People tend to forget, or have the memory surgically removed from their brains, that fifteen years ago we saw Superman battle Brainiac, Lex Luthor, and Doomsday on the big screen without the benefit of his trademark costume or even the ability to fly. The possibility that a universally adored icon of comic book heroics could have gone such a revisionist undertaking once is enough to send the most ardent Superman fans into therapy.
Had all the pieces fallen into place in the summer of 1998 Warner Bros. would have brought to the world the Last Son of Krypton’s biggest – and potentially strangest – movie adventure to date: Superman Lives, directed by Tim Burton from a screenplay credited to several different writers including independent filmmaker/geek icon/current critical pariah Kevin Smith and Wesley Strick (Martin Scorsese’s remake of Cape Fear), with no less than Nicolas Cage in the title role of the greatest hero of the DC Universe. Yes friends, this movie almost happened, except it didn’t happen.
Years before J.J. Abrams and director McG took their own shot at reinventing the Superman mythology for modern audiences with decidedly mixed results and Bryan Singer made Superman Returns, Burton had signed on to bring the Man of Steel back to theater screens around the world in spectacular fashion. A script that Smith had written on assignment from Warners leaked to the media and inspired equal amounts of praise and apathy from Wizard magazine to radio shock jock Howard Stern. Once Burton was on the project he threw out Smith’s efforts and brought it Strick, who had co-written Batman Returns for the director, to start from scratch. Working from dictates issued by high-powered Hollywood producer Jon Peters that Superman was not to fly or wear his iconic red and blue costume as well as Burton’s own offbeat story ideas, Strick delivered several drafts that were massive in scale and completely gonzo in content. You find most of the script drafts and concept artwork commissioned by Burton very easily online.
Superman Lives came close to going before the cameras with an eye toward a summer 1998 release but the inability of the dueling visions of Burton and Peters to adequately coalesce coupled with a projected production budget of $180 million forced Warner Bros. to pull the plug on their tentpole franchise hopeful. It would be nearly a decade before a new Superman finally reached the silver screen.
The story of the calamitous pre-production and eventual collapse of Superman Lives has been documented in the past, most exhaustively in the pages of Jake Rossen’s excellent 2008 book Superman Vs. Hollywood, and visual effects artist Steve Johnson has released video test footage for some of the prototype Superman suits designed for the aborted project to his YouTube channel. But there has yet to exist a definitive document of the making and unmaking of what had the potential to be one of the most unique superhero adventures to ever grace theater screens.
Jon Schnepp is looking to change that.
Schnepp, a Los Angeles-based director of the Adult Swim series Metalocalypse and The Venture Brothers as well as a contributor to the horror anthology feature The ABCs of Death, is currently raising funds via Kickstarter for a documentary that will chronicle in great detail how Superman Lives fell apart under the weight of studio expectations and a collision of creative yet stubborn blockbuster visionaries looking to completely redefine what a Superman movie could be. Entitled The Death of Superman Lives: What Happened?, Schnepp desires to tell the unbelievable but all too true story of how this long-awaited celluloid return of Superman was ultimately fell by enemies much more powerful and sinister than anyone in the Man of Steel’s colorfully devious rogues’ gallery through fresh interviews with all of the main players in the story of Superman Lives.
You can watch Schnepp’s Kickstarter video funding pitch for the documentary here below.
I for one would love to see this documentary be made and I know there are a lot of you out there who want to see as well. Schnepp has set a fundraising goal of $98,000 and has so far raised nearly a third of that. If he surpasses the goal by more than he needs he promises to use various filmmaking and effects techniques to recreate some of the more outrageous and inventive scenes from the various script drafts written by Smith and Strick in order to give audiences a glimpse at what might have been. The minimum amount you can pledge to this project is $1, but those who donate any amount ranging from $5 to $9,950 or more will be entitled to all manners of sweet perks including limited edition posters, DVD and Blu-ray copies of the finished film, and even the chance to be interviewed for the special features section of the Death of Superman Lives DVD and Blu-ray and be present on the set as some of those special recreations are filmed.
I wish Schnepp the best of luck in making this dream of his a reality, but he might want to dial down all the different variations on the word “weird” he applies to the development of Superman Lives when he is interviewing the production’s key participants lest he makes the proceedings quite awkward.