The Death of Superman Lives: What Happened?

Year: 2015
Director: John Schnepp
Writer: John Schnepp
Cast: John Schnepp, Tim Burton, Jon Peters, Kevin Smith, Wesley Strick, Tony Gilroy, Colleen Atwood

Look no further than this film for the perfect example of what the DVD and the age of behind-the-scenes awareness hath wrought. Once upon a time we enjoyed movies that were written, produced, directed and released. Today geek appreciation for properties and characters runs so high we're now celebrating a movie that never was.

We've all read those top ten lists of movies that almost happened (James Cameron's Spider-Man, Steven Spielberg's Dr Who, Stanley Kubrick's A.I.). The Death of Superman Lives: What Happened? is the ultimate expression of a Hollywood 'what if' story, looking into the work that was done on what would have been a 1998 update.

If you don't know the story, Tim Burton was still riding pretty high in popularity after 1989's Batman, even though he'd been fired from the franchise after 1992's Batman Returns was too dark for Warner Bros and producers Jon Peters and Peter Guber.

Peters hadn't lost faith in comic book properties and wanted to revitalise one of the most famous characters in Warners' stable, Superman. Scripts were commissioned from Kevin Smith, Wesley Strick and Tony Gilroy based on the early 90s comic book series that saw Superman killed off in a fight with Doomsday. Burton was asked back to direct. Diehard Superman fan Nicholas Cage signed on to play the hero.

An amazing amount of work was done (and money spent) on preproduction, design and costuming by leading artists and costume designers from across the US and Europe, including on the 'rebirth' suit that leaked online and caused consternation among fans.

As The Death of Superman Lives explains, the eye-catching blue metallic garb was never going to be the new Superman suit like everyone assumed – according to the script it was the outfit he wears when he emerges from a Kryptonian cocoon in orbit that nurses him back to health.

It's a good example of how half-arsed information leaked on the internet that was never meant for public consumption can be taken wildly out of context by purists living in their parents' basements.

Another example is some of the costume test footage taken with Burton, Cage and designer Colleen Atwood in hotel rooms during 1997 and 1998. In another age it wouldn't have been any big deal to video Nicholas Cage trying on Superman suits – who'd be interested in that? In the TMZ age, that kind of stuff is an online gold rush and people are just so much more careful in response – as Burton himself says in the film.

He's one of quite a few talking heads in the film that includes Atwood, a lot of the artists and designers, all three screenwriters and the godfather of the whole thing, Jon Peters.

Coming off looking like some batshit crazy, self-absorbed Hollywood fruit loop who believes his own mythology, Peters is a hoot. When the one-time hairdresser takes a phone call in the middle of the interview and tells someone to set up a lunch or claims to director John Schnepp that he's had 500 street fights in his life (on those mean streets of Beverly Hills), it's priceless.

Kevin Smith in particular has told the story about Peters' conditions in his screenplay many times and Peters does nothing to deny it – he didn't want to see Superman in the iconic suit, he didn't want him to fly and he wanted him to battle a giant spider in the third act (after Superman Lives fell apart, Peters went on to Wild Wild West, where Will Smith ends up battling...).

The material and interviews Schnepp has accumulated and assembled is almost more interesting in a world where Nicholas Cage as Superman/Clark Kent in Superman Lives doesn't exist, because it gives you an insight into the process and larger than life personalities that build the movies we end up loving. At one point, as storyboards tell us, Superman was going to be greeted at the Fortress of Solitude by two polars bears he has to fight. Yes, it was coming to that.

Despite the title, the movie's not really interested in pinpointing a reason Warner Brothers' pulled the plug (although a string of flops and a budget that was crawling upwards didn't help). It's more a chronology of the work that went into the project, a Hollywood cautionary tale and a geek's treat, all delivered with appropriate doses of reverence and humour.

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