Most casual fans of comic book films probably don’t realize that almost every major comic book adaptation has gone through what the industry has termed “development hell.” What If? looks at our favourite heroes trapped in this “developmental Phantom Zone,” if you will. This installment looks at the mess Superman Lives went through.
Despite the fact that almost two decades separate Superman IV: The Quest for Peace and Superman Returns, wheels were constantly in motion to get the Man of Steel back to the big screen. Almost immediately after Superman IV crashed and burned at the box office, the Cannon Films honchos Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus announced that Superman V was beginning production (with Captain America director Albert Pyun at the helm), and would somehow utilize the 40+ minutes of mostly awful deleted footage from Superman IV. (You can read more about Canon’s antics here.)
Fortunately, that never materialized and Cannon went bankrupt, which meant the rights to Superman reverted to Ilya and Alexander Salkind (the producers of the first three Superman films) who quickly commissioned a script — titled Superman: The New Movie — from television’s Superboy writers Cary Bates and Mark Jones. Interestingly, this script centred on Superman’s death and resurrection predates the famous comic book storyline by about two years. Christopher Reeve had even agreed to reprise the role of the Last Son of Krypton. However, Superman: The New Movie never came to fruition and Warner Bros. bought the rights back from the Salkinds in 1993.
Now, that same year, coinciding with the “Death of Superman” arc that spanned the four monthly Superman titles, Warner Bros. announced plans to revitalize the Superman film franchise. Producer Jon Peters brought screenwriter Jonathan Lemkin (TV’s 21 Jump Street, Lethal Weapon 4), on board to write the film. Lemkin used the “Death of Superman” arc as a springboard for his screenplay, titled Superman Reborn, which involved Superman being killed by Doomsday and Lois Lane giving birth to an immaculately conceived son of Superman who ages rapidly to take the place of his father (!). Ultimately, the script was rejected by the studio and Lemkin was fired. Gregory Poirier (Rosewood, A Sound of Thunder) delivered a new draft in late-1995, keeping Doomsday and Superman’s death, but adding Brianic as a second villain.
In 1996, director Kevin Smith — riding high on the indie success of Clerks — was invited in to do some rewrite work for Warner Bros., and he became involved with the project, which changed from Reborn titled Superman Lives. This is where the story becomes interesting. Smith has spoken at length about the creative process involved, which is simultaneously a fascinating, hilarious, and harrowing candid look into the machinations of Hollywood. Producer Jon Peters insisted that was adamant that a number of elements be included — giant spiders, polar bears, and “gay robots.”
The Smith screenplay, even with Peters’ input, showed signs of greatness, particularly in its first act. It’s lively, fun, faithful to the comics’ recent history, and assumes the audience already knows a thing or two about the Man of Steel. As well, there are some terrific scenes between Superman and Lois. (Ultimately, it unfolds like a Batman sequel.) Based on the strength of Smith’s work, Tim Burton signed on to direct and Nicolas Cage signed on to play the Superman.
Smith was dismissed and Burton brought Wesley Strick — who had supposedly done uncredited work on Batman Returns — to tailor Smith’s screenplay to Burton’s sensibilities, while still retaining Superman’s death and subsequent resurrection. Meanwhile, pre-production work really began to ramp up in 1997, and it looked like we were going to see Superman back on the big screen in 1998. Locations were being secured, casting rumours were abound (Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor! Jim Carey as Brainiac! Chris Rock as Jimmy Olsen!), and concept art was coming out of the woodwork.
Based on all of the rumours, hearsay, and conjecture, Superman Lives wasn’t going to be a traditional Superman film, and would be very much a ‘Tim Burton’ film, stylistically and thematically, playing up Superman’s outsider status and emphasizing the hero’s existential crisis (it was derogatorily dubbed ‘Extraterrestrial Scissorhands’).
Yet, due to rising projected budgets, costs, and a script the studio wasn’t fully satisfied with, Warners shut the project down in May 1998, having already spent somewhere in the neighbourhood of $30 million trying to get Superman back on the big screen. This large number, by the way, includes pay or play deals with both Burton and Cage — meaning they got their salaries even though the film was never completed.
Plans for a new Superman film never really went away, though. After a brief hiatus the project was rebuilt from the ground up with several people attached to the film at different times — including director Ralph Zondag (We’re Back! A Dinosaur Story) and screenwriter William Wisher (Terminator 2, Judge Dredd), J. J. Abrams (TV’s Lost, Mission: Impossible III, Star Trek), McG (Charlie’s Angels, Terminator Salvation), and Brett Ratner (X-Men: The Last Stand, Rush Hour). Hell, even Oliver Stone expressed interest at one point.
Superman eventually did fly back to the cinema courtesy of Bryan Singer’s Superman Return in 2006, and thankfully the only thing Singer kept from all of these possible incarnations was the casting of Spacey as the Last Son of Krypton’s arch-nemesis. Though, in a manner of speaking, Returns does see our hero’s death and resurrection, but that’s a discussion for another time.