Back in 1997, and after a decade without a Superman movie being released on the big screen, Jon Peters, producer of Batman (1989), acquired, by chance, the rights for the famous comic book character practically under Warner Bros’ noses, who didn’t even know that the rights were up for grabs, and still believed were legally theirs.
Peters was known to be quite an odd and difficult character in the industry, with a penchant for micromanaging everything and everyone around him. He had already commissioned the writing of a first draft for the movie and this draft would be the one that would later fall in the hands of writer and filmmaker Kevin Smith, after a meeting with a Warner Bros executive about the possibility of future screenwriting assignments for various projects that Warner had in the pipeline, among them, an upcoming Superman proyect. Smith, being a long time Superman fan, saw an opportunity to pen a script for his favourite childhood Superhero. After reading the script and disliking it, he was asked back a few weeks later to discuss it with other Warner Execs. This would go on for a few more weeks until he was told to write an outline for what would be his script by, at the time, one of the heads of Warner Bros, Lorenzo di Buonaventura. He would later be told that he’d caught the attention of Peters and that he’d be very interested in sitting down with Smith to discuss the script. The rest, as they say, is history.
I was vaguely aware of this failed proyect over the years via the rare snippet of information; like it was going to be directed by Tim Burton, the casting of Nicholas Cage as Superman, his costume fitting photos that had leaked online….But it wasn’t until the release of the extraordinarily comprehensive documentary about it by Jon Schnepp; The Death of Superman Lives : What happened? (2015), that we were given a chance to dig real deep into what it was like for those who worked on the proyect and the ins and outs of a movie production that, for various reasons, would never see the light of day.
Right off the bat, and even though Peters had publicly declared his admiration for Richard Donner’s 1978 Superman: The Movie, he wanted to explore the character in a radically different way than what had been done before. And it was clear, as was later reflected in the subsequent Kevin Smith interviews done for the documentary that, Peters’ overall knowledge of the character was grossly lacking and that some of his bizarre ” suggestions” to Smith about what he wanted in the script; like not having Superman in his iconic suit, no flying sequences and that the protagonist would have to face a giant Spider, of all things, in the third act, were utterly perplexing.
Smith tried to do the best he could with what he was given, even though his draft was finally rejected for being uninspired and, according to Peters, having little action in it. Another reason for his draft being rejected was the hiring of Tim Burton as a director, whose first order of business was to reject Smith’s draft in favour of one written by Wesley Strick, who’d previously collaborated with Burton doing some rewrites for Batman Returns (1992).
The screenwriting process would be another point of contention and throughout the early stages of pre-production the proyect would end up having three different writers attached to it.
The lack of a clear direction in which the producers wanted to go for the character would result, as I stated previously, in the writing of three different drafts for the movie penned by three different screenwriters.
They all were, in my opinion, weak screenplays that needed much more work on them to achieve a satisfying final result. Of all three, which are widely available online and which I’ve had the chance to read, the weakest one would be the second draft by Wesley Strick (someone who clearly didn’t have a clear grasp on the character), and the strongest one the third, written by Dan Gilroy, clearly the most refined, taking many ideas from the second one, but which also needed more rewrites for it to be more filmic. Kevin Smith’s script was clearly written by a fanboy, who tried to cram in as many of the characters and situations of the Superman lore as possible. These of course, has to be understood, were merely first attempts to get the story going and they would clearly need to be worked on more before shooting started. Of course, none of the previous two screenwriters would stay on long enough to improve upon their work.
Now with the similarities. Even though each writer would have a different approach to the material, all three scripts would have a common thread on which to build the story, namely:
● It would have three archenemies in it: Lex Luthor, Brainiac and Doomsday.
● Superman would be killed in the first half of the movie.
●Superman would come back to life, without his powers, but with the aid of a Kryptonian A.I, he’d still be able to fight crime.
● Lex Luthor and Brainiac would join forces and would also be physically joined and become Lexiac, one being with two separate personalities.
● Brainiac would arrive on Earth on a Skull ship, and would travel with a menagerie of Alien creatures he’d collected in his travels, chief among them Doomsday, who he’d use to destroy Superman.
These were the main plot points that each writer had to meet and would be the foundation on which all the Costume and Production Design would be based.
The involvement of Tim Burton would bring about the collaboration of many of his former colleagues in both the Art and Concept Design department, who would bring many interesting and outlandish ideas to the table when it came to the creation of Krypton, the Skull Ship and especially, Superman’s new suit.
But no other aspect of the production peaked the interest of the audience as much as the casting of Nicholas Cage did. His casting was controversial, to say the least, as his would not be a name that would jump out at the audience when thinking about Superman. He’d been a long time fan of the character and immediately jumped at the idea of playing the part and especially, turn him on his head in a way that had never been done before. No other actor was ever considered for the part and his, along with the participation of Tim Burton as Director were the only constants in a production that had lots of ups and downs. The unfortunate leak online of his Costume fitting photos would be another nail in the coffin of this doomed proyect as it would portray a deceiving image of what his final outlook as Superman would be.
The sheer amount of Box Office failures that Warner Bros had suffered during the second half of 1998 coupled with the ballooned budget for the movie of up to 200 million dollars and the risk taking nature of the proyect, would cause the Studio to withdraw the funding for the movie and allocate the budget to other upcoming and, deemed probably more successful proyects. And so, it wouldn’t be until years later and the release of Jon Schnepps’ documentary about the subject that we would find out all the truth about it.
Would I have liked it?. Given the direction in which they were going and the outlandish nature of the Concept Design, I don’t think I would have. I would have seen it, for sure. But for me, unless I’m mistaken, it would have either resulted in something campy, much in the vein of Batman & Robin (1997), or it would have been a complete aberration altogether. My biggest issue with it, is undoubtedly the casting of Nick Cage as Superman. In my opinion, he doesn’t have the physical presence or dramatic attributes to give the character a fair shake, and the ideas they were going with in the script were so bizarre and so far removed from what people associated the character with, that it would have been a very weird viewing experience indeed.
Other ideas though, like the casting of Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor, who would later go on to play the role in Superman Returns (2006), and Christopher Walken in the role of Brainiac, especially the two of them as Lexiac, would have been amazing. Strangely enough, four weeks before filming started, no official announcement had been made about who was going to play the role of Lois Lane, even though Chris Rock, of all people, had apparently been selected to play Jimmy Olsen.
Weird casting choices, bizarre Concept Design and an even weirder screenplay, would have made for one strange looking movie.
All this being said, many of the ideas for this movie would later be, in one way or the other, used for other iterations of the character like Man of Steel (2013) and Batman vs Superman (2016).
For those of you who like documentaries or are interested in all Superman related stuff, I cannot recommend this highly enough. The story of how this documentary was made is a story on its own, with Schnepp and his producer going broke in several occasions and having to re-launch the crowdfunding campaign to get the necessary money to finish the proyect. What we get is a thoroughly researched proyect with various interesting insights from people inside the industry like Jon Peters, Kevin Smith, Tim Burton, Lorenzo di Buonaventura, Collen Atwood…and the personal take of a Superman fan on a subject he’d always been fascinated about.
If you want to get a hold of it, go to www. TDOSLWH.com.
Had it ever been made, it would have been a strange experience. But, given what we get nowadays when we go to the movies, it wouldn’t have been stranger or worse.
Thanks for reading.