Sometimes I watch behind-the-scenes bonus features of movies I kind of liked, then like them more when exposed to the enthusiasm of the creative team. I imagine the movie as it could have been, had it achieved what it was aiming for. “The Death of ‘Superman Lives’: What Happened?” (2015) is a 104-minute bonus feature for a movie that was never made in the late-1990s, and it really makes me want to see the nonexistent film. I’ll just have to tell myself the end product probably wouldn’t be as good as the pre-production art makes it seem.
I expected this documentary from writer/director/interviewer Jon Schnepp to chronicle the totally off-the-rails nature of what might be the most famous unmade movie in history, but it’s not as strange as I expected. With Tim Burton, coming off two hit “Batman” movies, in the director’s chair and respected A-list actor Nicolas Cage in the title role – initially funny casting that becomes more fascinating as an alternate take on Superman the more you think about it – there’s a proven professionalism behind the weirdness.
The strangest figure in the documentary is producer Jon Peters, a fascinatingly un-self-aware individual. Schnepp does not go out of his way to make his interview with Peters seem like something out of “Borat,” but Peters sometimes pushes it in that direction as he talks about the importance of sparking people’s creative vision right after those same people (in other interviews with Schnepp) talk about Peters’ unappealing approach. He wrestles someone to the ground and kisses Burton on the lips at various meetings.
It’s perhaps unfair to Peters, but when Kevin Smith – “Superman Lives’ ” original writer and the one who came up with the title (inspired by “Fletch Lives” – no joke) – gives a different account of a meeting than Peters does, I believe Smith, who makes his living on personal storytelling. According to the low-budget hitmaker of “Clerks” and “Mallrats,” Peters had three rules: 1) No flying, 2) no Superman outfit, and 3) Superman must fight a giant spider.
Like I say, though, a comedy about a production guided by a crazy man doesn’t materialize, and Peters’ first two rules get dropped as cooler heads prevail. We’re soon shown gorgeous pre-production art that paints “Superman Lives” as an ambitious project – perhaps slightly ahead of its time but not unreachable, especially considering the strides in superhero filmmaking since then. The movie was to be a reboot with a fresh – but still faithful (the “Death of Superman” comic arc is the inspiration) — take on the lore. For example, Krypton was to be a vibrant society with Seussian geography of tectonic plates moving vertically.
Schnepp springs from the initially comical pre-production still of Cage in the Superman outfit (something “Superman Returns” director Bryan Singer would later point to as an example of what his very traditional film would not be doing) into the documentary’s “gold mine” discovery of costume tests with Cage (the only major player who doesn’t give a fresh interview) and Burton. And that footage steadily becomes more sober. Everyone was taking “Superman Lives” seriously, believing (perhaps rightly) that they had an exciting new take on Supes.
The documentary closes with a chronicle of the mundane reason the project was canceled: historically bad timing. Schnepp gives a rundown of a massive, unprecedented string of Warner Bros. tentpoles that earned much less than their production costs. Thus, the company’s strategy shifted to safe bets, and at the time none was safer than a Will Smith Fourth of July picture, so “Superman Lives’ ” funding essentially switched over to “Wild Wild West” (which includes Peters’ beloved giant spider).
“The Death of ‘Superman Lives’ ” is a fitting tribute for this doomed project because of the preservation of the amazing art and ideas. No mention is made of the work possibly being resurrected, but presumably WB still owns everything. With the current DC Extended Universe being both commercially successful and creatively unfocused, maybe it’s time to get a crazy again in the measured fashion of Burton.