The 1990s were a strange time for superhero cinema, particularly comic book superhero cinema. Here’s what superhero movies looked like thirty years ago…
This was complicated by coming out of a decade where “superheroes” weren’t comic book characters, but rather muscle-bound super-men who tore through terrorists and foreigners with astonishing ease. John Rambo went from being a veteran attacked by his own country to a god-like warrior who gets to win the Vietnam War in a do-over.
John McLean defined the hard-working everyman as the purest manifestation of badassery. And, of course, obscure Austrian bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger saw an enormous career boost after the smash hit Conan the Barbarian, practically defining the era. Schwarzenegger would also close out that same era in 1993’s underrated Last Action Hero.
And among that landscape, we almost had Superman Lives.
Superman Lives was an attempt to resurrect Superman as a cultural icon after Tim Burton changed the way the mainstream saw Batman in 1989. The Man of Steel had been dormant in cinema since the terrible flop that was Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. Despite having largely the same cast as the first three Superman films, severe limitations from production company The Cannon Group, known at the time for making charmingly cheap films, caused the fourth outing in the franchise to be generally underwhelming.
But Superman Lives would be different. After the appearance of Image Comics and the arrival of the Comic Speculator Boom pressured DC into their famous Death of Superman storyline, studios were excited by the prospect of riding this new interest in the Man of Tomorrow. Because of the darker tone set by Batman, telling a Superman story with a grimmer plot was a good way of splitting the difference between the iconic, but somewhat old-fashioned Reeves portrayal and the demand for grittier, “more mature” comic book fare.
Enter rising Hollywood wunderkind Kevin Smith. The young director had become the face of independent filmmaking with his breakout Clerks and, despite limited success with follow-up Mallrats, was still riding high on that popularity. So in August of 1996, he pitched an idea to producer Jon Peters about a new Superman film. This would involve Brainiac as the villain and otherwise draw heavily from the Death and Rebirth of Superman comic storyline, including having Doomsday kill the titular hero and the Eradicator resurrect him.
Peters had three very specific demands if he was going to back Smith’s idea:
- Superman has to wear his all-black suit because Peters felt the original was “too f*ggy” (this was among the least awful of quotes from Peters, believe it or not)*
- He could not fly on screen since he would look like “an overgrown Boy Scout” (the Boy Scouts of America famously being a group of children who, in real life, can fly?)
- Superman has to fight a giant spider in the third act
*PHASR Media completely denounces any type of bigotry and this abhorrent comment was coined from Producer Jon Peters himself in a retelling from Kevin Smith. See Smith’s account here.*
Despite trepidation around the fact that he was already receiving mandates from the studio, Smith agreed and wrote the script. This was apparently a grueling process for Smith, particularly since Peters and Warner Brothers continued to pile on new demands that seemed aimed at fleshing out a toy line, including giving Lex a space dog, having Brainiac fight polar bears, and giving the villain a sassy gay robot assistant.
Production Takes Off
Despite studio mandates, Smith managed to finish his script and it drew a lot of attention. Director Robert Rodriguez passed on making it despite loving the script due to a previous commitment to make The Faculty. Smith had recommended Tim Burton and the studio agreed, signing the director for $5 million and tentatively scheduling for a release in the summer of 1998.
Perennial Superman fanboy and national treasure Nicolas Cage signed on to play Clark/Kal-El. Cage has loved comics his whole life, even picking his stage name in homage to Marvel character Luke Cage. Keep in mind that while Cage was working on Superman Lives, he was also building up his comic book collection. He purchased a group of about 400 rare books that included a copy of Action Comics #1, the first appearance of Superman, and the birth of the “superhero.” In 2005 he would name his son “Kal-El.” If there’s an actor who would have brought more to the role at the time than Cage, I certainly can’t think of them.
Kevin Spacey was approached for Lex and Jim Carrey was in heavy consideration for the role of Brainiac. Courtney Cox was considered for Lois Lane and Chris Rock was confirmed as Jimmy Olsen. Smith would, of course, later cast Rock in his 1999 film Dogma, Cox would end up portraying reporter Gail Weathers in the Scream franchise, and Spacy would eventually take his turn as Lex Luthor in 2006’s Superman Returns.
All in all, things were looking up. Well, for everybody but Smith.
While Burton seemed on board initially, over time it became clear that he wasn’t happy with Smith’s script and decided on a page one rewrite. So, despite pitching the original idea, Warner Brothers ejected Smith from the project, and replaced him with Wesley Strick (best known at the time for writing Arachnophobia and the remake of Cape Fear, though he would eventually also tackle The Saint, Doom, and the 2010 remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street).
Strick was unfamiliar with the source material, hating the idea of a semi-good-guy called “The Eradicator,” and thought Brainiac blocking the sun with a disc in space sounded too close to a Simpsons plot. While reading the comics changed some of his opinions, Strick decided on a radically different approach.
