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Tales from Development Hell: Superman Lives

By Ryan Fleming

In popular culture there are some works that have managed to become famous despite never happening at all. Projects can be delayed, radically changed, or just straight abandoned for many reasons and at all stages of development. Due to the nature of filmmaking, projects necessarily involve many people from development to release. In that regard, we are perhaps more likely to hear of failed projects in that and similar mediums given the sheer number of people, not to mention money, that has to be involved even at the earliest stages. When that process becomes more challenging than it should be is when a project goes into development hell.

Films never made or that are stuck in development hell for so long that they are entirely different to how originally envisioned can become famous for a number of reasons. They may have prominent names attached to them, they might be based on works themselves already famous, and there are those that become infamous because of their struggle in getting made.

Then there are those that involve all three of these aspects in equal measure, such as Superman Lives.

The Superman film series that had begun in 1978 with Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie ended abruptly in 1987 with the critical failure and disappointing (though profitable) box office returns of Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. There was some thought given to a further film, but the bankruptcy of production company Cannon Films negated any attempt. The rights reverted to father-son producer team Alexander and Ilya Salkind, who sold them in 1993 to Warner Brothers. The major Hollywood studio wanted ownership following the unprecedented media coverage of DC’s 1992 comic story “The Death of Superman”. It was a blatant attempt to cash in on renewed interest, but they did not anticipate it’d be more than a decade before they saw a film released.

The man who was tasked with bringing the last son of Krypton back to the silver screen was producer and former hairdresser Jon Peters. “The Death of Superman” loomed large over the first script by Jonathan Lemkin its first re-write by Gregory Poirier, with Doomsday killing Superman as in the comic. Both scripts also focused on relationship troubles between the man of steel and Lois Lane, with the re-write even having him attend psychiatry sessions before his death. The Poirier re-write also introduced Brainiac as another villain. Warner Brothers felt Lemkin’s script had too many thematic similarities to the one for Batman Forever also in development. Both of these scripts were under the title Superman Reborn and, although the studio liked Poirier’s rewrite, Peters would hire Kevin Smith to do another re-write.

Smith has said that he pitched his story to Peters because he felt that Poirier’s treatment did not respect the mythos of the character as it existed in the comics. He seemingly had no trouble adhering to Peters’ very specific requests for some story details that would appear to do the exact same thing. Per Smith, Peters did not want Superman to fly or wear his traditional costume. He also wanted sequences of Brainiac fighting polar bears at the Fortress of Solitude, whilst Superman himself would do battle with a giant spider in the climax of the film. The Star Wars anniversary re-releases in 1997 also prompted the inclusion of a “space dog” that could be merchandised. Peters denies many of these claims but does concede that he was focusing on elements detrimental to the script. He does maintain however that the giant spider battle would have been “amazing”.

Nicolas Cage at the Deauville film festival. Photo by Georges Biard and shared under the CC BY-SA 3.0 licence.

Smith suggested Ben Affleck in the role of Superman. Affleck had acted in Smith’s 1995 film Mallrats. However, Smith was never intended to direct Superman Lives, and the choice of lead actor fell to Peters. Nicolas Cage signed on to play the title role, coming off a slew of box office hits like The Rock (1996), Face/Off, and Con Air (both 1997), just a couple years removed from his Academy Award winning turn in Leaving Las Vegas (1995). Directing duties were originally to have been held by Renny Harlin, but at Cage’s recommendation Tim Burton was hired instead and the film was to be released in the summer of 1998 in time for 60th anniversary of the character’s debut in Action Comics.

Smith had also been in favour of Burton directing, but it was the entry of Burton into the project that spelled the end of Smith’s. It’s here that production really begins to wobble, since they go back to script development despite having star and director lined up. Burton hired Wesley Strick, who had earlier scripted Batman Returns (1992) for him, to deliver another re-write to the script. This new script touched upon the interesting theme of Superman thinking himself an outsider on Earth, but also saw Lex Luthor and Brainiac combine into a new entity “Lexiac” as the principal villain.

Whilst the script was being rewritten yet again, Peters had the work of the art department scrutinised by children to evaluate toy possibilities. The only script the designers had was the Smith one, which they were told not to read. Test shots were also being made of Cage in the Superman costume that would surface again years later. However, the studio balked at the script turned in by Strick. Or at least the $190 million budget attached to it. Dan Gilroy was brought in by Burton to do another re-write of the script at the behest of the studio. The cast was also filling out, with Chris Rock stepping into the role of Jimmy Olsen and having costumes fitted. Pittsburgh had been chosen as a filming location. Principal photography was the commence in a matter of weeks. Then in April of 1998 Warner Bros. put the project on hold.

