According to Kevin Smith it was mandated that in his Superman movie there needed to be a giant spider monster, Superman would never fly, and he would never wear the classic suit.
It’s amazing that this thing never got off the ground.
The Death of “Superman Lives”: What Happened? uses interviews, concept art, and precious archival footage to tell the story of how the never made movie Superman Lives, starring Nicolas Cage and directed by Tim Burton, almost came to be and eventually imploded. Perhaps more importantly it also gives the gift of context for this infamous and often mocked photo of Nic Cage in the Superman costume.
Documentarian Jon Schnepp effectively paints a picture of the two largest figures in the movie’s progress: producer Jon Peters and director Tim Burton. Peters seems to be quite a character who is proud of his history of…street fighting? He’s a passionate man who wanted to make a good movie while also reeking of a studio big wig that makes completely wrong headed demands. At one point he suggests that when Brainiac approaches the Fortress of Solitude he should have to fight something. When it’s pointed out that it’s the Fortress of Solitude, there isn’t anyone else there, he suggests polar bears. Thus, there is a scene of Brainiac zapping a couple polar bears for…reasons… Hopefully it would have been cut. Schnepp does a good job of presenting both the positive and negative aspects Peters brought to the production. He may have had some poor ideas but he certainly believed in the movie.
On the other end we have Tim Burton, a man that stands by his singular vision. He and Peters often butted heads creating tension. Burton also had no love for the character of Superman and wanted to focus on the same thing that the more recent movies have; the fact that Superman is alien, other, alone. Burton aimed to tap into the angst that would come with that feeling as well as bring his particular style to Krypton technology and Brainiac. He had some ideas that were “out there” and perhaps someone who had more reverence for the character would have kept it more traditional. He certainly had a strong creative force about him though.
And in the middle we have everyone else. Interviews with scriptwriters, concept artists, sculptors, and practical effects designers shed light on all the different schools of thought that come together to get a movie made. It’s in these interviews that this documentary shines. It’s fascinating to get a peek at what the movie might have been. As a fan of movies as an art form and an industry I also very much enjoyed seeing these different artists talk about how they acted on input and be passionate about their jobs.
That passion is what struck me most. Nobody sets out to make a bad movie; everyone involved is doing their best. We may be able to look back and say Nic Cage was a poor choice for Superman (he probably was), and we can say that there were too many cooks in the kitchen (there definitely were), but we’ll never know for sure what the final product would have been. As I learned the reasoning behind choices and watched the progression of the special effects suits, concept art sketches, and costume tests with Cage I started to be convinced. I could see things coming together. I could understand the people involved really thinking that this was going to be a quality product.
Spoiler alert, Superman Lives eventually had the plug pulled mostly because Warner Bros. was no longer willing to take the risk on an expensive superhero movie after a series of box office bombs in the late 90’s, including Batman & Robin. After seeing this documentary I feel like that’s a shame. I can’t say if Superman Lives would have been any good, but I now know it’s something I would have liked to check out. It may have been awful, it may have been laughable, but maybe, just maybe, it may have been kinda good. I just wish now we got to decide.
Other movies I watched this week (potential minor spoilers):
April Fool’s Day – Why didn’t I review this movie closer to April 1st? Because I forgot it existed! A bunch of rich teens spend a weekend in very early April in a house on a small island. They play tricks on each other until they start disappearing and reappearing…DEAD! This movie has a fun gimmick that is wasted on such a bland slasher flick. It’s not all bad though, as Biff from Back to the Future is in this movie. So there’s that.
Green Lantern: Emerald Knights – While preparing for the big bad to arrive and destroy the universe, Hal Jordan regales his rookie with tales of lanterns lore. From the very first lantern to a lantern that is literally a planet each story in this anthology is decently animated. Being short stories there is little time for character development but each story focuses one particular theme. And each one usually involves a fair bit of action that is fun to watch. (But why do we have shaky cam even in animation?) Again, the joy of watching the Green Lantern is the wild visuals we can get with the different aliens and their lantern powers. Such a shame that live action movie was so poorly received.
American Splendor – This biopic tells the story of Harvey Pekar, underground comic book writer of American Splendor and other graphic novels. While there are some fun visual tricks and interplay between the actors and the real Harvey Pekar, this is really a portrait of a chronically gloomy depressed man and how he deals with success. In one powerful moment he laments that he can’t be positive, he’s not strong enough. I felt little resolution by the end of this movie making it feel…unfinished. Still, a strong character performance from Paul Giamatti makes this worth seeing.
We Are What We Are – When the mother of a close knit religious family passes away the children begin to consider rebelling against their cloistered ways much to their father’s chagrin. By the way, their religion includes the ritualistic killing and eating of people. (But it’s a “sincerely held religious belief” so it’s ok.) Despite the occasional surprise shovel upside the head, this movie drags as the children are anxious and the father spouts pseudo religious platitudes. Then it suddenly changes its tone in the last five minutes and becomes a splatter fest. Overall, dull. Not awful, just dull.
Inside – This movie opens with a car crash from the point of view of a fetus in a womb, so you know it’s going places. Only gore hounds need apply for this one. Our victim’s only characterization is to be pregnant and in peril while a maniac woman stalks her in her house with every sharp object she can find. A parade of people hilariously come in for different reasons just to be killed in graphic ways. I believe the make-up department was challenged to come up with as many different ways to coat the walls and floors with blood. The visceral thrill of blood and guts is not enough to carry a movie when there is no other redeeming quality.
End of Watch – This point of view shaky cam movie follows two beat cops as they stumble into the dealings of a drug cartel. The excuses for people carrying cameras are silly. Sometimes you’ll even get an angle with no explanation as to who is holding the camera. That gimmick would have worked better if it was just a style choice during the action scenes with more traditional filming the rest of the time. That aside, our three leads, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Peña, and Anna Kendrick or so charming and believable as friends that I fear for them in every shootout. Endearing characters and good crime drama setups make up for a light plot. If you can deal with the camera this is a good cops and robbers flick.
#Horror – Clearly some schmuck thought he could just throw a hashtag in front of his idea to make it more appealing to the internet generation. Who would be so pandering to do that? This movie follows stuck up rich 12 year old girls during a sleepover. They spend about an hour being awful to each other and twenty minutes running around in fear from a mystery killer. This mess of a movie is clearly someone trying to save on their therapy bill by working through some issues and slapping a two sentence plot on top of it. I watched this on Netflix and I don’t think it was worth what the internet cost for it’s eighty minutes.