With Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice hitting theatres in just a few short weeks, recalling the history of the Man of Steel on screen seems only appropriate. While his comrade and co-star Batman has enjoyed a long tenure of box office success beginning in 1989 and with only brief interruptions since, Superman has flown over a harder path. Apart from Richard Donner’s seminal 1979 classic and its first sequel, Superman’s cinematic outings have suffered from poor quality and reception. Superman III met with critical pans and audience disappointment, while Superman IV: The Quest For Peace fared even worse. So began a twenty-year gap for the Last Son of Krypton on the big screen, which lasted until Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns in 2007.
During Superman’s time in the desert, major directors came and went from the project, as did name talent like Johnny Depp, Anthony Hopkins and Ralph Fiennes. Still, the movie couldn’t get made.
One of the highest profile projects which garnered a good deal of attention came in the late 1990s, at the zenith of the first cycle of Batman films. Titled Superman Lives, the project boasted some big name talent and even got so far as to have a teaser poster and a set release date. Then, it didn’t happen. In 2015, documentarian Jon Schnepp tracked down the creative team and attempted a reconstruction of the film, and sought to discover why it never came to fruition. While certain elements remain in dispute, the core ideas have been uncovered, and certain elements are must-know for cinephiles and Superman fans.
10. The Story
The Superman revival began with notorious Hollywood producer Jon Peters. Peters, who started as a hairdresser, became a producer with A Star is Born which he produced with girlfriend of the time, Barbra Streisand. During production of that film in the 1970s, Peters gained a reputation as something of a volitile, indecisive character. By the 1990s, he was riding high on the success of the Batman films which he’d shepherded to production.
Superman comics were riding high, too, courtesy of a major story arc which lasted several years. Referred to as the Death of Superman arc, Superman fought a powerful alien known as Doomsday and died saving Metropolis, only to revive courtesy of Kryptonian technology. A number of Superman impersonators also appeared on the scene, only to have the true Man of Steel return, stronger than ever. The comic arc caught major attention in the media, and sales skyrocketed. Recognizing a golden opportunity, Peters knew the time was right for Superman to return to the movies.
9. Tim Burton Had Kevin Smith Fired
Peters tapped avowed Superman fan Kevin Smith to pen the script, duties which Smith accepted right away. In the years since the demise of the project, Smith has made a living touring and lecturing about his first major experience with Hollywood blockbuster filmmaking, and how it tested his sanity. Peters, by his own admission, placed three caveats on the script: Superman shouldn’t fly, shouldn’t wear his iconic suit, and should fight a giant spider at some point in the plot. Smith acquiesced, finding creative ways to work around Peters’ demands and adapt the Death of Superman arc into a servicable script. With parent studio Warner Bros. approval, and with the satisfaction of Peters regarding the script, they consulted Smith about his choice to direct. Smith, who had loved 1989’s Batman, suggested Tim Burton, with whom both Peters and Warner Bros. had a long relationship. Burton read the script, signed onto the film, and promptly had Smith fired.
8. Burton’s Take
Despite the success of his Batman films, the eccentric Burton claims to hate comic books, with the character of Superman in particular arousing his revulsion. Still, he found himself attracted to the idea of doing another blockbuster for Warner Bros., which he hoped would warm relations between he and the studio. Following the release of Batman Returns, Warners had grown wary of Burton’s mainstream appeal.
Burton lit on the alien nature of Superman – the idea of him being the last of his race, and trying to fit in among a society of less-powerful people. He knew that a Superman film would allow him the opportunity to work in alien environments and with alien characters, and hired screenwriters Wesley Strick, and later, Dan Gilroy, to rework Smith’s story.
7. Burton Wanted A 1950’s Sci-Fi Feel To Design
Smith’s screenplay had included the villain Doomsday, as well as the nefarious billionaire Lex Luthor and the alien Brainiac as villains, along with the staple characters of Lois Lane, Perry White and Jimmy Olsen. Batman would make a cameo during a funeral sequence, with Michael Keaton earmarked to return to the role. With the script in flux, Burton and his production artists began designing the film.
Peters had insisted that the movie contain a large number of characters which could translate into action figures to boost toy sales, while Burton wanted something of a pulpy 1950s sci-fi feel to the film. In the script, Superman would also go through several different costumes, including a “regeneration” suit that would heal his body after the Doomsday fight. The opportunity afforded the costuming team with some major challenges to integrate a techno-feel to the suit before the advent of motion capture or heavy computer animation.
6. Some Weird Casting
Prior to Burton signing on, Peters wanted Nicolas Cage for the part. Cage had just won an Academy Award and become a hot box office draw. As a lifelong Superman fan, Cage jumped at the opportunity.
