Superman fanboys (and -girls) crowded into the historic Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood on Thursday night for the premiere of the documentary, The Death of “Superman Lives”: What Happened? The film’s writer-director Jon Schnepp, a self-proclaimed comic book nerd and best known as a writer and producer of Adult Swim’s Metalocalypse, was a little punchy as he introduced the film. His delirium made sense when he told the audience that—in true indie film fashion—he had been up all night fixing the audio and rendering the film. The version of his film the audience was about to see, he explained, was “99 percent there.”
The Death of “Superman Lives” traces the origins of one of the more high-profile, big budget projects to never see the light of day. After the success of Batman and Batman Returns, director Tim Burton was tapped in 1998 to reimagine the Superman franchise with Superman Lives. Nicolas Cage—hot off the success of Con Air and Face/Off—would play the titular role. Remember: Cage had turned in an Oscar-winning performance in Leaving Las Vegas in 1996; plus Burton’s Batman—Michael “Birdman” Keaton—was also initially criticized by diehard fans who worried about “Mr. Mom” playing the Caped Crusader.
The film spotlights big studios’ bureaucracy and development hell through numerous interviews with key players from the Superman Lives project, including Burton; writers Kevin Smith and Dan Gilroy; producers Jon Peters and Lorenzo diBonaventura; costume designer Colleen Atwood; and numerous artists who worked during the film’s pre-production. Cage, however, declined to be interviewed. Which is a shame, because Cage is depicted as a serious comic book fan (he named his son Kal-El after all) who wanted to work with Burton to bring a new and interesting spin to the George Reeves and Christopher Reeve models.
A number of surprises and memorable moments occurred at the film’s screening, as well as during the Q&A that followed with Schnepp and his producing partner Holly Payne. Here are 10 of our favorites:
Three Hollywood heavy-hitters were hired to write a draft of—or make revisions to—the Superman Lives script: Kevin Smith (Clerks, Chasing Amy, Dogma), Wesley Strick (Cape Fear, Final Analysis) and Dan Gilroy (The Bourne Legacy, Nightcrawler).
The film would have been based on the DC comics’ Superman 75 (1993). Written by Dan Jurgens and illustrated by Brett Breeding, The Death of Superman, Vol. 2 had the Man of Steel battling and ultimately dying at the hands of the villain Doomsday. The film would have also featured Superman’s arch-nemeses Lex Luthor and Brainiac.
Film producer Jon Peters is an interesting character in Schnepp’s film. Peters had the rights for the Superman franchise, and during his interviews, Kevin Smith recalls that Peters made several suggestions for the Superman Lives script, including pitting Superman against a giant spider. Smith ultimately crafted a scene with a “Thanagarian Snare Beast,” but he also pointed out that although the Snare Beast was never realized, Peters finally got his giant spider into his next film: Wild Wild West.
Aside from Cage in the titular role, the documentary revealed some fascinating names: Sandra Bullock as Lois Lane, Chris Rock as Jimmy Olson, Christopher Walken as Brainiac and Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor (which of course eventually happened anyway…).
Unfortunately, the big budget Superman Lives was in pre-production in the midst of a big Warner Bros. losing streak. Around 1998, the studio released a series of “underperforming” films, including Major League: Back to the Minors, The Postman and Tarzan and the Lost City. Superman Lives was considered a big risk and eventually its budget was funneled to the aforementioned Wild Wild West, which also flopped.
Schnepp said that what initially drew him to the project was his interest in the Superman Lives concept art, developed by frequent Burton collaborators Rick Heinrichs (Batman Returns, Planet of the Apes) Colleen Atwood (Big Fish, Edward Scissorhands) and Sylvain Despretz (Planet of the Apes).
One interview clearly stands out to Schnepp and co-producer Holly Payne, at least as far as nerd royalty goes. “Tim Burton had let us into his universe,” Schnepp said about filming at Burton’s estate in England.
The hugely entertaining Peters mentioned his street fighting skills during his interviews, noting that he’d been in about 500 fights. While the audience laughed at this, Payne and Schnepp defended Peters and said that he had demonstrated his talents on Schnepp. During breaks between filming, Peters put the documentarian in a sleeper hold, in effect, choking him out.
Schnepp mused that the fascination with Superman Lives endures because it’s “frozen in time as potential.” His documentary continues its legacy by assembling “the best parts of a movie that never got made.”
The filmmakers saved the biggest surprise for last. Payne had mentioned that she and Schnepp were both professionally and personally involved, that despite the ups-and-downs of the documentary process, their relationship had endured these past few years. With that, she caught everyone off-guard by proposing to Schnepp in front of the entire theater—and he said yes.
Christine N. Ziemba is a Los Angeles-based freelance pop culture writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow her on Twitter.