Two of my favorite subjects for nonfiction are terrible movies which got made and good movies which were never made. I always assumed we dodged a bullet when Tim Burton’s Superman Lives was cancelled, but I was wrong… probably. After seeing the Kickstarted documentary The Death of “Superman Lives”: What Happened? I think Tim Burton’s Superman would have beaten Snyder’s Superman fist-over-fist. It would have certainly been better than Wild Wild West, which is where Warner Bros. shifted its money and focus after cancelling Superman Lives.
I know it’s popular today to hate the comics of the 1990s (I don’t give a shit—I still like old school Spawn), but DC’s Death of Superman would have made a pretty great movie, even if it did kind of embody what was wrong with comics of that era. I remember reading Kevin Smith’s leaked script back in the AOL days when I still thought the movie was getting made: some of the dialogue was goofy and a little long, but it was a pretty exciting read as long as you imagined Christopher Reeve in the part. According to the documentary, that’s exactly what Smith was doing when he wrote it.
Since the movie was never made, Death of “Superman Lives” shows us the ocean of concept art designed in pre-production, including some of Tim Burton’s own drawings. The important thing to remember about concept art is the final product never looks as good as the preliminary sketches, but the stuff they designed for Superman Lives looks even more fantastic than most movie art, leading one to the conclusion the movie itself could have been better than most. The variety in the aliens they designed for Brainiac’s ship was enough to convince me we missed out on something special. At one point I thought, “There’s no way they could have done all of this in one movie,” and later learned the initial budget estimate was $300 million; 1995’s Waterworld cost $175 million and was the most expensive movie up until that point. Naturally, the studio ordered cuts to the script’s more expensive elements.
Still, that they spent thirty million on a movie they would never make is a testament to Hollywood’s extreme wastefulness. It’s such a shame the movie was never made. Whether it was good or not, it would have been rebooted by now anyway.
The promotional material for the documentary has been using pictures and video of Nicolas Cage in strange variations on the Superman suit to drum up hype. During the making of Superman Returns, Bryan Singer would flash a photograph of Nicolas Cage’s Superman whenever someone complained about Brandon Routh’s look in his own film: “Look, you were going to make that at one point.” Yet the documentary makes it clear Tim Burton’s crew wasn’t taking liberties with Superman’s traditional look, but experimenting with suits he’d wear later in the movie, including a regeneration suit following his death and resurrection. Tim Burton confesses it’s the reason he’s a lot more careful today about letting pre-production material get out: artists need time to experiment behind closed doors.
I’ve wanted to see The Death of “Superman Lives” for a while now and I wasn’t disappointed. While I wouldn’t say it’s a great documentary, it does what really great documentaries do: it changes my opinion about something I felt strongly about. And yes, by that I mean I really want to see Tim Burton’s Superman Lives.