Review: The Death of “Superman Lives” What Happened?

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“Superman” is considered the very first superhero of American comic books. He was originally published in “Action Comics No. 1” in 1938 creating the concept of “Superheroes” in the new American comic book industry. It was written by Jerry Siegel and illustrated by Joe Shuster. Over 75 years later world wide readers and moviegoers still celebrate Superman’s heroism and pursuit of truth and justice in all his adventures. As the world evolved so did Superman, his powers and the cavalcade of villains but one thing has always remained true, the world loves Superman.

Some 13 years later the world was introduced to Superman on the big screen starring George Reeves as Clark Kent/Superman. “Superman and the Mole Men” was released in 1951 (a previous incarnation of Superman on the big screen occurred but only as a serial format thus making the 1951 George Reeves Superman the official first major motion picture for Supes) and was so well received that Superman flew from the big screen to television. “Adventures of Superman” ran from 1952 until 1958 and was such a popular TV show that George Reeves even made a guest appearance as Superman on the incredibly popular television show “I Love Lucy” in 1957. The comics were selling, the television show was a success and the world was still loving Superman.

Through the late 1950’s all the way into the 1970’s the world didn’t see much from a live action Superman but then came director Richard Donner. In 1979 Donner told the movie going audience that after they watch “Superman The Movie” they will believe a man can fly. And fly Superman did in the domestic box office by bringing in over $134 million dollars (according to IMDB). Starring Christopher Reeves as Clark Kent/Superman the world watched as Superman faced off against his arch nemesis “Lex Luthor” played by the incredibly talented Gene Hackman. The film was such a success it spawned 3 more films starring Christopher Reeves! In 1980 “Superman II” was released where Superman fought the infamous “General Zod” played by Terence Stamp. Then in 1983 “Superman III” was released and was critically rejected. “Superman IV: The Quest for Peace” was released shortly after in 1987 and the critics rejected another Superman film. The Superman live action film franchise suffered two back to back defeats. That didn’t signal the end of comic book movies though because in just two years Batman was going to show audiences around the world a darker hero on the big screen.

Enter director Tim Burton and his film that featured a darker Batman than had been seen in theaters or television up to this point. In 1989, only 2 years after the fourth and final Christopher Reeves Superman film, the movie going audience was treated to Tim Burton’s “Batman” staring Michael Keaton as Bruce Wayne/Batman. A critical success and domestic box office juggernaut (estimated over $250 million gross via IMDB) Tim Burton showed the world that Gotham City is a scary place with terrifying villains and Batman was green lit for a sequel. “Batman Returns” hit theaters in 1992 and was, arguably, even darker and more menacing than the original Burton/Batman film. Marketing agencies struggled to find something so dark marketable to children and families and Warner Bro’s decided to go a different direction with the Batman franchise. Tim Burton left and Joel Schumacher took over as director. “Batman Forever” hit theaters in 1995 and the cinematic disaster “Batman and Robin” in 1997 taught us Batman suits should never have nipples on them.

Without the Batman franchise to helm Tim Burton looked towards a familiar hero who has been waiting patiently to return to the big screen, Superman! In 1998 “Superman Lives” was the next film on Tim Burtons list and he was in production to make this film come to life. It would star Nicholas Cage as Superman but “Superman Lives” was never made. It wouldn’t be until 2006 that the world would get a new Superman film with “Superman Returns” directed by Bryan Singer. So what happened? Why did a critically acclaimed director take a beloved property like Superman and not make the film? How does something that sounds so creative and fresh fall apart so quickly and where did it all go wrong?

Enter writer and director Jon Schnepp with producer Holly Payne to answer all these questions and more in their documentary “The Death of ‘Superman Lives’: What Happened?” released in 2015 on VOD, DVD and BLU-Ray.

The documentary begins with Jon Schnepp delivering a monologue regarding this film and the fact that now in 2015 when a super hero movie hits theaters we no longer have to wait 3 years or more for another comic book film to arrive. He continues with a poignant observation that nerds (or “sweatys” as Schnepp has come to refer to the fans who get deep into comics, the characters, stories and mythos) have risen in social status over the years.  From there the film jumps to “Wondercon” in Anaheim California where we spend a few minutes hearing from comic book fans (some dressed as Superman) regarding their feelings about a possible Superman film staring Nicolas Cage, directed by Tim Burton and then a brief run down of what comic book movies were, so far, in the 1990’s.

“Superman Lives” was not unlike a lot of hollywood big budget productions in that it had a few different writers (Kevin Smith, Wesley Strick and Dan Gilroy) trying to put to paper a story that made sense for the big screen. This particular story was to be inspired by the “Death of Superman” storyline from the comics which Schnepp breaks down with incredible ease. His detailed analysis of that particular story provides the viewers a better understanding of why a movie studio would even consider using Superman’s death as the basic concept for a movie. If this wasn’t enough at one point he interviews Dan Jurgens (the writer/artist of Superman #75 [The Death of Superman]) to discuss the creation of the villain “Doomsday” who is ultimately responsible for killing Superman. Jurgens goes on to explain how different this villain is compared to the entire rogue gallery of villains Superman has amassed over the years.

