'The Death of "Superman Lives": What Happened?': Film Review

Fanboys will relish this overstuffed doc about the Superman movie that never hit the screen

This doc delves into the the backstory of the Tim Burton-Nicolas Cage Superman movie that was canceled just three weeks before the start of shooting

At a time when the comic book craze shows no sign of abating, there should be plenty of fanboys who want to learn more about the backstory behind the proposed Tim Burton Superman movie that was canceled three weeks before shooting was scheduled to start in 1998. Writer-director Jon Schnepp has delved into this story engagingly, if a little too obsessively, in the amiable documentary, The Death of 'Superman Lives': What Happened?. The film will have its main appeal to comic book geeks and Burton devotees, but it offers enough insights into backroom power plays to hold some fascination for Hollywood insiders as well. 

Schnepp managed to entice a number of the major players—including Burton, screenwriters Kevin Smith, Wesley Strick and Dan Gilroy, producer Jon Peters and former Warner Bros. executive Lorenzo di Bonaventura—to grant extensive interviews. He was not able to secure the participation of Nicolas Cage, who was Peters' offbeat choice to play Superman, but there are archival interviews with Cage along with fascinating rehearsal footage that was shot at the time.

The film suggests the arbitrariness of so much decision-making in Hollywood. Burton had directed the first two Batman movies with Michael Keaton for Warners, so it was understandable that the studio tagged him to revive the Superman franchise. But the casting of Cage was puzzling to fans at the time and remains no less bewildering today. Cage was probably chosen because he had recently won the Oscar for Leaving Las Vegas, so he was a hot commodity, even though the two projects could not have been more dissimilar. 

Burton hired a full crew, and the studio had spent $10 to $12 million on the project when they decided to pull the plug. This had more to do with a string of costly failures that Warners endured in the late 1990s—including Batman and Robin, Kevin Costner’s The Postman and Barry Levinson’s Sphere—than with the box office potential of a new Superman movie. The project was canceled just as abruptly and arbitrarily as it had been greenlit, leaving fans to wonder to this day how it would have compared with past and future Superman epics.

One of the most interesting characters in Schnepp’s saga is producer Peters, who started out in Hollywood as something of a joke—a hairdresser who became Barbra Streisand’s flame for several years—and then moved on to become a successful producer and studio executive. Peters speaks candidly to Schnepp, but others speak just as forthrightly about their battles with the very opinionated producer. Smith, the first writer hired on Superman Lives, reports on the very peculiar demands that Peters made, including his insistence that Superman never be shown flying and the idea that Superman should battle a giant spider in the film. Peters denies some of these allegations and calls Smith an “amateur” writer.

But Smith is not the only person to describe Peters’ strange antics. Burton recalls Peters kissing him on the lips and production artists Sylvain Despretz and Jim Carson recount his performing jujitsu moves at their meetings. If anyone needed persuading that Hollywood is a haven for bizarre behavior, this doc will provide plenty of substantiation.

The movie is fun to watch, even if it isn’t always fully satisfying. Too much time is spent depicting all the designs for the film that were ultimately scotched. And it’s hard to understand why Schnepp felt the need to insert himself so frequently into the documentary. Virtually every interview shows him seated beside or across from the interviewee, nodding earnestly. His constant presence adds a certain comic motif to the film that probably wasn’t the intended effect.

Despite these lapses and a padded running time, this film does burst with fascinating inside lore. There have been other movies made about aborted projects, and they all tell us more than we might like to know about the grandiosity and self-delusion of so many Hollywood players.

Director-screenwriter:  Jon Schnepp.

Producers:  Jon Schnepp, Holly Payne.

Executive producer:  Rob Pierce.

Director of photography:  Carl King.

Editors:  Marie Jamora, Jon Schnepp.

Technical Producer: Christopher Graybill.
 

No rating, 104 minutes.
 

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