Title: The Death of “Superman Lives”: What Happened?
Director: Jon Schnepp
Plot: Documentary charting the development and eventual collapse of the failed 1998 Superman project “Superman Lives”
Review: Back before Superhero movies took over the box office with the cine-universe’s of DC and Marvel, superhero movies were few and far between with studios not seeing these kinds of movies as bankable, even despite the few standout movies such as the original Christopher Reeve staring “Superman” movies and most noteworthy Tim Burton’s “Batman” and “Batman Returns” which surprisingly didn't as expected lead to a host of imitators.
A project most people know about thanks to Kevin Smith regularly regaling audiences with his contribution to the project as the original screen writer as part of his Q&A sessions whenever given the chance. More recently though this project has generated a lot of discussion because it would have seen Nicolas Cage taking on the iconic role, but until now there’s never been any real attempt to explain what happened to the project outside Smith’s tales and that costume test photo of Cage in his Superman costume. Still funded through kickstarter, here Schnepp meets with all the major plays involved in the production with the exception of Nicolas Cage, whose contributions are shown instead through archive footage including footage of the costume tests which projected that photo as he attempts to find out what happened and why this project was ultimately scrapped so close to the start of filming.
Its kind of fitting that a production as messy as this one gets an equally disorganised documentary like we get here, let alone one which essentially insults its target audience by opening to Schnepp referring to them as “Nerds, Geeks….Sweaties”. Nice I know, but like so many of these documentaries funded through crowd funding this is a film which has more than a few flaws, while at the same time this documentary joins the recent spate of documentaries charting failed / troubled productions as it joins the likes of “Jodorowsky’s Dune”, “Doomed! The Untold Story of Roger Corman’s Fantastic Four” and “Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr Moreau”. This however falls at the later end of the scale as despite a wealth of interesting footage and some interesting stories it falls short as Schnepp’s film feels as if he could have benefited from a decent editor to trim some of the fat.
One of the other main problems here is that at no point does Schnepp attempt to explain the proposed plot of the film or any kind of outline, leaving those unfamiliar with the project to try and piece things together from scene descriptions as well as ideas for characters and sets which are discussed throughout. Yes we get numerous mentions of the film being based on “The Death of Superman” the Superman story which revived the series, by killing Superman, but again for those not familiar with these characters outside of the movies, it could have done with perhaps five minutes just to outline what the “Death of Superman” is about. As such I would recommend checking out the rather excellent Max Landis short film “The Death and Return of Superman” to give you more of a background than is offered here.
Interviewing seemingly everyone he could find who was attached to the project, the interviews vary greatly in what they add to the documentary with Kevin Smith on his usual fanboy form, while here finally gets to go further into the key scenes of his script while at the same time working in those more well-known parts of his involvement, which he reels off like a true raconteur and his sections in the first half of the documentary are easily amongst the most entertaining. Equally entertaining and more surprisingly is director Tim Burton, whose is seemingly more than happy to discuss the project, while it would seem looking at some of the footage may have been the one responsible for providing a lot of the test footage. At the same time he doesn’t seem to have any real answers as to why it fell apart.
The real key interviewee here though is producer Jon Peters, who could be seen as being villianised by the stories told by Smith, but here surprisingly admits to pretty much everything. At the same time it’s hard to tell if Peters believes he is portraying himself differently than how he comes across here which is as every bit the force of nature you’d expect him to be. Here he openly admits to choking out production team members, as part of his efforts to inject energy into them…..still not sure how that works, while the best thing is to hear him actually admitting to his obsession with working a giant spider into the script for Superman to brawl with.
While certainly entertaining in places and showing enough behind the scenes footage, production sketches and props to satisfy those curious about the film which could have been, while the sheer scale of the ideas being covered in the script only makes it more frustrating that the film was cancelled so close to production. At the same time the film does feel that it runs too long and could have benefited from losing around 20 minutes of its runtime, rather than trying to work in every scrap of footage and every interview he could get. As such its ultimately works against the film making the last quarter feel sluggish and bloated. Still despite the flaws its worth giving a curious look if only to satisfy your curiosity as to what could have been or if only to see Nicolas Cage in his Superman costume.