By now, we've all had a good laugh at the photos of Nic Cage in a shiny, ill-fitting Superman costume. We've heard Kevin Smith tell the story about Jon Peters, the former hairdresser turned Hollywood producer who desperately wanted a Superman movie that would feature a gigantic spider in the third act. We've seen the bizarre concept art showing Brainiac piloting a spaceship shaped like a giant skull. We've heard the one about Chris Rock being hired to play Jimmy Olsen. In short: for a film that never actually went in front of the cameras, we seem to know an awful lot about Tim Burton's Superman Lives.
But we only seem to. Jonathan Schnepp's The Death Of Superman Lives: What Happened? is here to challenge that notion, and in that regard it is wildly successful. It's packed with detail, from interviews with the film's creative team (including all three screenwriters who took a crack at the script, Tim Burton and Jon Peters) to never-before-seen pre-production footage (costume tests, VFX tests) to a mindblowing, ongoing showcase of unused concept art pieces. It is, unquestionably, a definitive look at one of the most notorious almost-was films in Hollywood history.
And like many efforts in the "Movies That Almost Were" documentary sub-genre, it's also a little shaggy. If 2013's Jodorowsky's Dune is the gold standard in that arena (which it surely is), then The Death Of Superman Lives is closer in execution to last year's Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey Of Richard Stanley's The Island Of Dr. Moreau. This isn't a bad thing; I loved Lost Soul when I caught it at Fantastic Fest. It's just my shorthand way of saying that The Death Of Superman Lives has a few rough edges in terms of sound design, editing and a straightforward throughline. For some, that shagginess could be a problem. I found it endearing, and entirely appropriate given the fan-backed nature of the project (the result of a Kickstarter campaign launched by Schnepp back in 2013).
With those qualifications out of the way, let's bring our attention back around to where The Death Of Superman Lives excels: namely, the interviews. Schnepp sits down and talks with nearly every member of Superman Lives' creative team, and the stories they tell about the production are often hilarious. One person reveals that, during the filming of Superman Returns, Bryan Singer carried around a particularly unflattering photo of Nic Cage in the updated Superman suit, and would whip it out whenever someone questioned his classical approach to the character. Burton goes on a brief diatribe against online fanboys, complete with a reference to middle-aged men spewing fury from the comfort of their parents' basements. And then there's the Jon Peters interview.
Simply put, Schnepp's interview with Peters - glimpsed throughout The Death Of Superman Lives - is almost reason enough to see the film. It's as strong an example of unchecked ego gone mad as I've ever seen, the highlights too numerous to count. How about the moment where Peters claims, apropos of nothing, that he's been "in 500 (fist)fights"? Or the part where Peters claims that Michael Keaton's original line in Burton's Batman was, "I'm Batman...motherfucker"? Or the part where, mid-interview, Peters takes a phone call on-camera and sets up a lunch date? Stories about Peters' eccentric behavior are, by now, the stuff of legend, and some are so outrageous that you have to wonder if they aren't wildly exaggerated. Schnepp's interview with Peters seems to erase any doubt: Peters really is that guy, and seems happy to prove as much again and again in casual conversation. It's astounding.
The real reason to see The Death Of Superman Lives, however, is this: about two-thirds of the way through the movie - after you've heard about the weird spin Burton wanted to put on the character of Kal-el, after you've seen the silly Superman costumes (yes, costumes, plural) and heard how they would've worked in context, after you've looked over a treasure trove of genuinely awesome pieces of concept art illustrating Burton's vision for the film - you might find yourself wondering if Superman Lives really was the "dodged bullet" we always assumed it was...or if we didn't miss out on something incredible.
To be sure, Burton's vision for Superman Lives was undeniably strange. It would've twisted familiar elements of Superman's mythology to their farthest extremes, stopping just short of becoming something entirely not Superman in the process. Clark Kent's sort of a bumbling square? Well, let's toss Nicolas Cage in a rumpled, ill-fitting sport coat over a Mickey Mouse shirt and see how well he does scoring a date with a human female. Kal-el's an alien masquerading as a human? Let's see him try to come to terms with his own inherent strangeness. Who knows? Maybe he'd be overwhelmed, develop a bit of a death wish. Maybe Brainiac is literally all brain, just a giant head atop eight spidery legs. Hey, maybe we get Christopher Walken to play Brainiac's head.
Would Superman fans (and, more importantly, the filmgoing public) have embraced Burton's weirdo take on the character? Almost certainly not. Even assuming a best case scenario for the final product, Superman Lives would've been baffling for audiences casually familiar with the character and infuriating to fanboys. But it also might have been oddly beautiful, and the sheer spectacle of it - both the film and the outrage that would have resulted over it - makes me wish very deeply that it had been made. I have no idea if I would've enjoyed Burton's film, but I can't help but feel like I'd respect the audacity of it.
I'm not entirely sure what the plan is for distribution on The Death Of Superman Lives, but I strongly recommend you seek it out once it's made available (I'm guessing this'll be a VOD/limited release). This is another wildly entertaining entry in the "Docs About Movies That Almost Were" sub-genre, well-researched and funny and - get this - even a little tragic.