What I thought of The Death of Superman Lives: What Happened?

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.

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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.

My top 20 Comic Book films-6-Batman

I did my top 20 horror and SF films last year, and found doing the lists to be more fun than expected, so in a massive bit of logic here’s my top 20 films adapted or inspired from comics. I need to point out I mean comics, not ‘superhero comics’ which is a lazy, and incorrect way to describe a wonderfully varied medium and it’d also cut out some bloody good films!

Previously, in this list at #20, X Men19The Crow18Heavy Metal, 17, Spider Man ,16The Avengers, 15Danger: Diabolik, 14The Dark Knight Trilogy , 13A History of Violence12Kick Ass , 11,Spider Man 2 , 10, Barbarella9, Batman Returns 8, X Men 2 and 7, Dredd.

The film at the cusp of my top five is Tim Burton’s Batman.

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Let’s paint the picture of what comic books films were in 1989. Up til then they were, mainly, rubbish. Batman in comics was doing ok, but works like The Killing Joke & Dark Knight Returns had shaken the character up and suddenly there was a move to make a big budget Batman film. When the film was announced, the casting of Michael Keaton was something that made last year’s casting of Ben Affleck as Batman look like a kiddies party. Even before the internet, this was something which fans at the time ripped into in the fan press, but wherever  the film was discussed. It was ridiculous but the casting of Jack Nicholson as The Joker seemed to calm some down, but even though some were critical of Keaton, the hype for the film started ramping up to degrees never seen before. This film is as far as I’m concerned the film which changed how films were marketed, and was the first film of the modern era to capitalise on every single possible thing it could because it came with a loge, which was the Bat Signal.

At the time of filming I was working for Neptune Comic Distribution based in Leicester, and apart from having my finger on the throbbing pulse of comics, I on average used to travel between Neptune’s base in Leicester and out secondary warehouse in Staines so I could sort out deliveries for shipping to out customers. As the film was shot partly in Milton Keynes and we passed Milton Keynes an awful lot with it being on the M1, we used to see trucks and equipment come and go a lot, but one day we passed the junction for Milton Keynes and coming out past out van was a huge stretch limo with blacked out windows.

This had to be Jack Nicholson!

For the next 30 minutes or so we tried to stay alongside it and held up Batman comics at the window, and generally acted like enormous fanboy wankers to a car which may, or may not have held Jack Nicholson. Seeing as stretch limos were incredibly uncommon in 1988 I still think this was Nicholson, or at least something to do with the production.

Regardless if it was, the autumn/winter of 1988/89 saw a huge amount of buzz about the film. I remember speaking to Alan Grant, then writing Batman in Detective Comics,  about how he was smuggled onto the set and was generally amazed by the scale and craftsmanship involved. This was no cheapo comic film but people wanted to see what it looked like, and unlike today where leaks and spoilers are everywhere, the amount of secrecy around the film was pretty high. When a trailer was eventually released there was no going to Youtube to see it. No, you had to go to the cinema to see the thing or wait up til the wee hours of the morning for it to be on ITV’s film programmes which normally were shown for people staggering home from clubs.

1989 trundled on and Batman was enormous. DC Comics decided to stick Batman in virtually every one of their titles which worked in selling titles which may only sell, say 10 copies in a medium sized shop and boost it to 30 or 40 copies. At Neptune we could not shift enough Batman material. Anything with a Batman logo on it sold, and I mean anything sold, regardless of quality, tackiness and anything relating to taste.

Batman came out in the US in June, while here in the UK we had to wait til August, and I’ve told a tale of the film’s opening in a previous blog but needless to say the film was as huge as it was in the US.

Was it any good though? Well, yes, on the most part. Keaton was a superb Batman/Bruce Wayne, and Nicholson ate up plenty of scenery as The Joker, while the production design was indeed utterly impressive, the script was a bit thin in places and the final 15 minutes or so are an utter mess. That aside it worked in spite of it’s faults. It’s a spectacle and a triumph of atmosphere over anything else so in that, it captures the spirit of Batman perfectly. It’s a blockbuster but one that does try to be more at times, but it really works when it’s Batman and The Joker doing comic book stuff and this is what makes the film what it is which is a totally enjoyable comic book film.

It spawned a series of sequels, one of which is already on my list, while the others we’l draw a veil over….

 

Next up, Neo-Tokyo is about to explode!

My top 20 Comic Book films-9-Batman Returns

I did my top 20 horror and SF films last year, and found doing the lists to be more fun than expected, so in a massive bit of logic here’s my top 20 films adapted or inspired from comics. I need to point out I mean comics, not ‘superhero comics’ which is a lazy, and incorrect way to describe a wonderfully varied medium and it’d also cut out some bloody good films!

Previously, in this list at #20, X Men19The Crow18Heavy Metal, 17, Spider Man ,16The Avengers, 15Danger: Diabolik, 14The Dark Knight Trilogy , 13A History of Violence12Kick Ass , 11,Spider Man 2 and 10, Barbarella.

At #9 it’s a film from when Tim Burton made good and interesting films, it’s Batman Returns.

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This is the sequel to Burton’s first Batman film (more of which later on this list) and it’s also the film which showed that violence, sexual deviance and penguins can make a summer blockbuster.  It’s also only nominally a Batman film, as it’s really the story of The Penguin and Catwoman, with Batman popping up every now and then to justify it being a Batman film, though it does spend a lot of time concentrating on Michelle Pfeiffer in a skintight suit, which can’t all be bad.

Batman Returns is also one of the few times either in the comics or in the mainstream that the bizarre sexuality of people dressing in rubber to fight, or commit crime, then there’s Danny De Vito’s grotesque Penguin which is still one of the sickest villains in a summer blockbuster made for all the family you’ll see.

It’s not a perfect Batman film, that’s still waiting to be made, but it’s a great Batman film with Michael Keaton again showing that he’s a perfect bit of casting as Bruce Wayne/Batman, except he’s underused as Burton concentrates on the villains, which includes a great panto turn from Christopher Walken as well as the previously mentioned two baddies. It doesn’t manage to capture the lightening of the first Burton film, but then again, few films over the last 25 years have, but again, I’ll get back to the first Burton Batman film soon enough….

So, Batman Returns. Great fun, some dodgy penguins, rubber suits, and mentally scarring violence. A great kids film all round!

Next time, more mutant fun and games…