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THE DEATH OF ‘SUPERMAN LIVES’: WHAT HAPPENED? (review)

Review by Dean Galanis
Produced by Jon Schnepp, Holly Payne
Written and Directed by Jon Schnepp
Featuring Kevin Smith, Tim Burton, Jon Peters,
Jon Schnepp, Dan Gilroy, Colleen Atwood,
Wesley Strick, Lorenzo di Bonaventura,
Robert Meyer Burnett, Grant Morrison,
Rick Heinrichs, Michael Anthony Jackson,
and Nicolas Cage (archival footage)

There are a fair amount of what-if’s in film history: tantalizing projects that for whatever reason were never completed.

Kubrick’s Napoleon, Gilliam’s Watchmen, Cameron’s Spider-Man, to name a few.

One what-if that has struck most fans over the years as less a missed opportunity and more an averted catastrophe is Superman Lives, which was to be directed by Tim Burton, with Nicolas Cage as the Man of Steel.

The Death of ‘Superman Lives’, without overtly stating as much, makes a great case that Burton and Cage were onto something that, if completed, would likely have been a fascinating misfire, but could have even been something really special. 

Despite an awkward title and a somewhat clumsy prelude, TDOSL:WH gains its footing during a very fun title sequence (paying tribute to the famous and beloved opening credits from the 1978 Superman: The Movie).

From there on out, Jon Schnepp’s riveting doc never makes a misstep.

In a canny nod to fans’ expectations, Schnepp’s film relates early on the disdain for the (admittedly awful) leaked photo of Cage, in unflattering mid-blink and with shoulder-length hair, suited up as Superman during a wardrobe test.

We hear tales of Bryan Singer, director of 2006’s Superman Returns, pulling that very photo from a portfolio on set to show anyone who critiqued his choices.  “You were going to make this!!” he would say, waving the photo around with utter contempt.

At this early point in the film, most viewers will be on Singer’s side, and will likely expect to see and hear the story of the awful trainwreck that ensued.  One might expect many face-palms to ensue during the running time, and while they certainly do, rarely, if ever, are they instigated by anything Burton or Cage has to say.

Kevin Smith was called upon by producer Jon Peters to rewrite a script entitled Superman Reborn.  “First thing, change the title”, he wisely insisted.  Smith here covers familiar ground for anyone who followed the development hell of Superman Lives, but as always, his enthusiasm and rich sarcasm are always a blast to listen to. 

There’s some amusing intercutting here between Smith’s and Peters’ interviews.  Smith, for example, talks about the three things Peters demanded from Smith’s script.

Cut to Peters: “That’s a lie.”

And on it goes.

Peters, in fact, does not come across well here.  But what’s great is that Schnepp lets others speak their mind about Peters, and more interestingly, lets Peters hang himself with his own rope.  There’s an especially telling scene where Peters stops the interview to take a call, and Schnepp leaves this classless interruption in the film without comment.

There’s so much more here: creature and set designs, interviews with all three writers who took a crack at the script (Smith, Wesley Strick and Dan Gilroy), talks with costume designer Colleen Atwood, and of course Tim Burton, speaking in the attic of his London home.

Schnepp was, for reasons not disclosed in the film, unable to secure an interview with Cage, but he’s represented well here with what is the gold mine of the film. We have more than a few minutes of videotaped wardrobe tests, which would be valuable in and of themselves for fans, but it’s the onscreen discussions between Cage and Burton that are the real treat.

We get a glimpse of the two’s creative processes, and their seeming synchronicity on the somewhat (especially for the time) eccentric take on the character(s) of Clark Kent and Kal-El go a long way toward arguing the point that Superman Lives could have been really cool.  It would have almost certainly been more interesting – and fun – than the disposable Superman Returns or the execrable Man Of Steel.

Speaking of Man Of Steel, I watched that film for my second (and hopefully last) time after I watched this doc. There are several blatant steals from the various versions of the Superman Lives script, and most tellingly, the basic approach to the material is surprisingly similar to the Burton project (though I’m sure they would have been worlds apart tonally). Both films wanted to explore Clark Kent/Kal-El as an alien, an outsider who doesn’t feel he fits in on his adopted planet. They both also took a much more sci-fi approach to the Superman legend than past adaptations. 

TDOSL:WH is such a wonderfully niche documentary that it feels like a gift to film geeks.  Special mention should be made to editors Holly Payne, Marie Jamora and Schnepp for their stellar work, as well as Frederick William Scott for his effective score.  But big fat kudos to Schnepp, who brings passion, geek knowledge and true filmmaking skill to this delightful film, and kudos to him and producer Payne for bringing some respect back to a much-maligned aborted project.

Of course, Superman Lives could indeed have turned out to be the unmitigated disaster that many anticipated.  We’ll never know, which is why Schnepp’s peek at what might have been is so invaluable.

Anyone who claims to be a Superman fan simply must see it.

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