The film Superman Lives which would have been directed by Tim Burton has been almost an urban myth among superhero comics fans for nearly two decades with ridiculous stories about casting, and indeed, the very creation of it spun mainly by Kevin Smith about the Batman producer Jon Peters. It’s achieved notoriety mainly due to this one picture of Nicolas Cage in the proposed Superman suit.
It looks shite. Cage looks uninterested, the suit looks crap and the Con Air hairstyle looks crap. However the one thing director and writer Jon Schnepp does in the awkwardly titled The Death of Superman Lives: What Happened is that he points out a picture in isolation is not the entire picture. In fact that picture is just one taken at a costume fitting in 1997 and is taken at a moment when Cage blinks, and thanks to Schnepp’s film, we know this because he’s got the actual video footage. That’s just one of a number of remarkable bits of archive in a film that serves somewhat as a sister piece to Jodorowsky’s Dune in that film was about a true auteur trying to create art in the hope of being accepted & financed by the Hollywood system, while this is about the machinations of the Hollywood system trying to create product out of the work of artists often working within the system itself.
This isn’t just a documentary for hardcore superhero fans but fans of film should be able to appreciate it too. It’s an often fascinating documentary outlining the origins of a project that could have brought the current cinematic superhero boom forward a couple of years or killed it off stillborn.
Schnepp does assume people are coming to this with a knowledge of Superman Lives, but he’s smart enough to give viewers an introduction so that really anyone can approach this with no knowledge of the project or the history, although it does help with the early part of the documentary where Kevin Smith and Jon Peters dominate the narrative. Smith’s spoken freely about his time on Superman before, entertaining so especially about producer Jon Peters.
In fact it’s this Smith clip that has driven much of the perception of Superman Lives, but having read the Smith script some years ago his version would have been pretty bad itself. It’s the somewhat conflicting stories of Smith and Peters that add some tension to the first half hour of the documentary but once Smith’s role in the production is over and Tim Burton takes over the story it loses some of the drive not to mention fun as it’s clear Burton is still pissed off to the eye teeth that he never got to make this film. The problem with the film is in fact one of the film’s main attractions which is the pre-production art which is great to look at, but this is where the editors scissors could have come into play as interesting and lovely as some of the art and designs are, much of this is special features.
The documentary’s length is actually the only problem At one hour 44 minutes it’s about 15 minutes too long but that aside this is a little joy, and considering the film was funded through Kickstarter, it’s quite impressive that such a low budget film has managed to pull so much archive material together not to mention gain interviews with the likes of Burton, Peters, Smith but sadly not Nic Cage who only appears in an archive interview and of course the previously unseen costume tests where his gleeful enthusiasm of obvious.
The Death of Superman Lives: What Happened? is a great documentary that details what could have been that manages to turn what was a joke into something that could have been great, different and actually a good film but because of the failure of a horde of failed Warner Brothers films in the mid to late 90’s Superman Lives was pulled. Considering some of the crap that replaced it the sense of loss is even more palatable by the end of the documentary. We could have had a really good SF/superhero film but we didn’t, but perhaps the myths around it is good enough.