The last time there was a decent onscreen incarnation of the Last Son of Krypton, the year was 1980 and Christopher Reeve landed Hollywood’s biggest deus ex machina on Lois Lane in the form of a mind-wipe kiss. The franchise has since declined with the more recent efforts of Superman Returns and Man of Steel; for fans, the saga of Tim Burton’s Superman Lives is the great what-if.
Heading back to 1987, Superman IV had bombed critically and financially forcing Warner Bros. to put the franchise to rest. Then, in 1992, the success of the Death of Superman comic storyline revived not only Superman comics but also studio interest in the caped hero. Warner Bros. realised that this new surge in mainstream popularity could give them the merchandising cashcow they’d been looking for. In other words: they’d found their Star Wars.
But Clark Kent wasn’t destined to be their Luke Skywalker and Lex Luthor was certainly never going to fill Darth Vader’s boots. Despite news of developments drumming up fan anticipation throughout the ’90s, when Superman’s 60th anniversary hit in 1998, the film was nowhere to be seen.
Warner Bros.’ first misstep was to put producer Jon Peters on the job. Having got his start in the industry as Barbra Streisand’s hairdresser, Peters had impressive DC Comics credentials as a producer on both Burton’s Batman and Batman Returns. Peters also shared Warner Bros.’ business approach which essentially boiled down to an obsession with recreating Star Wars‘ merchandising capability. Unfortunately, Peters also knew next to nothing about the Superman mythos, was liable to be overly influenced by anything he’d recently seen and, in the words of Kevin Smith, turned out to be not a “really great guy or smart guy”.
Warner Bros.’ second mistake was to target pretty much everyone, aiming for a so-called mainstream audience. Jonathan Lemkin wrote the first draft, at that point titled Superman Reborn, and decided to harness a broader appeal by exploring Superman’s love life through Clark and Lois’ relationship, later also going as far as to reincarnate Superman through immaculate conception.
Though Lemkin’s emotional Christ-parallel tack did not satisfy Warner Bros., a second draft by Gregory Poirier was more successful in aiming towards the audience they wanted: Poirier took on board Warner Bros.’ Star Wars cravings with his regrettable introduction of ‘phin-yar’, the mental process by which Kryptonians supposedly access their super abilities. He essentially stole The Force and repurposed it for a Superman audience. One sequence sees Cadmus, an alien victim of Brainiac, channel Obi-Wan while training Superman to use his ‘phin-yar’ to regain his powers. It is as awful as it sounds.
Enter Kevin Smith of Clerks fame. After a routine meeting at Warner Bros., Smith was given the chance to take a look at Poirier’s script. He hated it. A lifelong comic book fan, he immediately realised that the script neither respected nor understood its Death of Superman source material. Finally somewhat abandoning their approach of attempting to cash in on a Star Wars type blockbuster, Warner Bros. agreed that he could write the script. However, their first mistake in hiring Jon Peters had further ramifications: in order for Smith to get the job, he had to get Peters’ approval. Smith met with Peters in August 1996 only to discover the full extent of Peters’ bizarre creative impulses. Peters had three main requirements: Superman could only wear a black suit, he wasn’t allowed to fly in the movie and he had to fight a giant spider.
The ridiculous requests didn’t end there. Peters went on to later demand a polar bear fight at the Fortress of Solitude and that Lex Luthor be given a space dog by Brainiac. After being somehow inspired by Smith’s Chasing Amy, Peters also decided that Brainiac’s robot sidekick L-Ron be a “gay R2-D2”. Though incredulous, Smith squeezed in Peters’ requirements with as much finesse as he could manage. The result was a story that many fans now regard as being the most faithful to the mythos: Brainiac blocks the sun to stop Superman’s powers, sending Doomsday to kill him before joining forces with Lex Luthor. Superman is saved by a Kryptonian robot, The Eradicator, who he conveniently uses as armour to defeat Brainiac.
It was at this point that Tim Burton finally came on board as director and Nicolas Cage signed up to star in the title role, each guaranteed $5 million and $20 million respectively in their pay-or-play contracts. Sadly, Burton immediately demanded that Wesley Strick do a rewrite and Kevin Smith was off the project. However Cage, for one, truly understood the comic book lore. A lifelong Superman fan who famously named his son Kal-El, he supported Burton’s appointment, explaining at the time, “[Burton’s] always been very sensitive about the outsider”. Cage has since gone further in his praise, declaring Burton to be a genius in an Empire podcast in 2013. Of his own approach, he humbly stated, “I knew I was going to go towards something quite unique and different than anything you’ve seen with Superman.”
As the pre-production ball finally began to roll in the summer of 1997, it still looked like Superman Lives was actually going to happen. The art department kicked off its research, trying to land on anything vaguely marketable. Burton began to scout for locations, choosing Pittsburgh as the stand-in for the fictional city of Metropolis. Nicolas Cage even went for a costume fitting – though, with the pictures since being leaked, we now know nothing good was going to come from Nic Cage in a skin-tight supersuit.
However, this productivity would eventually amount to nothing: “I made the movie; we just forgot to film it,” Burton later quipped. Warner Bros. was nervous; they may have wanted a Star Wars hit, but they didn’t want to shell out the funds in case it failed. As Nicolas Cage reasoned to the Metro, “Warner Brothers got scared because they had two artists that weren’t afraid to take chances.” Dan Gilroy was employed to write a cheaper version of Strick’s script but three drafts later, Warner Bros. were still not happy. The project was put on hold in April 1998, just months before its proposed release date.
Burton then left the project to work on Sleepy Hollow and the film descended further into development hell. “If they’d just allowed us to make the film,” he said, “I think that we could have done something interesting.” Finally, Nicolas Cage pulled out of the project in 2000 and Superman Lives was dead.
After seven years, employing seven different writers and spending millions of dollars, Warner Bros. was heading into a new millennium with nothing to show for their efforts to revive the Superman franchise. Seeking to both recreate the success of Star Wars and prioritise the film’s merchandising prospects over a cohesive and comprehensive story spelled its doom. Factor in the imbecilic creative direction of Jon Peters and it simply was never going to happen.
Looking forward to Batman vs. Superman, we can only hope that Warner Bros. and DC Comics have learned from their mistake in failing to make a film that stayed true to the comic book origins of its superpowered hero. And pray to Rao that it doesn’t feature any giant spiders.