The Death of Superman Lives: What Happened is a masterpiece of documentary cinema. As a huge special features buff there’s little I enjoy more than picking up a blu ray of a film that I enjoyed in the cinema and watching the special features to better understand the process, thought, inspiration and craft that go into taking a film from script stage to finished product.
This film is basically a terrific “making of” doc special feature, writ large… Just, without the final film.
Every frame oozes director Jon Schnepp’s passion, enthusiasm, wit and directorial panache and his interviews with the film’s production crew are both daring and edifying.
I purchased the film digitally here for a very reasonable price with a slew of extras. If you haven’t seen it, I can’t recommend it highly enough.
Going into the film I thought I knew quite a bit about Superman Lives‘ tortured production.
Turns out I was wrong.
Here are 5 fun facts I learned from this great doc…
5. Bryan Singer is kind of a prick
I like Superman Returns, I like it a whole lot. I think for all its curious melancholy it’s a gorgeously shot and lit film with a smattering of genuinely great Superman moments.
Nonetheless, there’s nothing more irksome to me than creatives deriding the hard work of other creatives. In the early moments of the film, Singer’s assistant recounts the tale of how, at the slightest hint of studio resistance, Singer would pull out a particularly unfortunate Polaroid of Nic Cage’s costume test and sneer dismissively, “You were going to make this!”.
For all the allegations that have been made about Singer in his personal life I will never see him as anything except a fine film-maker and as such I’d expect better from him than this sort of childish, smirking derision of the hard work of talented people.
4. If nothing else, Superman Lives would have been a visually stunning film
Say what you will about Tim Burton, he has a real talent for visual storytelling. If you own, as I do, the gorgeous coffee table art book of Burton’s sketches then you’ve seen an insight into his uniquely visual sensibility.
While some of his films are more satisfactory than others he has an astonishing sense of the visual outside of the trappings of what we might think of as “Burtonesque”.
The film does a great job of demonstrating the evolution of Burton’s designs from sketch to concept art to live action.
The designs for Brainiac and Doomsday were unlike anything we have seen to date in a Superman film. The designs for Superman’s eventual killer Doomsday are fascinating and I love that they were not beholden to the look of the character on the page and instead opted for a more kaiju influenced, amorphous, shape shifting engine of destruction that inhabits the properties of whatever material he happens to be destroying.
There’s no question that in attempting to condense the entire death and rebirth of Superman (which span three graphic novels) into a two hour film, the narrative would have bitten off more than it could chew, but had the film been made I’m certain that we would have been talking about the visuals and the production design even now.
By the way, if anyone wants to crowd fund an art book of the production design for this aborted film they can count on my support!
3. Jon Peters is insane. No, seriously. The guy’s off his fucking tits!
Imagine you’re in a stiflingly hot office in Burbank, painstakingly sketching a storyboard. Suddenly the door bursts open and a middle aged child storms into the room, grabs you in a headlock and marches you around the room screaming “JIU_JITSU!!!” while his eight year old son draws crude penises on your work before ripping it to confetti and throwing it into the air.
Okay, so that’s a dramatisation, but go watch the film. You’ll be amazed and terrified by how little I made up!
Peters would routinely come in to the offices and assault members of the production team to impress his kids and any pretty girls that happened to be in the vicinity. His justification for this behaviour?
“I was … trying to create the energy of an action hero!”
There are other little nuggets of Peters’ charming eccentricity abundant in the film.
- He describes himself as “someone who’s been a street fighter my whole life”.
- He insists that scripts are read to him while he lounges on a sofa visualising the film through a finger frame he makes with his hands.
- He told screenwriter Kevin Smith that he didn’t want to see Superman fly, nor did ghe want to see him in the “faggy” red and blue suit.
- He takes credit for pretty much everyone’s ideas.
- He wanted the cape to be “a character” in the film. And by that he meant (and I’m honestly not making this up) he could take it off and throw it to “cut [people’s] head off”.
- Oh and, the iconic “I’m Batman” line from the first Batman film? Peter’s wanted it to be “I’m Batman, motherfucker!”, because and these are his exact words “Because then the kids would go “Yaaaaaaay!”
Mad as a fucking box of frogs.
2. It probably wouldn’t have aged terribly well.
The beauty of Burton’s Batman films is the timeless, expressionistic world which they inhabit. While a little bit of late 80s /early 90s influence creeps in there’s generally not a lot there to age the films.
Jon Peters had an extraordinarily short-sighted approach to film-making.
He also, however, had a commendable (if misguided) appetite for contemporary tastes, such as they were in the late 90s (folks were wearing shorts over joggers, people!). Indeed one of Peters’ edicts to Kevin Smith’s original script was that big blue’s costume was to be re-rendered in, and I quote, “90s style”.
He actually wanted that shit in the script!
The urge to appear of your time or (and this expression makes me cringe in its contemporary context) “relevant” is understandable, but little ages a film more.
I remember the excitement that surrounded the explosion of digital effects films in the 1990s. Some hold up pretty well (Jurassic Park, Men In Black) others (Mortal Kombat, Jumanji) not so much.
The studio and Peters seemed intent on force-feeding a lot of late 90s action tropes into the film, including (I kid you not) making Superman have a kung fu fight with half a dozen ninjas.
- Nicolas Cage would have been to Superman what Michael Keaton was to Batman.
Val Kilmer was (and is) a damned fine actor and he looks fantastic in the suit in Batman Forever, but he tends to be the Batman that history forgets (George Clooney is remembered only because of the huge swathes of wasted talent his avuncular but bland Batman represents. Likewise Brandon Routh is an incredibly likeable screen presence and it’s wonderful to see that he retains a great deal of fan love despite the divisive reputation of Superman Returns. Nonetheless, his Superman is one that history doesn’t seem to remember fondly, if it’s remembered at all.
The reason that Keaton’s Dark Knight is so well remembered and, indeed regarded as definitive by some fans is because he had an artistic angle on the material. He had a take that elevated the performance beyond what was in the text.
Nic Cage has had an uneven career, there’s no doubt, but he’s never afraid to make choices as an actor. They may not always be choices that are right on the money but when they work it results in fireworks on screen.
Seeing Cage in costume tests for both Superman and Clark Kent give a hint towards a comics literate but still original representation of Kal El’s dual identity that would have either been consigned to the rubbish bin of popular culture or redefined the character for a generation.
Listening to Cage bat ideas back and forth with Burton as he experiments with movements in the suit it’s difficult not to get excited by the actor’s infectious enthusiasm.
It’s a take that might have rubbed a lot of fans the wrong way, but it’s a take I would have loved to see.
That Warner Brothers jettisoned this project at such a late stage and instead diverted the funds towards the dreadful Will Smith vehicle Wild Wild West is a mystery deserving of a follow up documentary but though we’ll never see Tim Burton’s Superman Lives, this wonderful documentary is a consolation prize with which I’m more than happy!
Watch it and find out what you learn!