Review: The Death of Superman Lives: What Happened?

Now I really want to see Sammy Davis Jr. as Beetlejuice.

A good documentary is less about being told facts and more about raising questions. When a documentary forgets to ask the questions, though, it fails to do its job. When it’s me pausing the film to say “Well why didn’t you…?” or “Why would they…?” and not the guy hosting the documentary, the film has failed to its job.

This film was enjoyable, but only in spite of the direction.

Jon Schnepp should be commended by geeks and nerds everywhere for taking the time (with help from Kickstarter) to compile this footage and make it available for people who have always wondered about this almost-movie. But there was too much “letting the guests speak for themselves” and not enough probing and followup questions. I suppose a certain amount of deference needs to be given to Hollywood big shots who have let you film them talk about a failure of theirs, but at the same time I want to do more than just speculate. I want the people in charge to answer questions.

tim-burton-jon-schnepp

Jon with Tim Burton
  • Who thought almost bald Nic Cage wearing a humongous long  black wig worked?
  • Why polar bears?
  • Why Ninjas?!
  • How long was this movie supposed to be? Three hours? It had a trilogy’s worth of films happening just based on the characters involved.
  • Why would you even want to make a Superman movie that strips away everything that defines who Superman is?

and such like.

Not to get too deep into the actual would-be Superman movie, but it deserves a little mentioning:

Superman Lives would have featured a Man of Steel isolated and removed from the world, fully encumbered by his “alien” nature. The movie would have featured three villains: Lex Luthor, Brainiac and Doomsday. Luthor and Brainiac would work together (and merge into one entity, known as Lexiac) to block out earth’s sun, rendering Superman…powerless? I guess? I dunno, he seems to do alright from dinnertime to breakfast, so I never understood how no sunlight would just switch off his powers. Anyway, Doomsday (who is created and released by Lexiac all in what would likely by a very whimsical Tim Burton montage) then shows up and starts wreaking havoc. Superman and Doomsday do their thing, the good guy wins but is so weak he dies in Lois’ arms, a scene which no doubt would have mirrored this famous image:

death-of-superman

Soon after, Superman is revived by a special suit that is endued with the genetic code of his parents…or something. It’s this thing

superman-lives

that so many fanboys thought was the stupidest Superman suit ever. Of course it wasn’t the Superman suit. It was only to be used for a brief moment of the picture. This is the stupidest Superman suit ever:

nicolas-cage-superman

So Superman comes back from the dead (He Lives!) and confronts Lexiac (who, while Superman was away plotted to simultaneously bang Lois Lane and blow up the world with Nukes). Superman returns to fight Lexiac (who, presumably, would have revealed himself to be a giant mechanical spider), defeat the villain and save the world with one second left on the nuclear blow up thingy. Lois and he embrace and she reveals she’s carrying his superchild.

Holy crap the movie sounds horrible.

First of all, Doomsday and the Death and Return of Superman do not work within a single movie. Superman Returns actually did a take on it (during the too long final thirty minutes of the film). It didn’t work there. It didn’t work in the not bad DC Animated movie, and it doesn’t work here. There’s no drama in seeing Superman die and return within the span of half an hour. That’s not “death.” That’s a siesta.

Doomsday only worked in the comics because they built him up. Issue after issue in the comics showed him slowly making his way to earth, showed his incredible ferocity and remarkable strength. His genetic inability to fatigue, near-unlimited strength and desire to destroy made him a perfect enemy for Superman, but it took time to establish him, since he was a new villain. Once the battle began and Superman died, he stayed gone and for three months DC went dark on all Superman titles. Even after those three months, it was still a while before the real Superman finally returned for good.

All versions of the screenplay for this movie feature the same critical flaw: No one cares about Superman’s death because we immediately see that he’s going to revive (shoot, it’s in the title of the movie). The only way it would work is if they copied Wrath of Khan, which kept Spock dead and only brought him back at the end of the next movie. But that would have meant committing to a trilogy and Warners didn’t have the capital to do that (thankfully).

_____

As for the documentary…

THE GOOD

There are TONS of footage from the days of pre-production. The interviews are highly entertaining, even if there’s not a lot of probing for more information. There are basically three major contributors: Jon Peters, Kevin Smith and Tim Burton, though a few other writers and production designers are interviewed as well. Of the three, Smith is the most entertaining for the right reasons, probably because he was the only one who actually wanted to talk about it. Peters was the most entertaining for all the wrong reasons. I don’t know what kind of a hair dresser from a family of hair dressers on Rodeo Drive got into “hundreds of bloody fist fights” as a kid. I don’t know what “streets” he was from, but I want to visit them. And laugh at them. Burton is what he is. He’s Edward Scissorhands without the Scissorhands. He’s an awkward, reclusive introvert. He also proudly wears on his sleeve his disdain for those he chooses to disdain. I love him. He’s a terrible interview though and always has been.

