The documentary The Death of Superman Lives explores the failed big screen movie Superman Lives.
Superman Lives was in development from 1987 (a full page, color ad in Variety, touting its impending production) until 2005 and had Nicolas Cage set to star as Superman and Tim Burton attached to direct.
Warner Brothers spent 18 years – 1987-2005 – three confirmed directors, nine screenwriters, and approximately $50 million in combined resources for the seven different films without any filming of a Superman movie ever taking place.
Timeline of Superman Lives – Kevin Smith pitched Jon Peters his story outline in August 1996, and was allowed to write the screenplay under certain conditions: Peters wanted Superman to wear an all-black suit, and also did not want Superman to fly, arguing that Superman would “look like an overgrown Boy Scout.” Smith wrote Superman flying as “a red-and-blue blur in flight, creating a sonic boom every time he flew.” Peters also wanted Superman to fight a giant spider for the climactic showdown. Smith accepted the terms, realizing that he was being hired to execute a preordained idea. Peters and Warner Bros. also had Smith write a scene involving Brainiac fighting polar bears at the Fortress of Solitude, and Peters wanted Brainiac to give Lex Luthor a space dog, stating “Chewie’s cuddly, man. You could make a toy out of him, so you’ve got to give me a dog.” Peters’ additional Star Wars similarities were due to the recent rerelease of the original Star Wars trilogy, such as Peters’ insistence that Brainiac’s robot assistant L-Ron was to be voiced by Dwight Ewell, calling the character, “a gay R2-D2 with attitude.” Peters was able to recycle his giant spider idea in Wild Wild West, a film he produced.
Kevin Smith’s draft (titled Superman Lives) had Brainiac sending Doomsday to kill Superman, as well as blocking out the sun to make Superman powerless, as Superman is fueled by sunlight. Brainiac teams up with Lex Luthor, but Superman is resurrected by a Kryptonian robot, the Eradicator. Brainiac wishes to possess the Eradicator and its technology. Powerless, the resurrected Superman is sheathed in armor formed from the Eradicator itself until his powers return, courtesy of sunbeams, and defeats Brainiac. Smith’s casting choices included Ben Affleck as Clark Kent / Superman, Linda Fiorentino as Lois Lane, Jack Nicholson as Lex Luthor, Famke Janssen as Mercy, John Mahoney as Perry White, David Hyde Pierce as the Eradicator, Jason Lee as Brainiac and Jason Mewes as Jimmy Olsen.
Robert Rodriguez was offered the chance to direct, but turned down the offer due to his commitment on The Faculty, despite liking Smith’s script. Kevin Smith originally suggested Tim Burton to direct his script,and Burton signed on with a pay-or-play contract of $5 million. Warner Bros. set a theatrical release date in the summer of 1998, the 60th anniversary of the character’s debut in Action Comics. Nicolas Cage, a comic book fan, signed on as Superman with a $20 million pay-or-play contract, believing he could “re-conceive the character.”Peters felt Cage could “convince audiences he [Superman] came from outer space.” Tim Burton explained Cage’s casting would be “the first time you would believe that nobody could recognize Clark Kent as Superman, he [Cage] could physically change his persona.” Kevin Spacey was approached for the role of Lex Luthor, while Tim Allen claimed he was in talks for Brainiac, a role heavily considered for Jim Carrey. Courteney Cox was reported as a casting possibility for Lois Lane, while Smith confirmed Chris Rock was set for Jimmy Olsen.Michael Keaton confirmed his involvement, but when asked if he would be reprising his role as Batman from Burton’s Batman films, he would only reply, “Not exactly.”Industrial Light & Magic was set for work on special effects.
