While one ambitious film has collapsed, from the wreckage came a fascinating documentary.
Let’s be honest, if you’re a fan of comic books, comic book based films, superheroes and lure of the culture, this is one hell of a time to be alive. Although some choose to bitch about every detail a film adaptation of a comic book character gets wrong or prejudge a comic book film while it’s still in production or even while the project is in the beginning stages, there’s still a healthy amount of enthusiastic fans who are happy in the knowledge knowing that, in today’s age of cinema, there’s a good chance they will eventually see a well made feature film of some kind or a quality television show featuring their favorite superheroes or comic book icons. And I feel some of us take that for granted, especially when some folks often forget there was a time Hollywood was not always eager to make a big-budget film based off characters from thin booklets with colorful pages, word bubbles and ads. In Director Jon Schnepp’s crowdfunded documentary The Death of “Superman Lives”: What Happened?, we hear and see just how difficult it was in the late 90’s to attempt to write, produce, design, cast and even talk about making a Superman film that was to be directed by Tim Burton and star none other than Nicolas Cage, at a time when comic book films weren’t taken too seriously.
Long ago, I remember hearing rumors that a Superman film was almost made with Nicolas Cage as the Man of Steel. I always thought it was a joke. I mean, Nic Cage as Superman? Get the fuck outta here. I even saw the infamous, low-res photo of the actor in a Superman suit, and I assumed he was at a costume party, drunk off his ass. The idea of the squinty, beady eyed Nic Cage (who I am a fan of, let’s get that straight) playing Superman was the most ridiculous idea I ever heard of. And yet, a year and a half ago, I read about this documentary being made on the failed production of a film about Superman that was to star Nicolas Cage and directed by the great Tim Burton, the man who gave us a classic Batman movie and, in my opinion. a great sequel. Fuck me, right? Anyway, knowing that Tim Burton, who was at the height of his career in the 90’s, was set to direct a Superman film, only to have the production shut down, instantly captured my interest, and I had to know why this film never came to be. Thankfully, Jon Schnepp and the good folks who donated money during his Kickstarter campaign, as well as other investors, contributed to this fascinating documentary that tells a very interesting story and offers closure on what happened during the pre-production of “Superman Lives”.
This film is awesome if you’re a Superman fan, a superhero lover and/or a film enthusiast. This film really digs pretty deep into the politics of behind-the-scenes filmmaking, as well as providing some very entertaining interviews with various members of the production crew. Writers, designers, Kevin Smith; there are many colorful personalities giving their input on the Superman character, the concept of how a Superman film should be, what would make it profitable, you name it, they pretty much cover it. The two interviewees I mostly enjoyed were veteran Hollywood producer Jon Peters, who’s rather arrogant but knows what it takes to make a successful film, and of course Kevin Smith, who drafted the first screenplay for the film, only to have it rejected by Peters. I’m a big Smith fan, so of course I enjoyed every minute he was talking, but as we all know, the dude knows his shit. He has extensive knowledge on the DC character, and his commentary and storytelling are a big highlight for the film.
Other great aspects of the film are seeing the various stages of designing the Superman suit, and seeing Nic Cage try them on through archive footage. It was kind of disappointing they couldn’t get Nicolas Cage to take part in this documentary, but the archive footage of him walking around in various designs of the suit, talking about channeling the character, and even seeming excited that he was going to portray the famous Kryptonian, is enough to satisfy any Nic Cage fan. Also, seeing the concept art of the different environments they had planned, character models of Brainiac and how they wanted to turn him into a giant spider, hell, even knowing Brainiac was the planned villain would have been enough to get me behind the project. Top that off with knowing Doomsday and Superman were meant to have a massive on-screen battle, the concepts of storytelling they had planned, designs of ships they already created models for, they put a lot of work into this film before they even had the chance to get the ball rolling, and that makes this documentary enjoyable, informative and depressing. The latter only because this is a film we’ll never see.
If I have to nitpick one aspect of this film, and it hardly seems far considering this is a labor of love by Schnepp, and he worked with the equipment and funds he had, and still managed to make a terrific and engaging documentary, but there are portions of the film that look and sound poor. I’ll give the archive pre-production video footage a pass but some of the archive film clips they use, even from newer films, are pixelated, and there are audio issues that sometimes make some of the interviews sound distorted and unclear. particularly Tim Burton’s interview. Hey, it’s impressive they were able to score the in-depth conversation with the man, it’s just too bad the mics and recording equipment weren’t above average to capture it. One thing I want to point out, and this is just for shit’s and giggle’s, when Jon Schnepp nods his head during the interviews, he looks like a bobblehead sitting on the dash of a car driving over a speed bump. Not trying to insulting the guy, I just found enjoyment seeing him flap his head so far back and forth. It shows passion and interest, like he’s hooked on every word.
“Superman Lives” could have been a great film, I believe. Even though, and I’m sorry, this is just my opinion, Nicolas Cage was in no way, shape or form, the right fit for Clark Kent/Superman. Even though they describe why they chose him, how he perfectly embodies the look of an outsider, unsure whether he has a place in the world, which is what they wanted to explore with this film, I just would not have been able to take him seriously. There were other actors that could have displayed those same qualities, while still looking like a true version of the Man of Steel. No, just no, Nic Cage, I love ya, but not as Supes, I’m sorry. However, that doesn’t mean, I wouldn’t have lined up to see the film and hoped I’d be proven wrong. The concept was so spectacular, and the hard work and passion these people had to make the film would have made “Superman Lives” a breakthrough in comic book films or at least an amusing attempt to create a new take on Superman. Although this film version of Superman will never come to pass, we got an exceptional documentary on the process of creating a film, an exploration on the mythology of Superman, the politics of major studios, some really great interviews and some great visual art.
The Death of “Superman Lives”: What Happened? is available on blu-ray, DVD or on-demand through the official film’s site www.tdoslwh.com
My Rating: 4.5 outta 5