Review: The Death of Superman Lives - What Happened?
REVIEW: Film history is full of those great “what if?” projects which – for one reason or another – never got off the ground. Movies like Stanley Kubrick's NAPOLEON, Alejandro Jodorowsky’s DUNE, and of course – Tim Burton’s SUPERMAN LIVES. But, what’s remarkable about the latter is just how close it was to going into production. With an A-list leading man/director combo (both of whom were at the height of their popularity) and a potential billion dollar franchise at stake, what went wrong?
Lots of things it turns out. While we’ve all no doubt seen still images from the 1998 costume tests that suggested Burton was making a Joel Schumacher-style comic-book nightmare, Jon Schnepp, having access to the full footage as well as Burton himself, paints a different picture. One thing that’s immediately addressed by Schnepp’s film is that the images were taken out of context and that the suits that upset people so much would have never ended up in the film and were simple pre-production mock-ups. No actual super-suit was built.
Basically, Schnepp’s made a kind of Holy Grail for fanboys, in that he’s able to set the record straight on a number of fronts. Interviewing everyone from Kevin Smith – who wrote the treatment that got the project started – to producer Jon Peters, to Burton himself, Schnepp gets the whole story. With the exception of Nicolas Cage, he’s able to talk to everyone who had a hand in the project, taking us on a guided tour of the movie’s aborted production and the decision-making that led to Warner Bros finally pulling the plug. Even studio exec Lorenzo di Bonaventura, who was one of the two studio execs to definitively call the project off, weighs in, citing several huge flops in the WB ledger (with $46 million spent on MAJOR LEAGUE: BACK TO THE MINORS it seems some really poor decisions were being made).
What’s especially interesting about Schnepp’s doc is the picture it paints of the potential film. While geekdom has more or less come to the consensus that the movie would have been awful, Schnepp doesn’t seem so sure and everyone involved, including Burton himself, seem positive it would have worked. Even though it’s been more than fifteen years, the cancelled production seems to be a sore spot for everyone, with Burton himself especially depressed over the thwarted project.
Probably the most we know about the project comes from Kevin Smith’s infamous story about producer Jon Peters from his first EVENING WITH…special. Smith re-tells the story here, but Peters himself (filmed separately) is able to provide a rebuttal. While he admits that he had Smith read him the script and that he wanted a big-ass spider in there somewhere (which he later got into WILD WILD WEST) he denies that he had problems with Superman wearing the suit and that he didn’t want him to fly. Certainly, he would have worn the suit in Burton’s film and the ILM test footage Schnepp’s gotten shows that Superman would have flew (or rather jumped – kinda) and that the VFX would have been great (for their time).
These are only a few of the revelations in Schnepp’s insightful and entertaining doc, which is clearly a must-see both for Superman fans and anyone who likes a good true Hollywood yarn. While the production values are lo-fi due to the fan-backed budget (ranging from the beautifully shot interviews with Smith and Peters, to the more rushed Burton-ones that were likely shot in a small window of time) in the end it doesn’t matter much as there’s so much good information here. While no one can definitively say whether this project would have worked or not, I can’t help but wish Burton and Cage had been able to make their film as it could have been really interesting and might have reignited the franchise years before Bryan Singer and Zack Snyder eventually made their versions. It’s nice that Schnepp was able to set the record straight here and this is pretty fascinating investigation into a film that came within three weeks of shooting.
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