Schnepps’ passion for this project is unmatched as evidenced by all the various interviews he conducts with people who worked on the film and little touches here and there for the fan boys and fan girls watching. For example, everyone who is familiar with the aforementioned Richard Donner “Superman” movie should automatically appreciate the opening title sequence for this documentary. It’s an homage to how the movie going audience was first introduced to Superman in 1979 and such a special little treat for all the Superman film fans out there.

Immediately following the title sequence Kevin Smith (writer), Jon Peters (producer) and Lorenzo Di Bonaventura (President of Worldwide Production, Warner Bros [1990s]) give us some insight on the film, the writing/story boarding and the overall goal for the film to achieve cinematically, critically and financially.  These three contributors, and so many more (who are listed at the bottom of this review) break apart the entire process of creating the story, the villains and tone. The good ideas that could’ve worked, the bad ideas that provided some chuckles and amusement is all wrapped up together in this fantastic documentary.

Periodically throughout the film there are animation sequences for the viewers to enjoy while listening to the interviewees discuss the details going into this Superman film. This took the documentary from an enlightening discussion of what was happening with this Tim Burton version of Superman to an extremely entertaining break down of what happened to Tim Burtons Superman. For example, the battle between Superman and Doomsday as well as the battle between Superman and Brainiac in his outer space skeleton-head space ship are both animated sequences.

Jon Schnepp is also able to take some one on one time with Tim Burton at his home in London, England to get his description and perspective on what happened. Burton details the value he saw in the Superman mythos and the type of characters available to create using “The Death of Superman” story. Additionally, Tim Burton elaborates on how Superman is an alien trying to fit in with the inhabitants of a new strange planet and why that intrigues him.

Tim Burton had a vision for Superman so vastly different than anything placed on a theater screen before it and after. For example, Superman would potentially wear a glowing and translucent super suit, created from moldings to form fit Nicolas Cage’s body type. This would’ve possibly been the reanimation suit for Superman after he is killed by Doomsday. The construction design, the actual physical construction of the suit and the fiber optics that went into the suit are explained in great detail with old video footage of all the efforts occurring behind the scenes.

Other changes would’ve included Superman having a robotic assistant “K” that can morph and change to suit the needs to help Superman. As well as all new designs of Krypton and the Kryptonian citizens and a skull space ship that the villain Brainiac floats through space on. Brainiac’s ship included a menagerie of space aliens from across the cosmos  trapped in this ship and more. This wasn’t just another Superman film. This was a complete reimagining of Superman from the ground up.

Jon Schnepp didn’t just make a documentary about a Superman film gone awry. He took time and care to tell a compelling story about the story Tim Burtons’ Superman could’ve been. It should come as no surprise that Schnepp was also able to acquire old video footage of Nicolas Cage back in 1998 wearing the newly designed suit. There’s some discussion with Tim Burton on how it feels, looks, etc, as well as, the length of Superman’s long hair and redesigning Clark Kent. These topics and more are all part of the behind the scenes shots with Nicolas Cage.

So what happened? Was the idea of Superman dying after fighting Doomsday and then coming back to life to fight Lex Luthor, Brainiac, and ninjas (Yes, NINJAS) too much for Warner Bros? Jon Schnepp presents a compelling argument that it wasn’t from a lack of faith in Tim Burton that Warner decided to call this project quits. There was considerable monies involved that Warner lost in the box office failings of 9 movies in a row from 1997 – 1998. Then again there’s enough speculation to conclude it’s entirely possible Warner decided this radical and fantastical story of a Tim Burton Superman was too much for the company to put faith in.

So the question is: Does this documentary provide the audience with a final conclusion? Does Jon Schnepp answer the question that is the title of the documentary, “The Death of Superman Lives: What Happened?” You’ll have to purchase the film using the link below to find out!

Rating: 3 Thumbs Way Up!

The additional contributors who were also interviewed are:

  • Rick Heindrichs “Superman Lives” production designer
  • Michael Anthony Jackson “Superman Lives” Concept Artist (who left “The Matrix” to work on this film with Tim Burton after having worked with him on “Batman Returns” and “Mars Attacks”)
  • Pete Von Sholly “Superman Lives” Concept Artist
  • Sylvain Despretz “Superman Lives” Ex-Concept Artist
  • Jim Carson “Superman Lives” Concept Artist
  • Bill Boes “Superman Lives” Art Director
  • Ronald G Smith “Superman Lives” Unit Production Manager
  • Steve Johnson “Superman Lives” Special Effects
  • Colleen Atwood “Superman Lives” costume designer
  • Wesley Strick “Superman Lives” 2nd Screenwriter
  • Brill Bryan “Superman Lives” Practical Suit Effects
  • Liam Sharp “Superman Lives” Concept Art
  • Derek Frey “Superman Lives” Directors Assistant
  • Robert Meyer Burnett: Film Maker & DVD Producer (2006 “Superman Returns” Documentarian)
  • Derek Thompson ILM Concept Artist
  • Brom “Superman Lives” Concept Artist
  • Dan Gilroy “Superman Lives” 3rd Screen Writer
  • Kerry Gammill “Superman Lives” Concept Artist

“Sometimes the interest in the what if is stronger than the actual final product because it fills your mind with the possibility of what could have been.” Jon Schnepp – “The Death of ‘Superman Lives’ What Happened?”

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