In the years since the project was scrapped, Superman Lives has become the Jodorowsky’s Dune of the superhero set: a dauntingly ambitious film helmed by a distinctive director featuring the input of a truly diverse array of artists that ultimately bit the dust before cameras started rolling. Slated for release in 1998, Superman Lives was set to be directed by Tim Burton and star Nicolas Cage as Superman. Screenwriters were possibly instructed that 1. Superman couldn’t fly 2. Superman couldn’t wear his regular costume and 3. Superman had to fight a giant spider in the third act. It had upwards of three writers, countless designers and artists, and ever-worsening odds of ever seeing the light of day.
The cumbersomely named The Death of “Superman Lives”: What Happened?– directed by John Schnepp and released in 2015 following a Kickstarter campaign– tries to sort through pre-production designs, rumors, and conflicting stories to get to the truth behind the greatest superhero movie never made. But while the saga of Superman Lives is fascinating, the documentary exploring it gets a little messy.
Structure proves to be the kryptonite of The Death of “Superman Lives“. Organized primarily around interviews with the project’s creative and production team (Cage, sadly, only appears in archival footage), the documentary flows loosely as Schnepp’s interviews with Tim Burton, Kevin Smith, and others continue. The result is that points and anecdotes get reiterated throughout the documentary. While there’s a number of interviews with a variety of artists, costume designers, and other creatives who shaped the film, the structure is largely dictated by lengthy blocks of interview with Smith, Burton, and Superman Lives producer Jon Peters; blocks that all too frequently framed in a static one-shot of Schnepp and his subject interjected with occasional stills. This trend gets shaken up in parts, such as when conflicting stories of the production from Smith and Peters are intertwined, pointing to a twisty, utterly bizarre pre-production. There’s a playfulness to the editing and framing that’s missing when the interviewees go on for paragraphs at a time.
What’s frustrating about this is that Death of “Superman Lives” is wonderful at its most creative. Interspersed throughout the documentary are animations, live-action recreations, and clever graphics that help bring Superman Lives to life. An animated segment illustrates a pitched scene in which Brainiac (potentially played by Christopher Walken) sieges Superman’s Fortress of Solitude, but must face down a pair of polar bears first. A few scenes are created in glorious low-budget splendor, rendering what already may have been as strange as superhero movies get even more bizarre and silly. These scenes are creative and break up the monotony of lengthy talking head interviews. The opening credits begin with a close-up on the face of comic writer/ chaos magician Grant Morrison set against an ocean of stars as he discusses the origins of Superman, which is how I believe all movies should begin from now on. These moments are creative and tell the story of this doomed movie with wit and elevate the doc above the conventions of the genre.
The true stars of Death of “Superman Lives” is the pre-production artwork. The story is told through its props, design sketches, and models, each revealing an ever-changing vision. The documentary succeeds in turning the camera towards the behind-the-scenes players whose work makes up the body of what we really know about Superman Lives, corroborating the anecdotes of Burton, Smith, and Peters. Hearing these artists talk about their work and the concepts they helped create reveals the spark of creativity and passion below the surface of script changes and the finicky whims of producers. Nicolas Cage, adorned in a rubber suit and sporting a truly concerning wig might be the image conjured when people talk about this movie, but the work of these artists that made it possible.
The Death of “Superman Lives” is a fascinating story of artists and producers trying to reinvent the superhero movie that’s told in a mild way. Bursting with potential, a lack of organization and over-reliance on mid-shot interviews makes an inherently interesting story uninteresting to watch.