It lumbered on until the turn of the century, with several more scripts, but being put back on hold in April 1998 and Burton departing ultimately spelled the end of the project entirely. Burton would instead direct Sleepy Hollow (1999) and has cited his year on Superman Lives as a year wasted. Cage would leave the project in the year 2000 and would finally play Superman in 2018’s Teen Titans Go! To the Movies, albeit voice only. Peters got his giant spider climax with steampunk neo-Confederate characteristics in Wild Wild West (1999). He would also eventually produce Superman Returns (2006) after headhunting the director and entire production team behind the successful X-Men adaptations at 20th Century Fox. In 2011 he would be ordered to pay his assistant on the film $3.3 million in damages due to the sexual harassment he inflicted during its production, a film directed by Bryan Singer and starring Kevin Spacey.

The failure of Superman Lives remains of interest to fans of the character, of those involved in production, and to fans of film in general long after the plug was pulled. So much so that a Kickstarter project was able to finance a documentary on the failed project. The Death of “Superman Lives”: What Happened? was released to a positive reception in 2015. What if Superman Lives hadn’t been cancelled? What if it had been released in the summer of 1998 as planned?

How Superman Lives would have been received varies depending on who is speculating. For some it is the biggest missed opportunity of Hollywood superhero movies. For others, it would apparently make Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin (1997) look like a masterpiece in comparison. The truth in all likelihood lies somewhere in the middle. It would all come down to the script they chose to film, but perhaps there were already far too many cooks involved for the film to please everyone. Let’s imagine that Strick, who has said he originally did not get many of Smith’s ideas in the script until he read “The Death of Superman”, turns in a draft closer to Smith’s but including the themes Burton wanted and, most importantly, doesn’t have a $190 million price tag attached.

Directed by Tim Burton and with Smith and Strick likely each receiving a form of writing credit it could have entered production on schedule. In addition to Cage and Rock, other actors linked with the film included Sandra Bullock, Courtney Cox or Julianne Moore as Lois Lane, Christopher Walken as Brainiac, and, predicting his eventual role in Superman Returns, Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor. Most tantalisingly, there exists a longstanding rumour that Michael Keaton was to cameo as Batman delivering a eulogy to the fallen superhero. Acting would likely be the least of the film’s problems. What problems might come will be from the three conflicting visions from the producer, director, and main screenwriter. Peters wanted something that could be monetised from every corner like Star Wars, Burton wanted the film to say something about Superman’s status as an alien on earth, Smith wanted to do something that would honour the source material.

Critics might question if “space dogs”, polar bears and giant spiders were necessary in a film riddled with existentialism, death, and resurrection. Audiences might have wondered what Superman was doing in therapy as they bought the inevitable McDonald’s Happy Meal tie-in. Fans might have criticised the departures from the comic books insisted on by Peters. In this respect, we might say that critical reception would be mixed over some conflicting tones, not unlike Batman Returns. Commercially, it might in fact do very well. That summer it would be battling with Armageddon, Deep Impact, Doctor Dolittle, Godzilla, Saving Private Ryan, and There’s Something About Mary. All of those would place in the top ten highest grossing for the year, with Armageddon being the highest grossing of them all at $553 million. This was in fact a step down in grosses from the summer of 1997 where, even excluding the cultural phenomenon that was James Cameron’s Titanic, both The Lost World: Jurassic Park and Men in Black grossed more than Armageddon did, at $618 million and $589 million, respectively.

There would almost seem to be something missing from the summer of 1998, a hole that Superman Lives could have, and in all likelihood would have, filled. If it does wind up topping the box office that year and a mixed reception does lean more toward the positive just by comparing it to Batman & Robin, then the release of Superman Lives could have huge implications for how Hollywood makes superhero films.

The spectacular failure of Batman & Robin has been cited by Marvel Studios president Kevin Fiege as technically making it the most important comic book film ever made. Its failure, combined with the moderate success of Blade in 1998, created an environment in which the way superhero films were made was altered and different approaches taken towards X-Men (2000) and Spider-Man (2002). Those two films created a boom that continues to this day. What if 1998 had seen a superhero film released and go to the top of the box office directed by the man that had kicked off the earlier boom with Batman (1989)?

No X-Men, no Spider-Man, no Batman Begins (2005), no Iron Man (2008). Not as we know them, at any rate. We might still get adaptations of X-Men and Spider-Man, but the circumstances would be different with the commercial success of Superman Lives as an example. There would be a bit more of a formula to follow. If Michael Keaton did indeed cameo as Batman in Superman Lives then that series might try to go back to their earlier instalments, perhaps even a requel/seqoot first appears with a one to Batman Returns rather than one to Superman II (1980). Marvel only obtained the rights to Iron Man again in 2004 after a film failed to materialise from New Line Cinema.

Superhero films would still be big, but there would be more continuity with what had started in 1989 with Tim Burton’s Batman (or even 1978 with Donner’s Superman: The Movie). Marvel might never be able to make their interconnected cinematic universe if the rights to important characters are still held elsewhere.

The image of a Nicolas Cage in a black version of the Superman costume battling a giant spider in between therapy sessions and taking the Metropolis Subway because he can’t fly may raise a few eyebrows, but it remains a potent one. As Cage has remarked himself “I think people can actually see the movie in their minds now and imagine it and in many ways that might resonate more deeply than the finished project.”


Ryan Fleming is the author of Reid in Braid, published by SLP


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