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Superman Lives: How Fans Dodged a Speeding Bullet

November 21, 2015

By now most comic book fans are aware of the Superman movie that never was. Superman Lives was set to begin filming in 1998 and would star Nicolas Cage in the title role of the Man of Steel. The project had been in development hell for five years prior and the screenplay itself had been written by three different guys.


Kevin Smith is the most popular of the three and as any comic book fan can tell you, he definitely has a fanboy frame of mind. On paper it sounded like a good idea; he is one of us, after all.


But thanks to producer Jon Peters, Smith had virtually no creative freedom. Peters demanded that Superman did not fly, he did not wear the suit and that the movie would feature a giant spider in the third act.


Yes, you read all of that correctly.


Once again, Hollywood had missed the point when it came to comic book movies. The point is not to take elements of the source material and adapt what will work while discarding everything else. It's about respecting the source material and tweaking it for today's audience while still relying on the themes that made the book popular in the first place.


It sounds easy now but back then? Not so much.


Life was painful for comic book fans at that time when it came to seeing our favorites on the big screen and Superman Lives was surely going to add more salt to the wounds. The man that wound up with the shaker in his hand was Tim Burton.


Burton was to Batman what Kevin Spacey was to Lex Luthor; he did his job but you always got the feeling that he wasn't completely dialed in.


Burton had tremendous success bringing The Dark Knight to the silver screen but Superman was something altogether different. Superman isn't dark, he isn't moody and he isn't quirky. Superman is the complete opposite of Batman but that fact was not meant to be twisted the way Burton wanted to twist it.


Enter Nicolas Cage, who insists on putting his personal stamp on every role he's ever played. 


Every character that Cage has ever touched has become all his own and most of the time, that's fine. But Superman was not a role written for him. Superman is an icon, a modern god that people around the world recognize and admire. He represents the best of us and gives us an example to follow.


It's not a character that warrants the kind of personalization that Cage would have given it.


There are some differences of opinion here when it comes to what Cage could have done as The Man of Tomorrow. He is a talented actor, there is no doubt about it and he is a comic book fan, which does help give him credibility.


But this take on Superman would have been so far from the norm, so different than what anyone had ever seen, that it likely would not have connected with the audience as a whole. The film possibly could have made money and perhaps would have been perfectly fine for the rest of the moviegoing audience in attendance.


However for comic book fans that understand that simple is better, Burton's Superman would have been a strange approach that likely would not have caught on. It's an easy story with an ordinary character that can do extraordinary things yet Hollywood continues to try very hard to get it right.


For anyone that doubts whether or not the Burton/Cage product would have worked, go watch Jon Schnepp's documentary entitled The Death of Superman Lives: What Happened? Listening to a room full of non-comic book people attempt to understand the greatest comic book character of all time is one of the most fascinating things anyone will ever see.


The truth is the whole project is laughable at best. Despite how many creative minds were working on the movie, it was obvious that no one really got it. 


Warner Brothers evidently agreed because the movie was shut down before filming could begin. The studio had a string of flops during that time and it did not want to take yet another risk. The top comic book hero of all time was not enough to keep the movie going.


Superman Lives remains one of the most curious "what if" projects in comic book cinematic history and there is no doubt that fans dodged a bullet with this one.




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