DC Comics' biggest heroes finally share the big screen next year in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. But it could have happened in the late '90s if Superman Lives had been produced, as the script featured the Caped Crusader speaking at Supes' funeral.
The failed Warner Bros. project, based on the "Death of Superman" comics storyline from 1992, has become the stuff of legend among comics fans, with its huge budget and its alternately impressive and bizarre personnel: Tim Burton directing, Kevin Smith screenwriting and Nicolas Cage as Superman.
A new documentary, The Death of "Superman Lives": What Happened?, gives a deeper look than ever before into what the film could have been and how it fell apart. Rob Pierce, who grew up in Cary before moving to Los Angeles, is the documentary's executive producer. A comics fan and veteran of the video game industry, he's old friends with director Jon Schnepp, an animation director with credits including Space Ghost Coast to Coast and The Venture Bros.
They are first-time documentarians, but thanks to their unprecedented access to crew and production assets, their film has received strong early responses after a few scattered screenings. Not just for comics fans, it's a treat for film lovers, in the vein of "what if?" docs such as Jodorowsky's Dune and Terry Gilliam's Lost in La Mancha, where nonexistent films are made more tantalizing by the grand visions that ran them aground.
Pierce told the INDY all about the incredible inside-Hollywood story of Superman Lives—and how a film that would have killed the Man of Steel might have actually resurrected his movie franchise.
INDY: What's the story behind Superman Lives?
ROB PIERCE: In the early '90s, comics were still pretty hot. On the heels of the really successful Tim Burton reboot of Batman, Superman Lives was an attempt to reboot Superman, because the Chris Reeve franchise had ended with Quest for Peace, which was just laughable. The guys who were writing the Superman comics decided to kill Superman. [DC Comics owner] Warner had been toying with translating that to the big screen, and they brought on Kevin Smith.
Smith gets this script called Superman Reborn and reformats it as Superman Lives. Tim Burton was going to direct. Nic Cage was going to play Superman. We had Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor and Christopher Walken as Brainiac. Chris Rock was going to play Jimmy Olsen and Sandra Bullock was going to play Lois Lane. Superman was going to be investigated more as an alien; how desperate and lonely it is to be Clark Kent, trying to be human.
Lex Luthor comes up with a way to block out the sun, which Superman gets his powers from, and teams up with Brainiac to create Doomsday. Doomsday is a non-thinking death machine made out of all these faces that are people that Superman cares about, and he kills Superman. But he's not dead dead, because he was sent to Earth, from Krypton, with a companion who protects him, and who puts his body in a regenerative bath. So Superman comes back and saves the day once again.
There were four different script iterations, two by Smith, one by Wesley Strick, and the final one by Dan Gilroy, who just directed Nightcrawler. Smith came on around 1996, and before it was shuttered, the film stayed in pre-production for about two years.
Nic Cage as Superman sounds like a joke now, but he was a big star in the '90s.
Nic Cage was coming off of winning an Oscar for Leaving Las Vegas; Con Air and The Rock were around that time. People go into the documentary saying, "Oh my God, can you imagine Nic Cage as Superman?" and come out going, "Damn, man, I really want to see that movie!"
How did the documentary come about?
My director, Jon Schnepp, is an avid reader of comics, and was offended as I was by Quest for Peace. And when Superman Returns came out [in 2006], he fell asleep in the theater. He had heard about this Burton version, and once in a while, you would get a piece of art floating on the Internet. Jon started collecting them and, in 2012, he went to dinner with Steve Johnson, this special effects guru who made Slimer in Ghostbusters, and started talking about this idea. Steve was one of the guys who came up with this Superman suit people had seen online—this rainbow light-up suit that everybody was like, "What the hell is this?" That night, some friends of ours gave Jon the idea to do a documentary on Kickstarter. It was a very successful campaign that raised $115,000 or so.
What kind of resources were available to tell the story?
We finally got to Tim Burton, which was not easy. The producer and director flew to London without him confirming he'd even do the interview. They went to his house and he decided to do it. He gave us the keys to his warehouse in L.A., which was just unbelievable, like the Raiders of the Lost Ark closing scene.
He's got this tome on a table with the Superman emblem from Superman Lives, filled with concept art. Anything that Warner didn't take, he's got. Everybody Tim worked with was on board after that—producers, artists, storyboarders. We even got what we call the holy grail, Nic Cage's test flight footage in the Superman suit. We also got all this amazing behind-the-scenes footage of them piecing together what Superman should look like and Clark Kent should act like. I'm confident that we have all of what exists at this point.
Kevin Smith is definitely one of the stars of our film. He's been telling the story of his interaction with this project for quite a while; about this producer who had all these crazy demands on his script-writing, Jon Peters. This is the guy who produced Caddyshack and came up with the idea for the gopher, and who went on to run Sony Pictures for 10 years. In the '90s he owned the film rights to both Batman and Superman. I don't think he's ever given an interview regarding this project. But we got through to him. He's an awesome dude and he took us into this palatial apartment with a Matisse over the kitchen table and a scale model of the Skull Ship that would have been used in the film.
Of course, people always ask, "Did you get Nic Cage?" Nic Cage is part of the film, but we get him on screen from 1997, in a room with [costume designer] Colleen Atwood and Tim Burton, creating the characters of Clark Kent and Superman. He declined to be interviewed, but he is very interested to see the film after all the buzz. There's the potential that we could do a five-minute special feature with him as a follow-up.
The early '90s were a boom time in comics, and Burton was doing great things with Batman. But by the late '90s, Joel Schumacher was destroying the Batman franchise, and the comics bubble had burst; Marvel was filing for bankruptcy. Was this movie cursed by timing?
If you look at the Warner releases around this time, it becomes incredibly obvious that it's more of a business-philosophy reason—you don't take risks when you're afraid. Warner had been making losing project after losing project, and this could have been their savior. They were so sure they were going to knock this out of the park. This project initially had an unlimited budget, and after all these script iterations, they were looking at a $300 million dollar film. That's when development hell set in.
This story appeared in print with the headline "Box Office Kryptonite."
Watch the trailer for The Death of "Superman Lives": What Happened?:
Watch the first ten minutes of the film: