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SDCC 2015: "The Death of 'Superman Lives': What Happened?"

Back in the '90s, in a post-Christopher Reeve Superman world, Tim Burton chose Nicolas Cage to be his Superman, the man of steel filled with angst over his alien origins. At the time, criticism started before anyone had even seen a screener and one particular photo made the rounds, seeming to confirm all the worst fears of Superman fans. Yesterday, July 9th, a documentary about that doomed project, “The Death of ‘Superman Lives’: What Happened?” was released on VOD, and is available for purchase this weekend at San Diego Comic-Con.

Director Jon Schnepp (“The ABCs of Death”) delves into the development hell of the movie “Superman Lives,” a superhero movie that was never made. The feature length documentary was funded by a successful Kickstarter campaign that raised $115,110 with 2121 backers. I haven’t seen the DVD/Blu-ray with its extra footage yet, but I attended a preview screening in Hollywood.

“Superman Lives” was to center on “The Death of Superman” storyline with Brainiac as the main villain. In the comic books, the 1992 story arc of the DC Comics super hero does have the man from Krypton die in all four mainstream Superman comics (“Man of Steel” #18, “Justice League America” #69, “Superman” #74, and “The Adventures of Superman,” #497), but, as in “The Princess Bride” the man of steel was only mostly dead, and was regenerated though alien technology. 

Schnepp’s film isn’t as slick as your average Marvel-verse movies and its small budget shows in some of the graphics, but what Schnepp has captured is a fascinating study in how Hollywood and moviemaking works, and sometimes doesn’t. 

The documentary reminds us that the 1978 “Superman” series was originally well-received, but the sequels where not all good. The last movie, “Superman IV: The Quest for Peace” (1987) featured Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor, but was not a critical nor financial success. It was the final film in the original “Superman” series

Although Nicolas Cage only appears in archival footage, Schnepp managed to get interviews with producers Jon Peters and Lorenzo di Bonaventura, writers Kevin Smith (“Chasing Amy”), Dan Gilroy (“The Fall” and “The Bourne Legacy”) and Wesley Strick.(“Cape Fear” and “A Nightmare on Elm Street”), and, as a last-minute-at-the-end-of-the-budget opportunity, Tim Burton himself (interviewed at his home in the U.K.). Smith was the original writer, but was soon replaced after Burton was brought on to the project.

If you have any questions about what a producer does, this documentary will provide some answers. There are moments that are unintentionally funny. There are also some poignant moments, particularly with costume designer Colleen Atwood, a frequent Tim Burton collaborator, having worked on “Big Eyes,” “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” and “Edward Scissorhands.” The costume development for Superman was a long process which required feedback from both Burton and Cage, and yet it was what ultimately betrayed and perhaps partially doomed the whole film project. One photo from the costume development was leaked and became the fuel for increased criticism of the casting.

In the '90s, the Internet was still young. With the rise of the Internet and social media, the din of casting critics has become deafening as in the case of Ben Affleck’s recent casting as Batman in the upcoming “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.” Yet Schnepp’s documentary reminds us that Burton’s casting of Michael Keaton was also met with opposition from comic book fans. With the collapse of the “Superman Lives” project, there wouldn’t be another major studio Superman film until “Superman Returns” in 2006.

Several people in the preview audience had been among the naysaying critics of the Cage casting choice and were converted, wishing that the movie had been made and added to the Superman canon. The documentary serves as a reminder that most casting criticism is best left until after one has viewed the actual film.

If you’re not lucky enough to be attending SDCC, the movie is also available for purchase at the official “The Death of ‘Superman Lives’: What Happened” website with subtitles in Spanish, French, Portuguese and closed captioned English.

Jana Monji

Jana Monji, made in San Diego, California, lost in Japan several times, has written about theater and movies for the LA Weekly, LA Times, and currently, and the Pasadena Weekly. Her short fiction has been published in the Asian American Literary Review.

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