According to director Jon Schnepp, the debacle surrounding Superman Lives could only have happened to a well-known direct or on a high-profile project. He also noted that this story was also the story of how modern fans are too quick to attack before seeing the final product.
To illustrate that last point, early in the film there is a moment where someone tells a story about Brian Singer, director of Superman Returns starring Brandon Routh. The story goes that Singer had a folder with pictures of Nicolas Cage in a Superman outfit. Whenever the executives at Warner Brothers started applying pressure to Singer, he would pull out one of those photos, show it to them and say “You see this? You see this? You guys nearly MADE this!” After that, they would leave him alone, chastened into silence. And yet… that picture doesn’t come close to telling the whole story.
The real story of Superman Lives starts with Kevin Smith who jumped on the opportunity to write the script. It’s probably better to let him describe the experience:
When asked about a director for the film, he immediately suggested Tim Burton. Even though Batman represented darkness and Superman represented light, Burton’s work on Batman ignited the franchise before Joel Shumacher came along and killed it. Unfortunately, Burton didn’t like Smith’s screenplay and that left Smith to move on to other projects.
Burton was reluctant to work on the film, mostly due to executive producer Jon Peters. During their time together on Batman, Peters would switch between coddling Burton or outright bullying him. Yet, Burton was drawn to an idea of stretching himself. He was fascinated with tackling a project involving Superman. The character required color choices that just didn’t appear in most Tim Burton films; bright, hopeful, positive.
Tim Burton’s stories have always revolved around people who are unusual and feel the pressure to hide that nature. Superman, in his vision, was almost reversed. Clark Kent was actually a bigger freak than Superman himself. Clark Kent fumbled, tried to look good but failed, was not confident and constantly aware of his rejection by society, but Superman was the opposite, completely owning his alien nature.
The Death of Superman Lives shows video of Nicolas Cage talking to Tim Burton as Cage tries on his Superman and Clark Kent outfits. The rapport between them is obvious and free-flowing. They were trying for a radical redefinition of Clark Kent. Someone so oddball and out-of-place that no one realized he was Superman because no one wanted to look at him. As Cage tries discusses his character, he begins to fidget and wander around as he imagines Clark Kent wandering around Metropolis. Burton enthusiastically voices his agreement throughout the video.
The differences weren’t just in character. In Burton’s vision, Superman was to meet Doomsday, a character created in the comics almost explicitly to kill him. Fans erupted with rage when they saw the glittering and transparent armor that Superman was to wear in the film, but they had no idea that this was a rejuvenation suit, not his actual costume. In fact, there were going to be several costumes, starting with the traditional outfit, moving to the rejuvenation suit and then, radically, a powered armor. This was provided by K, a machine sent with Kal-El as a child to be his guardian. As the adult Kal-El recovers in his rejuvenation suit, K envelops him as a protective armor and acts as a replacement for his natural powers. Following his recovery, Superman reappears in a black and silver suit that he ends the film with.
It was a radical story arc, but almost immediately there was trouble, with one concept artist calling the experience a descent into Hell. Jon Peters, who boasts throughout the documentary of his past as a streetfighter, would enter the offices of the concept artists and get one of them in a headlock. While he did this his children would come in and approve or reject artwork that the artists were working on. Peters also seemed uninterested in the dramatic aspects of the story preferring to have as much action as possible. At one point he demanded that the film feature a spaceship shaped like a gigantic skull, filled with aliens from different species that Superman would have to fight. Some of the artists interviewed for the documentary expressed confusion at exactly what the story was they were providing art for. It just kept changing.
The death blow came from Warner Bros. Previously, it was assumed that Burton had a blank check from the company. After all, he had delivered on Batman. Still, everyone knew he was making odd choices and Warner had just suffered a string of serious flops. Finally, someone ran the numbers on what the film would cost and that was it. Cuts had to be made and the script had to be rewritten. Burton was forced to fire long-time collaborators and the story started shifting. Finally, the project was shelved entirely as an embarrassing mistake.
The pictures of the pre-production efforts just added insult to injury. When Jon Schnepp decided to make his documentary of the experience, some of the people who worked on the film outright refused to talk to him. Of the most prominent was Nicolas Cage himself. A lifelong comics fan, he even named his son Kalel after Superman himself. Following the firestorm from the fans, he is speculated to have just shut down, preferring to forget the experience rather than open himself to more criticism.
Other reactions range from disappointment to longing. Peters himself stated in the documentary that the film would have either been laughed out of the theaters or hailed as a landmark. For Burton, the film represented a stylistic departure he hasn’t tried before or since. Towards the end of the film, he mentions still holding on to the idea of making his vision of Superman come to life.
The legacy of the film seems to last beyond the human element. Man of Steel, for example, carried a noticeably more intense theme than previous renditions. The use of Keelix, a robotic assistant to Jor-El is, if nothing else, a spiritual echo of K, the robotic companion from Superman Lives. Even the traditional Superman outfit was altered to fit the film’s heavier feel. Maybe Burton and his team were just ahead of their time. Maybe they embarked on a fool’s journey. Truthfully, we’ll never know.
The Death of Superman Lives is a fascinating look into the process of a complete project meltdown despite the best of intentions. Director Jon Schnepp is right. This could not have happened to a lesser director or a project with a lower budget. This is a look into the dynamics of big budget filmmaking and it should be seen. If you’re at San Diego Comicon 2015, you’ll get a chance to see it yourself. You should.