DeathofSupermanLives-1Not so long ago in a Hollywood far, far away, Tim Burton was getting ready to direct a Superman movie starring Nicolas Cage, with a script initially developed by Kevin Smith. Costume tests were underway, VFX were being developed, concept art was pouring out all over the place, while the script remained in constant flux, with Nightcrawler‘s Dan Gilroy coming on-board once the producers had had enough of Smith’s work. Then Warner Bros. actually read the script, budgeting the movie at around the $200 million mark (in 1997!). Coming off a string of big flops, Warners shut the movie down two weeks before shooting was set to begin, having spent a good $20 million developing it. Burton and Cage were given fees for their time and effot, but all the work that had been developed was laid to rest, never to be used or unearthed again. That is, until, film and comic-book fan Jon Schnepp began to develop the failed project as a focus of a Kickstarter documentary. After a long process, Schnepp’s film has finally been delivered, and while it is not a particularly sophisticated documentary, it is a fascinating must-see for any movie and comic-book fan.

Schnepp has clearly put in many hours in regards to researching his chosen topic, as well as doing remarkably well in regards to who he manages to score one-to-one interviews with. Kevin Smith has always been game for discussing his terrible experience working on the Superman script, and he paints a hilarious image of the anarchy of the studio, and particularly of Jon Peters, the producer of the project. Tim Burton’s contributions as well help to paint a picture of the confused state of the industry and the lack of communication between the artists and the studio, an issue which was in no doubt a titanic contributing factor as to why the project eventually failed. There is also a sense of DeathofSupermanLives-Actual-2sorrow in Burton’s re-collections, for at the end of the day Burton is an artist who always finds a way engage with his subjects, and here with Superman he engaged with a character he never got to see all the way. It is hard not to feel for the guy when he talks about imagining himself as a 90 years-old still waiting in hope that he might get to make his Superman movie. Yet, is the figure of Jon Peters who proves to be the most fascinating aspect of this project.

Peters is both the hero and villain of this story. It is he who got this production off the ground in the first place and brought Tim Burton with him, both having succeeded in bringing Batman to the screen in 1989. Yet, Peters is without a shred of doubt absolutely insane. Smith perhaps best articulates it by detailing the strange demands Peters made of the script, from polar bears to giant mechanical spiders (a feature he recycled for Wild Wild West). Conversations with the man himself detail his bizarre entry into the industry, who was initially a hairdresser who became Barbara Streisand, whom he ended up marrying and becoming a film producer. Superman Lives was set to occur at the height of his powers, but also marks the moment where his power got the better of him, as he commissioned numerous screenwriters and production designers. Further stories from said conceptual designers reflect his terrifying approach to his work and his macho ego, colouring him as the most obscure character in this tale of the industry at its most chaotic.

DeathofSupermanLives-3I have deliberate not featured any pieces of concept art as the accompanying images for this review as they are an incredibly vital part of what makes this documentary so fascinating. Schnepp has managed to gather an incredible gallery of images from the production which detail the imagination of all the talented individuals who put in many hours to develop a de-constructive version of the Superman mythos, granted one which was to feature a mechanical spider and a ninja fight sequence (which even the artists couldn’t get over, why the hell would Superman find ninjas a challenge?). It is also very hard not to be impressed by the sight of a long haired Cage in the various versions planned for the film. The designs are spectacular, but a little undermined when Schnepp decides to crudely animate them or put in shadowy actors that aim to capture how some scenes may have looked. It is in these moments when the film feels at its most amateurish, with the limited budget really making itself known.

The Death of Superman Lives is a fan-made movie about a project that DeathofSupermanLives-4many comic-book fans and movie fans would have loved to have seen brought to life, if only to see how Burton and Cage would have dealt with the character. While it is a shame that Cage himself is not present, the interviews with Smith, Burton and Peters give this film more than enough to ride on, along with very engaging anecdotes from other screenwriters and artists. This is a film about what happens when a group of creative minds have to fight on numerous fronts, be it bizarre requests from deluded producers or concerns from the powers that be at the studios. Schnepp could have had more concern for the workings of the industry, rather than gushing about the geeky aspects of this failed project, but there is enough here to gain a look at the warped workings of Hollywood productions.

4/5- While hardly the most sophisticated doc, The Death of Superman Lives provides a fascinating look at one of Hollywood’s most bizarre ‘What If’s?’

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