Of all of Comic-Con’s losers, it’s hard to top a movie so legendarily bad that it was never even made. By now, it’s taken for granted on the internet that Superman Lives, the aborted Superman film of the late ‘90s, would have been an abject failure. It looks like it could have been worse than Batman & Robin. Just one look at one of the scant images from the film’s pre-production — most notably a long-haired Nicolas Cage in a terrible Superman costume — is all most comic lovers need to know that Lives was better off dead. But maybe fans just don’t know the potential it had?
The Death of Superman Lives: What Happened?, directed by Space Ghost: Coast to Coast alum Jon Schnepp, dives deep into the mythology surrounding the movie, and tries to get to the bottom of the film’s infamous cancellation. It makes the bold case that the film could have been good. That it could have been big. And not only that — when I spoke to Schnepp and producer Holly Payne off the convention floor at Comic-Con, it’s clear they believe Superman Lives could have changed the course of superhero movies as we know them.
"If Nicolas Cage had been Superman back in 1998, he would have probably avoided the whole meme craze that happened," said Payne, referring to how much the internet loves to stick his Mad Hatter-esque mug on everything. "His whole career would have changed entirely from that point on."
"Nicolas Cage's whole career would have changed."
"'Once Nicolas Cage took over as Superman, I really started to love that character,'" said Schnepp, imagining an alternate present in which Cage was even more successful and beloved than Robert Downey, Jr. "‘He became more human to me. He wasn’t like a weird god. I could empathize with his character.’ I’m dead serious! That’s what would’ve happened."
In the mid-‘90s, nearly 10 years since the release of Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, Warner Bros. set out to reboot the Superman film series, but in the most ambitious, bombastic way possible. Rather than build on the foundation built by Richard Donner and Christopher Reeve, Warner wanted to turn the mythology on its head. Popular comic nerd Kevin Smith penned the screenplay, based on the groundbreaking Death of Superman comic series. Later, they hired Nicolas Cage (still on a hot streak from big blockbusters like The Rock and Con Air) to star as the Man of Steel, and director Tim Burton at the peak of his ‘90s powers. But somewhere along the way, things seemingly went horribly, hilariously wrong, full of shiny neon costumes, polar bears, and giant spiders. Subsequent rewrites from Wesley Strick and Nightcrawler director Dan Gilroy didn’t help. Eventually, the project was shelved entirely.
Bad costume tests and kooky plot points aside, a lot of those elements were included by design. According to Payne and Schnepp, who both showed a deep appreciation for comics lore, the decisions Tim Burton made were meant to illustrate how alien Superman is and how cut off he ultimately felt from humanity. The spiders and bears still seem silly, but the movie also had Brainiac and Doomsday, two of Superman’s finest villains. As for the shiny costume, it was apparently a living suit that evolved as Clark’s concept of his humanity evolved. And the final costume was actually much closer to what Henry Cavill wears in the new DC Cinematic Universe. In the end, this would have been a movie steeped in comics canon, but also committed to deconstructing what the idea of Superman means.
"Dealing with that outsider, alien feeling is exactly what the character Superman needs in order for people like us to actually empathize with him," explained Schnepp. "You’re not gonna empathize with a guy floating around with god-like powers. You’re gonna empathize with somebody who’s like, ‘How am I even an alien? I don’t know how to deal with this.’"
"It would have changed modern superhero films."
All this would have been buttressed by Nicolas Cage, already a big comic book fan and a respected, bankable actor who also deeply understood the Superman mythology. Payne explained that in many ways, his casting mirrored that of Michael Keaton in Burton’s Batman.
"There’s a clip in the [What Happened?]," said Payne, "where Nicolas Cage says, ‘I was gonna turn that character upside-down,’ and that’s exactly what he would have done. And not in a bad way, but in a way that nobody would have ever seen before." But after Superman Lives was shelved, Cage’s career started to drop off precipitously, something Payne thinks was a shame. "I don’t want to call people idiots, but I will call people uninformed about Nicolas Cage," she said. Before [National Treasure] when he got cast, [he did] Raising Arizona, Wild At Heart, [and] Adaptation. He’s an actor who takes chances, and he’s not afraid."
There’s no way to know to know if Superman Lives would have been a good movie. The film described in the documentary doesn’t sound dumb — it just sounds almost too heady to work as a commercial blockbuster. Maybe it would have failed because of its outsized ambition. But Schnepp and Payne manage to make a compelling case for why scrapping it was a colossal missed opportunity for Warner Bros. Blade was the only comic book superhero movie of 1998, and its success laid the groundwork for hits like X-Men. But imagine if Superman Lives succeeded: would Marvel be the same cinematic juggernaut it is today?
"I think it would have changed the modern superhero films," said Schnepp. "This film would have spawned a series of Superman sequels. Probably Justice League would have happened in 2003 or ‘04. And I’d be making The Death of Iron Man: What Happened?"