“I don’t wanna see him in the suit, and I don’t wanna see him fly, and I want him to fight a giant spider in the third act.” Such were producer Jon Peters’ demands of Superman Lives, as recounted by screenwriter Kevin Smith. It’s a quote which aptly sums up the aborted attempts to get a new Superman movie on the big screen in the early 90s – a project which has gone down in movie folklore as one of the weirdest film projects that never was.
After the box office failure of the botched Superman IV: The Quest For Peace, Kal-El’s cinema adventures were left in stasis until the early 90s. By then, the death and subsequent return of Superman in comics had resulted in an uptick in sales, prompting Warner to embark on a establishing the character for a new generation of movie-goers.
Although the ideas for the movie – initially called Superman Reborn, but later re-titled Superman Lives – evolved over time, its producers were evidently keen to distance it from the franchise Richard Donner had established in the 1970s. Producer Jon Peters had imagined a version of Superman who wears a robot suit. Peters also wanted Lex Luthor to receive a dog from space as a pet.
The new version of Superman appeared to be designed with the particular aim of flogging lots of merchandise – and Warner spared no expense in securing the involvement of big Hollywood names. Tim Burton was signed up as director, and Nicolas Cage was hired to play Superman; both were given ‘pay-or-play’ contracts, which meant they’d be given a respective $5m and $20m whether or not the movie went ahead.
There was a problem, however, in getting all the various robot sidekicks, pet dogs, giant spiders and supervillains into a workable story. Kevin Smith was one of a number of writers who attempted to turn in a script, but after several years and millions of dollars, the project was shelved in 1998.
Since then, various strange and outlandish photos, concept images and test reels have emerged, all serving to reinforce our sense of what might have been. Nic Cage may have appeared in a transparent plastic muscle suit with neon disco lights blinking beneath the surface. Its villain, Brainiac, would have flown around in a massive ship shaped like a skull. Brainiac would have also fought polar bears.
It all sounds like such divine madness, and given the constant chopping and changing of ideas behind the scenes, it also sounds as though the story of this doomed production would have been almost as interesting as the film we never got to see.
Thankfully, filmmaker Jon Schnepp plans to step into the breach and attempt to make sense of this strange footnote in comic book movie history. He’s launched a Kickstarter campaign to create The Death Of Superman Lives: What Happened? – an in-depth look at the film’s making and demise, which will provide interviews with those involved in the production to find out what the film could have been, and why it all fell apart.
Schepp aims to raise a reasonable $98,000 to make his documentary, and if he achieves the stretch goal of $148,000, his aims are more ambitious still: he plans to use the money to recreate some of the key scenes from the film, complete with CG and miniature effects provided by professional artists.
As the film Lost In La Mancha proved, documentaries about unfulfilled creative ambition can be grimly compelling, and Schepp’s enthusiasm for his subject shows in both his pitch video and the mountain of concept art and other materials he’s already compiled.
With Man Of Steel bringing a sombre take on Superman to our screens, the time’s right for a post-mortem of Warner’s dalliance with disco lights and Cage madness, so we’re hoping The Death Of Superman Lives gets the backing it needs – otherwise, how else are we going to get the answers to all those questions we’ve had in our minds for the past few years.
Admittedly, we may never find out why Jon Peters was so obsessed with giant robot spiders, but there’s one thing we do know: the producer finally found an outlet for his idea in 1999, when Will Smith and Kevin Klein came face to face with an 80-foot steam-powered tarantula in the poorly-received Wild, Wild West…
You can read more about the Death Of Superman Lives Kickstarter campaign here.
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