Made by fan boys but not just for fan boys (full disclosure: I contributed to the Kickstarter for this), Jon Schnepp’s documentary not only lifts the lid on one of cinema’s most notorious ‘might have beens’ but also provides a fascinating glimpse into the artistry, effort and creative processes which go on behind the scenes of major blockbuster productions.
In the early nineties, opportunistic producer Jon Peters discovered that Warner Brothers had failed to renew their ownership of the movie rights to Superman and promptly snapped them up, installing himself as producer and pitching the film to Warner Brothers to produce. He commissioned Kevin Smith to write a script which, while initially well received, would go on to be rewritten at least twice once director Tim Burton and Nicolas Cage came on board.
Although Schnepp manages to interview almost everyone involved in the production – with the notable exception of Cage himself – the most fascinating insights come from his discussions with Jon Peters, Kevin Smith and Tim Burton. It’s fascinating to hear Peters’ and Smith’s different takes on the same events (and there’s certainly more circumstantial evidence to support Smith’s version of events) but the tortuous progress of the movie – cancelled only weeks before it was due to go into production – is never less than riveting.
Peters, the personification of the Hollywood producer cliché, comes across as an artless businessman with pretentions of creativity and a somewhat…selective memory. His input and opinions will grate on the nerves of any Superman fans early on and, as the film progresses; you get the impression that virtually nobody else involved in the production was all that fond of him either. Caring little for the property itself beyond its merchandising possibilities, this former Streisand hairdresser turned movie mogul pushes for changes and additions to the script with ideas that would have been rejected by “The Player” for being too incredible to be satirical. He does, though, have the most fantastically coiffured hair throughout. Peters remains involved in Superman to this day, although mostly in the form of back-end kickbacks rather than in the creative process.
Prior to this illuminating documentary, most of the opinions formed on the film came from one leaked image, a low resolution shot of Nicolas Cage in mid-blink, one of a series of polaroids taken during an early costume test. This film sets the record straight and definitely gives the impression that we missed out on something quite spectacular, and much, much better than a glimpse at the early stages of the development process would lead you to believe. Despite Peters, Burton and Cage seemed to have a genuine enthusiasm and vision to bring to the screen and would have delivered something far, far more exciting than the moribund “Superman Returns”.
Schnepp is savvy enough to let Peters’ own words condemn him rather than adopting any editorial slant however his discussions with Smith and Burton are much more congenial and it’s in those conversations that some of the real revelations are seeded, such as Burton holding Joel Schumacher responsible not only for ruining the “Batman” franchise but also derailing “Superman Lives” after “Batman & Robin” bombed at the box office.
And it’s in the abrupt cancellation of “Superman Lives” that the cautionary tale for the current DC Cinematic Universe can be found. Warner Brothers is a studio with a long memory (ideas, inspirations and set-pieces from “Superman Lives” bled through into “Superman Returns” and even “Man Of Steel” ) and a tendency towards risk aversion, penny pinching and making terrible decisions (they cancelled “Superman Lives” and reallocated the resources to “Wild Wild West”, believing it would be a more sound commercial venture). The DC Movie universe exists on a knife-edge and under constant threat that the first box office dud will sink the whole ship and the fate of “Superman Lives” shows just how ruthlessly they can pull the plug if they feel the need.
Schnepp’s passion for the subject and dedication to bringing the full story to the screen pays handsome dividends as he rehabilitates the image of a legendary ‘lost’ movie and shows just how crazy things can get in Tinseltown. “The Death Of ‘Superman Lives’: What Happened?” shows Hollywood red in tooth and claw or – even better – all in black and fighting a giant spider.