ended up never seeing the light of day. Probably the most famous of these false starts was Superman Lives, a film that was going to be directed by Tim Burton and star Nicolas Cage as the Man of Steel, and which has also been the subject of an extensive documentary on the canceled production. What some people may not know, however, is that the film that began the trend of Superman movies not quite making it was actually a fifth installment of the Christopher Reeve franchise (which Superman Returns kind of ended up being anyway).
Originally, the plot for Superman IV: The Quest for Peace involved Lex Luthor creating not one, but two clones from Superman's single strand of hair. The first clone was created by traditional radiation, not by the sun, and was defeated easily by Superman. It wasn't until after the defeat of his first monster that Lex Luthor decided he needed more energy, and that sending the genetic samples into the sun on a nuclear missile would be the best way to create a being strong enough to kill Superman. The entire subplot of the first clone was deleted, and the film was restructured accordingly. The scenes of the first clone were very silly and really didn't fit the film at all, but they have been made available on the Deluxe Edition of the Superman IV DVD and you can see them below:
All told, some 45 minutes of footage was cut from Superman IV, which, according to screenwriter Mark Rosenthal, was originally shot with a 134 minute run time. The studio which produced Superman IV, Canon Films, had hoped to recycle some of the footage cut from the film in what was going to be Superman V, which Rosenthal said, "Was a good indication of how out of touch with reality they (the producers) were.” Eventually, realizing they were in over their heads on Superman IV, and not prepared to lose even more money on a fifth film, Canon Films decided not to renew their one picture deal and allowed Superman to revert back to Alexander Salkind, who had relinquished the rights to Canon after Superman III. For the next three years, the Salkinds looked for a screenplay that would return Superman back to the glory of the first two films. Enter comic book writer Cary Bates.
Cary Bates began his career as a comic book writer for DC Comics in 1964, at just 13 years old, and remained with the company until the early 1990s. In 1988 he was hired by Alexander and Ilya Salkind as the head writer for the Superboy television series, and in 1991, in between Superboy's third and fourth seasons, he came to the Salkinds to pitch Superman V, once he had heard that they reacquired the cinematic rights to Superman from Canon. The film he pitched was going to be unlike anything that had been done in a superhero film to date, and was going to feature Brainiac, a villain Ilya Salkind had originally wanted to do for Superman III, as the protagonist. According to Bates,
"Our desire (was) to do a fully developed, balls-out science fiction story pitting Superman and Brainiac against each other mano a mano.
It was during my tenure on that series that I showed Ilya a treatment I had written on spec the previous year for a Superman movie," Bates said. "The premise involved a new take on the whole Brainiac-Kandor portion of the Superman mythos. As it turned out, Ilya and his father Alexander Salkind had already been considering returning to Superman since the one-picture option they had given the Cannon group (which resulted in Superman IV) had expired. Using my treatment as a starting point, they commissioned me and Mark Jones [the other story-editor on the Superboy series] to write a full script."
According to Bates, the film was going to be somewhat of a retelling of the first Brainiac story, with Brainiac coming to Earth and shrinking Metropolis, much the same way he shrank the Bottle City of Kandor. Brainiac would have been a hybrid of the original green-skinned Coluan character, Vril Dox, and the artificial intelligence version of the character, which had been created by Marv Wolfman in the '80s, and which is mostly considered the definitive Brainiac to modern audiences. Bates goes on to say that the Brainiac character would have appeared human through most of the film, somewhat like what would go on to be done with the character on Smallville. Bates and Mark Jones pounded out three drafts of the Superman V script. The Salkinds put the production on hold, wanting to finish the film Christopher Columbus: The Discovery first. By the time Columbus wrapped in 1992, Warner Bros. had greenlit the television series Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman and had put any and all other Superman productions on hold indefinitely, causing Superman V to be abandoned and also causing the cancellation of Superboy, which was still doing quite well for itself in syndication and was planning to come back for a fifth season.
Eventually, around 1994 or '95, Warner Bros. would revisit the Superman V script, hiring a new writer and renaming the film Superman Reborn, which was eventually given to Kevin Smith for further rewrites and the name was changed once again to Superman Lives. And that, dear readers, is the amazing true story of how a fifth Christopher Reeve's Superman film never came to be. The John Schnoepp documentary, The Death of Superman Lives: What Happened? is set to be released on DVD and streaming services on July 9, and you can get the rest of the story there.