Movies That Never Were – Tim Burton’s Superman Lives

Of all the films we’ve covered in this series this one is the most famous, or rather infamous, of them all. It’s also the feature of a brilliant documentary so if reading this intrigues you I’ll link to that at the end of the article.

If you remember last time we left our story with producer Jon Peters hiring Kevin Smith to do a draft script for Superman Reborn which was now under the new title Superman Lives. His script had to deal with some serious limitations posed by Peters. Firstly Superman was to wear an all black suit, secondly he was to fight a giant spider at the end of the movie, and thirdly? Superman was not allowed to fly.

The black suit, the Return of Superman suit complete with silver S shield, I can see working. It looks pretty bad ass in the comics and comic fans I’m sure would’ve enjoyed seeing it in live action. I’m not sure what the mainstream recognition of the suit is though so it’s possible, if not probable, that main stream movie goers would’ve been confused by the marketing. The giant spider would’ve been a good visual if nothing else but the no flying rule sounds crazy. It’s what Superman is famed for. I could give Peters the benefit of the doubt by assuming he wanted to get back to a very early version of Superman where we had no flight powers but instead could leap several mile distances. I’m not going to do that though.

Smith accepted the offer but realised he was being paid to write someone else’s story. Peters also demanded that there be a scene that featured Braniac fighting a Polar Bear outside the Fortress of Solitude be added after he felt that Smith’s first draft lacked action. Brainiac, Kryptonian AI that conquers worlds, troubled by a Polar Bear. It must have been a mighty angry bear.

Peters also wanted Braniac to give Lex Luthor a “space dog” for no better reason than it’d sell merchandise. He also wanted Brainiac’s robot assistant L-Ron to be “a gay R2-D2 with attitude.”

Smiths draft, freely available online so feel free to google it, had Braniac sending Doomsday to kill Superman, whilst he simultaniously blocked out the sun taking away Superman’s powers. Superman is killed but resureccted by Krytonian AI The Eradicator proving that Krypton sure loved making AI robots. Supes wears The Eradicator as a kind of Iron Man suit until they can restore the sun and thus his powers just in time to fight a Thangarian Fang Beast that just happened to show up. It turns out that the Fang Beast has 8 legs, many eyes, and spins webs. Oh and was about a hundred foot tall. A giant spider by another name is still a giant spider.

If you get the chance to read this script it’s actually a fairly faithful, if stripped down, take on The Death of Superman storyline. Robert Rodriguez (of From Dusk Til Dawn fame) was offered the chance to direct but had to turn it down due to timing constraints but he did like Smith’s script. Kevin Smith’s own choice was to have Tim Burton, seeing as he revitalised the superhero genre with 1989’s Batman, and Burton was signed on to direct with a “pay-or-play” contract for $5million and a release date of summer 1998 was given to coincide with Superman’s 60th Anniversary.

Life long comic book fan Nick Cage signed on to play Superman with a massive $20million pay or play contract. Peters loved the casting saying that Cage could convince audiences Supes was an alien. Tim Burton said Cage’s casting would be “the first time you would believe that nobody could recognize Clark Kent as Superman, he [Cage] could physically change his persona.”

Isn’t that what Christopher Reeves did in Superman The Movie? His bumbling mild mannered Clark Kent still sets the standard when compared to his confident Superman.

A quick side note on pay-or-play contracts. They’re guarantee that a director, writer, actor, or whoever, will get paid for the film whether it gets made or not. So Tim Burton got paid $5million for directing a none existent movie that Nick Cage got paid $20million to star in. It’s an easy job if you can get it eh?

Kevin Spacey was approached to play Lex Luthor (a role he’d eventually play in Superman Returns), Christopher Walken was number one choice for Braniac, and Tim Burton also wanted Jim Carrey and Gary Oldman in the movie. Several actresses were considered for Lois Lane including Sandra Bullock and Courteney Cox whilst Chris Rock was cast as Jimmy Olsen beating Supergirl the TV Shows race switching of the character by nearly 20 years.

Micheal Keaton was also involved, apparently to reprise his role as Batman, and Industrial Light & Magic was contracted to provide the special effects. In June of 1997 the film officially entered pre-production with a full art department ran by production designer Rick Heinrichs. It’s from the early costume tests done by this very art department that we have the pictures that litter this article.

Whilst this was going on Tim Burton decided he didn’t like Kevin Smith’s script so he hired Wesley Strick instead. Kevin Smith wasn’t happy and if you want to know his side of events the documentary The Death of Superman Lives features his side of the story along with new interviews with Tim Burton and Jon Peters. But I’m getting ahead of myself aren’t I?

Strick hated Smith’s script as he “didn’t get it” until he read The Death of Superman comics and then it made sense to him. He still felt he could do better and his rewrite had Superman resurrected by the power of K which again was a ripoff of The Force from Star Wars. It also failed to realise that Special K is a British nickname for the illegal drug Ketemine so god knows what would’ve happened had this film been made. Imagine the headlines! Superman promotes illegal drugs!

The art department were getting annoyed as what they were asked to create bore little ressemblence to the source material and worse still? Jon Peters “would bring kids in, who would rate the drawings on the wall as if they were evaluating the toy possibilities. It was basically a toy show!” The film was now very near to production, Pittsburgh had been picked to double for Metropolise, and sound stages were reserved. A piece of the Krypton set was even built.

Just take a look at the Nick Cage costume tests. They look exceptionally awful. The art department wanted to make a classic design. They were constantly over ruled by Jon Peters so ended up making the Super Gimp Suit you can see in the photos just to please their boss.

Warner Brothers stepped in at this point deeming Strick’s version of the script far too expensive to film. They drafted in Dan Gilroy to rewrite the script in to something that could be made for $100million rather than the $190million price tag on Strick’s script.

In April 1998, faced with spiralling costs, and financial issues with other films Warner Brothers made the decision to put production on hold. Tim Burton left to direct Sleepy Hollow and felt that he had essentially wasted a year of his life on the project and laid the blame squarely at Jon Peters door. He did however get the not inconsiderate sum of $5 million for his troubles so there’s that.

Peters wasn’t done yet though and offered the directors chair to Ralph Zondag, Michael Bay, Shekhar Kapir, Brett Ratner, and Martin Campbell who all turned him down. The project was still in some form of production in the year 2000 and it was only June of that year that Nick Cage finally gave up on ever playing The Man of Steel.

In April of 2001 Paul Attanasio, best known now as the creator of the TV series House, was paid $1.7million for a new version of the script and Jon Peters offered the title role to the Fresh Prince of Belair himself Will Smith. Will Smith turned it down worrying what the fans would think of a black Superman. Personally I think he’d have the charisma to pull it off. He’s right though as there would almost certainly have been a backlash to his casting as the big blue boy scout. When he was cast as Deadshot in Suicide Squad, a white character in the comics, there was a backlash.

At this point, after years of development hell, the film was official over. It wouldn’t be the last unmade Superman film but it would certainly be the most expensive as in total Warner Brothers had spent upwards of $50million on a film that never got made.

The story of this film is covered in the brilliant 2015 documentary The Death of “Superman Lives”: What Happened? It’s available on Netflix and is a fascinating watch.

I’ll leave you this week then with the trailer for that documentary. Until next time!