With Burton and Cage on board, casting continued. Burton consulted with Kevin Spacey for the role of Lex Luthor, and the actor had shown enough interest in the role that Peters and Burton considered him a lock. Peters had considered Jim Carrey for the role of Brainiac, while Burton met with Christopher Walken for the part, which he envisioned more menacing than comedic. A sequence in the story where Brainiac and Luthor merged into a single being would also afford Spacey the opportunity to perform his much-loved Walken impression on-screen. Courteney Cox, Sandra Bullock and Julianne Moore were considered front-runners for the love interest Lois Lane, while Chris Rock had agreed to play Jimmy Olson.
5. Production Issues
From the get-go, budget proved a major issue for the film. The film would require a number of massive sets, including the Fortress of Solitude, Superman’s Tomb, Brainiac’s Skull Ship, and the city of Metropolis itself. Burton scouted locations in Pittsburgh to double as Metropolis, while Warner Bros. began reserving studio space for the film. The number of big-name stars would command an even higher budget, as would the need for credible special effects, both practical and computer generated.
The costuming and effects teams struggled to create costumes that would both look realistic and serve their functions in the script. The Superman costume posed major issues, as it needed to look skin-tight while boosting Cage’s physique, while attempts to work fiber optics and other electronics into the regeneration suit proved very time consuming and costly.
4. Creative Tensions
While Burton focused on the script and casting, Peters oversaw the rest of production, and the relationship between director and producer was a contentious one. Peters, who suffers from bipolar disorder, is known for furious mood swings and unpredictable behavior: Burton recalls Peters kissing him on the mouth at one meeting, while production artists remember him putting one man in a headlock and demonstrating his martial arts abilities on another. Peters also insisted on “focus grouping” the production art to groups of women and children to see which designs most fascinated them…so the designs would become toys first. Meanwhile, a still-changing script and escalating budget began to make Warner Bros. nervous…
3. Anatomy of a Superhero Blockbuster
…and with good reason: the fourth Batman film, Batman and Robin, had debuted to dreadful reviews and lackluster box office results. In particular, both audiences and critics had attacked the film as little more than a pretense to sell toys. Indeed, by the late 1990s, part of blockbuster filmmaking had become promotion of merchandise, and since the failure of Batman and Robin, both Warner Bros. executives and director Joel Schumacher have spoken at length about the insistence by the studio to make a “toyetic” film – a movie with lots of costumes, vehicles, gadgets and characters that would translate into toys. Peters’ approach to building a film, in part, around toy considerations made Burton, and later, Warner Bros. quite nervous, as the story began to take a back seat to sheer quantity. Still, the production moved forward. Burton had signed for a reported $5 million, while Cage commanded a $10-million paycheck in addition to hefty paydays to Smith, Stick and Gilroy. Paying a writer for services rendered regardless of if a film gets made is customary in Hollywood; it’s less common for stars or other crew. Both the contracts of Burton and of Cage were deemed “Pay or Play,” meaning both would get paid regardless of the movie getting made.
2. Death of a Superman
The lackluster performance of Batman and Robin further doomed Superman Lives: if movies aren’t making money for a studio, the studio has less capital to spend on new productions. At the time, Warner Bros. had a series of high-profile flops including The Postman, Sphere and Burton’s own Mars Attacks! which boasted pulpy sci-fi designs similar to those he wanted to integrate into Superman Lives. Production continued to move forward, though Warners mandated budget cuts, which demanded more script rewrites. Meanwhile, negotiations began with Rock, Walken and Spacey, while Burton and costume designer Colleen Atwood began to finalize designs for the Superman costume with Nicolas Cage. Just three weeks away from the start of production – coincidentally the same day as Cage’s costume tests – Warner Bros. cancelled the film.
The demise of Superman Lives sent Burton and Peters into a tailspin. Burton reportedly stormed out of a meeting and vanished for a week, refusing to return calls to Peters or Warner’s executives. Peters threatened to throw a Warner Bros. production executive out a window, though he didn’t fret too long: the funds for Superman Lives were reappropriated to another Peters production, Wild Wild West. Wild Wild West would also pick up the concept of a giant spider villain, though it couldn’t save the movie from bombing on release.
Cage would never get over losing out his dream role as Superman, and would name his own son Kal-El as a sort of memorial to the project. Spacey would go on to play Lex Luthor in Superman Returns, while Peters would dwell on the Superman project for another decade, coming close to production yet again with the unrelated Superman Flyby, which also proved a disaster.
The return of Superman in Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman prove however that despite the Hollywood nonsense and terrors of Development Hell, Superman still lives.
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