THE BAD

As mentioned, writer/director/interviewer Jon Schnepp does nothing more than “nod with exaggeration” while people are speaking. Whether it’s a production designer talking about how to figure out the red undies in the classic super suit, or Jon Peters’ straight faced defense of him putting a production designer in a chokehold (to inspire him), Schnepp’s reaction is the same. There’s little followup, little calling out on someone’s OBVIOUS falsehoods. Just nodding. Nodding with exaggeration. I found myself shouting questions at the screen only to have them go unasked. Then I had to Google to find the answers. First world probs.

THE UGLY

There’s a bit of a kitschy quality to the overall production, with some animations that pop up on occasion to highlight an interviewer, or cutaways to cheesy reenactments of what the film might have looked like (complete with nobody actors in cheap suits and bad green screen effects). Those are occasionally substituted with less embarrassing story board animations. Had the whole documentary featured those as cutaways, it would have been fine. The people in the suits was worse than a Roger Corman production. There’s also a lot of cutaways to other films in order to highlight a reference or a nod that an interviewer was making. It became a little much after a while. Having said that, I simply can’t come down too hard on Schnepp. Like him, I’ve been fascinated with Superman Lives and the story behind it, etc. I appreciate his willingness to make a movie that gives me as much material as will probably ever see about it. Corny in spots though it may be, it’s still something, and without this movie, I’d have next to nothing on Superman Lives.

_____

I remember in 1997 going to the theater (to see Batman and Robin) and seeing a poster advertising the next Superman movie. This was the poster:

superman-poster-1998

It appeared in theaters and a few other relevant outlets and then disappeared. I didn’t read Variety back then but it wasn’t too long before word started getting out that the production was canned and that Warners was scrapping the entire concept.

It’s funny how chain reactions work in Hollywood.

Had this movie been made, it would not have succeeded. There’s not a doubt in my mind. It would have failed and Warners would have continued sitting on their comic properties on the assumption that comic book movies can’t be successful. Batman would have been shelved as well and then a decade later would have returned with a different tone and bigger box office success. Superman would eventually have joined him on the big screen. The MCU would still have taken off, caught DC flat footed and forced them to play catch up with their franchises despite the fact that—unlike Marvel—they own all their major players and have the film rights to them oh wait that is exactly what ended up happening.

But, as a result of this movie getting canned, Superman remained dormant at Warners until Bryan Singer relaunched comic book movies with the X-Men films. Warners stole him away from Fox and gave him the greenlight to make a Superman movie without any of the overbearing oversight that (thankfully) toppled Burton’s try. Singer’s movie was hindered though, because Warners had sunk a lot of money into the failed Superman Lives production, and that money was folded into the budget for Superman Returns. Singer’s film probably cost about 150mm to make, but the budget ended up exceeding 200mm due to all the baggage the franchise was carrying. The movie was not good enough to make enough cash to justify a second go-around. Singer was out and Superman returned to the backburner. The MCU then took off, caught DC flat footed and forced them to play catch up with their franchises despite the fact that—unlike Marvel—they own all their major players and have the film rights to them oh wait that is exactly what ended up happening.

_____

In one deleted scene, Tim Burton quips that he “made the movie” but simply “forgot to film it.” It’s remarkable how much material was available and how deep into production the film was by the time the plug was pulled. As far as the doc tells it, the movie was ready to begin shooting at any moment, which almost certainly would have been the point of no return for the studio.

The documentary is a great resource to see what could have been. Production designs, artwork, costumes and costume tests, as well as loads of footage from meetings and discussions between Burton, Cage and production staff are all featured. Burton later notes in the documentary that he would never have so many cameras rolling in such an accessible place if he were doing something like that today. He would have those sort of costume tests and talk-throughs be done at his house (which, as depicted in the documentary, is exactly what you’d imagine Tim Burton’s house to look like…I swear I saw an indoor gargoyle above his fireplace). The internet is too all-encompassing, there are too many fan sites and niche sites out there looking to discuss, debate and verbally defecate on any bit of material that is released.

Kevin Smith makes a tongue-in-cheek observation when he notes that today he would love to see Nicolas Cage as Superman in a movie. I’d want to see that too, but after I did, I’d probably say “Okay, now show me a real Superman movie.” Like if I had unlimited money and could pay to have Tim Burton and Nic Cage make a movie that deconstructs the Superman mythos, I’d pay to watch it. Like George Harrison funding Life of Brian. But that’s a fantasy, not reality. In reality you don’t get many chances to make a big budget Superman movie. Why waste it on something that isn’t really a Superman movie?

For as much giddiness that Jon Schnepp has over this movie that never was, it can’t be forgotten that this would not have been a good Superman movie. It would have been a balls to the wall crazy Tim Burton movie, but it would not have been a great Superman movie. Too much of the mythology of the character was being discarded in the name of “modernization” and “appealing to the hip. 90’s audience of the day, with their No Fear t-shirts and their Nirvana albums.”

Fans may be divided over Man of Steel and its depiction of Superman, but it’s clear now that Snyder’s movie was the prologue to the DC Cinematic Universe. It was the launching pad for the movies that are to come. There are no movies—no franchises—that would have sprung from Superman Lives.

It died.

And it’s good that it did.

_____

7/10 – If you’re interested in Superman you will enjoy it, same if you are interested in behind the scenes Hollywood nonsense. Still, as a documentary, it could have been better.

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