His script was built on themes of alienation and focused on Kal-El’s fundamental otherness as compared to the people he saves. Brainiac would merge with Lex upon reaching Earth, making the main villain a gestalt figure called, at various points, “Luthiac” and “Lexiac.” The Eradicator would be replaced with an energy called “K,” which we would eventually learn is the spirit of Krypton and, more specifically, Kal’s parents.
Peters, meanwhile, continued to meddle in the process. He would bring kids in to look at concept designs and pick the ones they most would want to play with as toys, then demand script and design changes to make the whole thing more marketable in that space. Tension with Peters and Strick would lead to another script writer change: Dan Gilroy.
Gilroy was a relative unknown at the time with only two scripts under his belt, including the one for 1992’s obscure cyberpunk film Freejack. He would later go on to be nominated for a Best Original Screenplay Oscar in 2014 with his directorial debut Nightcrawler. He also later earned plenty of writing credits for The Fall, Kong: Skull Island, Roman J. Israel, Esq., and Velvet Buzzsaw among other films.
His script is, by far, the strangest one since the pre-Smith treatment where Lois gives birth to a child who is really Superman’s essence transferred to her after his death. Clark spends most of the runtime plagued by his own insecurities and neuroses. The awkwardness that Cage would exhibit as Clark would have been related to being completely ignorant of his Krytonian heritage and dealing with anxiety that he may be an alien.
Gilroy’s script would have opened with Clark about to tell Lois his secret identity because Lex was on the verge of revealing it to the world. The appearance of Brainiac and his merger with Lex into Lexiac would derail things, with our new villain more focused on creating Doomsday than on destroying the Last Son of Krypton. Doomsday would succeed, and the Metropolis Marvel would be resurrected by “K,” which would turn itself into a suit of armor for the second half of the film to mimic Big Blue’s powers while he recharges.
This one would involve Lexiac using his vast intellect and resources to… steal a bunch of nuclear missiles and point them at major cities. Which, let’s be honest, is a pretty unimpressive plan for the world’s smartest man and an alien supercomputer. Lexiac would also spend a good chunk of the movie trying to sleep with Lois and strike out epically. Brainiac was responsible for the destruction of Krypton in this version and had sworn an oath to track down and kill the infant Kal-El. The film ends with Superman stopping the nukes with one second left on the countdown and Lois revealing that she’s pregnant with his child.
No More Man of Tomorrow
By early 1998 two things had become clear: the film was not going to release that summer and the budget had already ballooned out of hand. Originally, Superman Lives was going to cost $100 million (a sizable amount at the time), but had almost doubled to $190 million when production was paused in April 1998.
It didn’t help that Tim Burton was losing his passion for the project. Constant interference from the studio, and particularly Jon Peters, had made the whole endeavor a nightmare for the scriptwriters and Burton especially.
Burton would consider this to be one of the worst times in his professional life and move on to make Sleepy Hollow. Cage has since reinvented himself several times over but has yet to return to the cape and shield. Smith built a solid directing career and even used the story of his involvement with Superman Lives as part of his standup special An Evening with Kevin Smith.
So What Happened?
It’s hard to say if there was one specific thing that killed Superman Lives so much as a combination of several factors.
As reports continue to come out about Jon Peters, it seems reasonable to assume that his objective was to make that sweet, sweet George Lucas toy money.
Remember: Lucas’s initial fortune as we know it wasn’t from successful films, it was from a smart gamble on toy rights for Star Wars. That this is what Peters was focused on, especially after the 80s started to allow 30-minute toy commercials in the form of “cartoons,” it’s unsurprising that his demands would revolve around what kids would want to buy rather than what they would want to watch.
Burton has always been an ambitious director with a distinct style, so it’s somewhat unsurprising that he would want more control of the scripting phase of the project. The loss of Smith, though, started a spiral from “Superman story,” to “story that involves a version of Superman… kinda.” By the time of the Gilroy script, there seemed little left of the classic character, and nobody with any real love of Superman to steer things back on track.
Drastic changes in budget also had an impact on the production. Warner Brothers wouldn’t be willing to drop almost $100 million on a director radically changing other people’s work on Superman for another 21 years, and it seems they would be unhappy with it either way. All told, about $30 million and a full year was spent on pre-production for Superman Lives with absolutely nothing to show for it other than pictures of Nic Cage doing a screen test in a sculpted suit and Smith’s comedic re-telling of his part of the tale.
Four months after production was halted on Superman Lives, Blade would hit theaters and once again redefine comic book films and superhero cinema. It would be followed by milestones like X-Men in 2000, Spider-Man in 2002, and Iron Man in 2008. 1999’s The Matrix, while not based on a comic book, was also highly influential in the comic book film space in terms of tone, aesthetic, and production design.
Superman Returns would hit theaters in 2006 to lackluster reviews and audience reactions, but it would be pretty restrained compared to the bombastic ideas that were almost put to screen with Superman Lives. In the end, Lives will always be a “what might have been” situation, an Elseworlds look at the direction the Strange Visitor from Another World might have taken.