The Death of Superman Lives: What Happened?
…and, what if it had actually been good?
Cannily timed to arrive amidst the baroque sound and fury of San Diego Comic-Con, (and, more specifically, the sturm und drang of the second trailer for 2016’s Zack Snyder stupid-bomb Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice), director Jon Schnepp (The ABCs of Death) delivers this Kickstarted investigation of Tim Burton’s legendarily derided late ’90s man of steel reboot, Superman Lives*.
Falling prey to an early strain of internet nerd rage, and slung with the albatross of a blitzed looking Cage costume test as its sole promotional image for the better part of twenty years, what if, Schnepp wonders, Superman Lives actually had the potential to be good? Nay, revolutionary?
With access to an unprecedented array of test footage, production art and practical effects tests, and boasting a deep bench of interview talent, The Death of Superman Lives: What Happened? posits a flip world in which, however unlikely the notion, Tim Burton and Nicolas Cage made a pretty fucking insane, genre-redefining Superman flick.
Of particular note, especially considering the virulent neckbeard meltdowns of the day, is a round of he said/ she said exchanges with cartoonish producer Jon Peters (Batman, Wild, Wild West) and corpulent indie huckster Kevin Smith (sigh), who’s parlayed a second career out of discussing some of Peters’ more egregious demands.
Among these (admittedly awful-sounding) ideas were Peters’ dreaded, beloved ‘giant spider’, later a ‘Thanagarian Snare-Beast’ (eventually seen in the risible Wild Wild West), and the requirement that Kal-El must punch-on with some polar bears.
Leaven these though with the revelation that none other than Christopher Walken was lined up to take on the role of sick-coloured, super-bad Artificial Intelligence Brainiac, and that Cage was enjoying what might have been the last vestiges of a lucid, process-oriented approach to character building. He even provides a passionate treatise on his vision of Kal-El/Superman’s inherent ‘alien-ness’.
Then there’s Schnepp’s unprecedented chat with kooky goth poster child Burton, who’s remarkably forthcoming with painful insights on the film-making process and the fraught nature of getting a film of any kind actually made, providing reasoned ballast for a few of the more, shall we say, fevered egos in the mix.
Also less hyperbolic, but no less fascinating for it, are chats with hired gun screenwriters Dan Gilroy and Wesley Strick, whilst Burton favourite production designer Rick Heinreichs confirms that the film’s aesthetic was definitely in the director’s wheelhouse, and somehow much, much more.
Indeed, The Death of Superman Lives gives us a glimpse of the practical film making process, something that was then on the cusp of being shoved aside by early forays into shiny, plasticky CGI and an over-reliance on infant digital technology.
Of most interest, considering the slating it’s copped through the years, is the extensive costume test footage — detailing the various permutations Supes’ suits goes through during his death and rebirth. It’s impressive, if not deflating, to witness the enthusiasm, innovation and ingenuity expended on this ultimately doomed project.
We all know, of course, that Superman fans were instead consigned to another decade or so of development hell, including JJ Abrams’ weird Matrix riff, an abortive Wolfgang Petersen Batman vs Superman effort, culminating with the 2006 mopey Richard Donner tribute compilation, Superman Returns.
Then followed another period of development confusion, including George Miller’s ‘what could have been’ Justice League: Mortal project, and, of course, Snyder’s most recent ‘this one goes to eleven’ nü metal sadness-beard iteration, Man Of Steel, and onwards to the upcoming extended Batman v Superman.
You’re left wondering what if Superman Lives had survived the skittish gauntlet of Hollywood’s development ‘process’ (to put it generously)?
In those dark, post-Batman & Robin, pre-Blade days of the late ’90s, the production’s superheroic vision was unique, and Schnepp’s documentary mounts a compelling case for Superman Lives to have been a game-changer.
What could have been, eh?
* Feel that rampant colon deployment. Gape at those bravura parenthetical asides. It’s good to be back.
Originally published at www.hopscotchfriday.com.