Say the words “Tim Burton’s Superman Lives” on the Internet and you feel the hate. Nicolas Cage as Superman? Those terrible costumes? It would’ve been the worst movie of all time. Well, The Death of Superman Lives: What Happened? just might prove that the entire internet is wrong.
Directed by Jon Schnepp, The Death of Superman Lives: What Happened? is an in-depth, fascinating documentary about the development, destruction and, ultimately, the mythos surrounding one of the great never-produced superhero movies of all time. But not only does it tell that story, it changes the entire narrative around it by featuring never-before-seen video, images and interviews that gloriously set the record straight.
A bit of backstory: In the 1990s, Warner Bros. wanted to reboot Superman. They hired Nicolas Cage to play him, Tim Burton to direct him, and had multiple scripts written by Kevin Smith, Dan Gilroy and others. The film was to be called Superman Lives and it would have centered on the famous Death of Superman comic story which was a international sensation. After years of development, the film was eventually canceled and all but forgotten. Until, of course, the internet began digging it back up.
Some years later, photos from the film’s preproduction began to surface. One showed an goofy Cage in an absolutely terrible looking version of the suit (seen above). Others showed a green, translucent, light-up neon version of the suit (seen below). Based on these images alone, almost every single person who read or heard about this movie thanked their lucky stars the film was canceled.
It’s a classic case of instant internet reaction. So many people tend to form concrete, unflappable opinions based on the tiniest shred of information. A single quote. One image. A logline. A minuscule bit of data can quickly become the basis for an entire belief system surrounding a project. And for Superman Lives, that belief was the movie was destined to be a piece of shit.
This is where The Death of Superman Lives: What Happened? comes in. It sets all of this up but then does something so few of us actually do: Research. To be fair, in the case of Superman Lives, research was impossible because everything was locked away. But Schnepp discovers a great many things about the film; for example, every single image that has made it into the public was wildly out of context. The awkward Cage photo? A random snapshot at a very, very, very early costume test. Those neon suits? To be used in one single sequence, that would’ve lasted seconds.
It turns out we had this movie all wrong.
The documentary unearths the actual video footage of that unfortunate costume test, going so far as to pinpoint the moment the photo was taken. Eventually—and this is a bit of a spoiler, but screw it—it shows the final Superman costume Cage would have used in the movie. And guess what? It rivaled both Brandon Routh’s in Superman Returns (which is the movie that was made based on this one) and Henry Cavill’s in Man of Steel. This is close to it.
These revelations are simply the biggest triumphs of the film, but there’s more. Schnepp spends a good chunk of his movie talking to the film’s producers, writers, concept artists, production designers and even director Tim Burton himself about what Superman Lives would have been. We see the evolution of the costumes, the script, the story, the villains. We see designs for all kinds of different versions of Doomsday, Brainiac and more. We listen to them all explain why this movie was going to be different and, frankly, probably way ahead of its time.
Ultimately, the viewer is left with a broad, multi-faceted understanding of Superman Lives. You simultaneously understand why Warner Bros. pulled the plug weeks before filming, but still feel angry about it. Schnepp wins you over. Lots of that is due to the fun editing and humor throughout, and the rest is just because of the ultra impressive access and research that went into the movie.
Superman Lives would have presented an emotional, complex and conflicted hero... and then it would have killed him. These are ideas that probably even Marvel would have trouble with 20 years later. It was going to be a big movie, a weird movie, and an expensive movie—and no, there’s no guarantee it would’ve worked. Maybe it would have been that piece of crap everyone on the internet assumes it would have been. Then again, maybe it would have been The Dark Knight 10 years before Christopher Nolan.
There are definitely some flaws to The Death of Superman Lives: What Happened? The copious amount of research does hurt the film’s momentum on occasion. Some of the animations and recreations that are used don’t land. But those are minor hiccups,when you look at the big picture. This film manages to entertain, educate, and not-so-subtly give a huge middle finger to reactionary internet culture. After watching this movie, no longer will you have those venomous thoughts towards Superman Lives. Instead, you’ll probably be upset it’ll never happened. How many films can actually facilitate that kind of change?
The Death of Superman Lives: What Happened? will be available as a digital download and on Blu-ray on July 9. Find out how to watch it at the official site here. And here’s the first 10 minutes of the movie.