Filming was originally set to begin in early 1998. In June 1997, Superman Lives entered pre-production, with an art department employed under production designer Rick Heinrichs. Tim Burton hired Wesley Strick to rewrite Smith’s script. Smith was disappointed, stating, “The studio was happy with what I was doing. Then Tim Burton got involved, and when he signed his pay-or-play deal, he turned around and said he wanted to do his version of Superman. So who is Warner Bros. going back to? The guy who made Clerks, or the guy who made them half a billion dollars on Batman?” When Strick read Smith’s script, he was annoyed with the fact that “Superman was accompanied or shadowed by someone or something called the Eradicator.” He also felt that “Brainiac’s evil plot of launching a disk in space to block out the sun and make Superman powerless was reminiscent of an episode of The Simpsons, with Mr. Burns doing the Brainiac role.” However, after reading The Death and Return of Superman, Strick was able to understand some of the elements of Smith’s script. Strick’s rewrite featured Superman as an existentialist, thinking of himself to be an outsider on Earth. Superman is threatened by Brainiac and Lex Luthor, who later amalgamate into “Lexiac,” described by Strick as “a schizo/scary mega-villain.” Superman is later resurrected by the power of ‘K,’ a natural force representing the spirit of Krypton, as he defeats Lexiac.
Art designer Sylvain Despretz claimed the art department was assigned to create something that had little or nothing to do with the Superman comic book, and also explained that Peters “would bring kids in, who would rate the drawings on the wall as if they were evaluating the toy possibilities. It was basically a toy show!” Jon Peters saw a cover of National Geographic, containing a picture of a skull, going to art department workers, telling them he wanted the design for Brainiac’s space ship to have the same image. Burton gave Despretz a concept drawing for Brainiac, which Despretz claims was “a cone with a round ball on top, and something that looked like an emaciated skull inside. Imagine you take Merlin’s hat, and you stick a fish bowl on top, with a skull in it.” Concept artist Rolf Mohr said in an interview he designed a suit for the Eradicator for a planned scene in which it transforms into a flying vehicle.
Tim Burton chose Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania as his primary filming location for Metropolis, while sound stages were reserved but start dates for filming were pushed back. A minor piece of the Krypton set was constructed but then destroyed, and Nicolas Cage had even attended a costume fitting. The studio was also considering changing the title Superman Lives back to Superman Reborn. Deeming Wesley Strick’s script too expensive, Warner Bros. enlisted the help of Dan Gilroy to rewrite it into something more economically feasible. Gilroy lowered the $190 million budget set by Strick’s draft to $100 million. However, the studio was still less willing to fast track production, due to financial reasons with other film properties, having Gilroy turn in two drafts. Ultimately, Warner Bros. chose to put the film on hold in April 1998, and Burton left to direct Sleepy Hollow. At this point in production, $30 million was spent, with nothing to show for it. Tim Burton, citing various differences with Peters and the studio, said, “I basically wasted a year. A year is a long time to be working with somebody that you don’t really want to be working with.”
Disappointed by the lack of progress on the film’s production, aspiring screenwriter/comic book fan Alex Ford was able to have a script of his (titled Superman: The Man of Steel) accepted at the studio’s offices in September 1998. Ford pitched his idea for a film series consisting of seven installments, and his approach impressed Warner Bros. and Peters, though he was later given a farewell due to creative differences. Ford said, “I can tell you they don’t know much about comics. Their audience isn’t you and me who pay $7.00. It’s for the parents who spend $60 on toys and lunchboxes. It is a business, and what’s more important, the $150 million at the box office or the $600 million in merchandising?”
With Gilroy’s script, Peters offered the director’s position to Ralph Zondag, Michael Bay, Shekhar Kapur and Martin Campbell though they all turned down the offer. Brett Ratner turned down the option in favor of The Family Man. Simon West and Stephen Norrington were reportedly top contenders as well. In June 1999, William Wisher Jr. was hired to write a new script, and Nicolas Cage assisted on story elements. Nicolas Cage dropped out of the project in June 2000, while Wisher turned in a new script in August 2000, reported to have contained similar elements with The Matrix. In October 2000, veteran comic book creator Keith Giffen pitched a 17-page story treatment with Lobo as the antagonist, but the studio did not proceed. Oliver Stone was then approached to direct Wisher’s script, but declined, while in April 2001, Paul Attanasio was hired to start on a new script, earning a salary of $1.7 million. Peters offered Will Smith the role of Superman, but the actor turned it down over ethnicity concerns.
As we all know, Superman Returns made an F-list actor out of D-lister, at best, Brandon Routh, in 2006.
The first trailer of The Death Of Superman Lives: What Happened?, which shows footage of Nicolas Cage talking about the project, along with comic book veterans Grant Morrison and Mark Waid, is below.
The movie was supposed to be released on August 1, 2014 but that date has changed and no new date has been announced.