The phrase, “Success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan,” isn’t exactly true in Hollywood. It would probably be more accurate to compare failure in Hollywood to a “Who’s my baby’s daddy?” episode of Maury Povich. In a room full of people pointing fingers, it’s quite possible that none of them are to blame. It’s never one thing. It’s the death of a thousand cuts – the ambitions may be too big, the money just isn’t enough, conflicting egos, studio interference, or something as simple as two people in a room who just can’t agree on a direction to go. If it were just one thing, every film ever made would be derailed before it even started. SUPERMAN LIVES went a long way in pre-production, spanning years of tireless work by writers, producers, artists, and the inimitable Tim Burton and Nicolas Cage, trying desperately to make it work.
And even after seeing all the information and interviews that Jon Schnepp exhaustively gathered for his hugely entertaining documentary, THE DEATH OF SUPERMAN LIVES: WHAT HAPPENED? the question remains – would this new jumpstart to the Superman franchise for Warner Brothers in 1998 have actually been, you know, good? And the answer is more elusive than you might think. There was passion, imagination, artistry, and real moviemaking magic involved in this failed production, and that still wasn’t enough. It wasn’t enough to get the film into production, and it wasn’t enough to overcome the doubts that everyone had who were involved. I still have no idea whether it would have worked or not, and in some ways, although it might not be as evident to Tim Burton, this movie changed him. Schnepp wisely lets Burton, and all the remarkable talent he gathers for his interviews, speak for themselves, and the resignation in Burton’s voice as he describes the movie that he wanted to make is actually emotional and poignant. Would it have been a good Superman movie? I have no idea. But SUPERMAN LIVES might have been a GREAT Tim Burton movie.
Schnepp brings in everyone he can imagine to talk about SUPERMAN LIVES, which is amazing in itself – make a great success, and everyone is eager to talk about it, but a movie that never happened? I admire Schnepp’s tenacity. Schnepp even gets a seriously entertaining and insightful interview from producer Jon Peters, the man that many fans blame for the film’s failure. At times, Peters appears to be one of those old school studio moguls you read about when you hear about the golden days of Hollywood cinema – a take-no-prisoners, no bullshit larger-than-life tyrant who gets things done. But Peters takes it so far, almost to the point of parody, and he gets the biggest laughs of the film by just being Peters. Kevin Smith and his famous story of how he got involved in SUPERMAN LIVES is also here, including his run-ins with Peters, and Schnepp gives Peters a venue to respond, which fills TDOSLWH with a fascinating look behind the Hollywood curtain. There seems to be no love lost between Peters and Smith, but for Schnepp to bring them both into his film, getting to the truth between their points of view, makes THE DEATH OF SUPERMAN LIVES feel fair and penetrating. The talent Schnepp brings to the table for interviews is astonishing, and the stories they tell are always engrossing.
As Smith describes the strangeness of Peters’ and the studio’s demands in trying to crack the Superman story, I wondered why it was so difficult to make a Superman movie work when the source material was right there for everyone to explore and examine. Even Tim Burton’s take on it was far afield of what we would commonly expect from the character, and watching Burton and Nicolas Cage try to workshop the character in the amazing behind-the-scenes videos is a real treat, and a major highlight of the movie. Even as Burton and Cage artistically explore the Superman character, trying to gain a foothold, it was both encouraging to watch two artists explore the territory, and disconcerting as the more they played with Superman, the farther away the character seemed to get away from them. When we see Cage don the Clark Kent persona, it’s striking in how much they get wrong as much as they get right. Schnepp wisely lets the story tell itself, and lets us form our own opinions.
Probably the most heartbreaking loss from SUPERMAN LIVES is the pure wondrous artistry displayed by the sketch artists, the inkers, the special effects crews, and TIm Burton himself. Again, it’s hard to know whether any of this would have worked in a Superman film, but even without context the art is incredible to behold. I particularly loved the take on Brainiac, which was the one aspect of SUPERMAN LIVES that I feel would have been unanimously praised. Brainiac, as described and drawn for the film, would have made a terrifying villain, unlike any in cinema before – and maybe since. The beautiful art of Krypton, with shifting city-sized tectonic plates, the birthing chamber of Superman, the various suits designed for the film, and even Burton’s sketches designed at getting to the emotional heart of each character are at once gorgeous and tragic, and if someone were to see this film and feel inspired to make a comic book retelling of the movie that Tim Burton was trying to make, that would be a comic book worth having.
Although Nicolas Cage himself isn’t interviewed by Jon Schnepp, we see a lot of behind-the-scenes action with him, trying on the various costumes and figuring out how to find a way into this most iconic of characters. As I stated before, I’m not sure the movie they were making would have been a Superman I would have embraced, but as a piece of art, SUPERMAN LIVES would have been amazing. We all have our different ideas of who Superman is, and what he means to us. What Tim Burton tried to find is that alienated child, perhaps looking into his own past, that person that was as apart from humanity as the stars are in the galaxy, and trying to find how to bridge the gap. Perhaps what Kevin Smith tried to find was that kickass iconic Superman story that he loved in the comics. Perhaps what Jon Peters tried to create was something that would be unique and stand the test of time. There’s something about Superman that makes any artist attempting to tackle the character to put their own spin on it, and sometimes it gets far enough away from the source as to be unrecognizable. But Superman inspires that in all of us, because we all see ourselves, in some respects, in the character. So did the people involved with SUPERMAN LIVES, which is what makes it so tragic.
As an examination of what could have been, THE DEATH OF SUPERMAN LIVES: WHAT HAPPENED? is wonderful, and a testament that great art takes the risk. Art could transcend, or it could be utterly ridiculous. We’ll never really know what the loss of SUPERMAN LIVES means, or how it would have changed things, but I do know this – art done in passion and love is never a bad thing. And for the people involved in SUPERMAN LIVES, this wasn’t a paycheck gig. It meant something to try to bring this character to life in a way that had never been seen before. I mourn the loss of SUPERMAN LIVES, as I also mourn Alejandro Jodorowsky’s DUNE, or John Boorman’s LORD OF THE RINGS, or Stanley Kubrick’s NAPOLEON. Jon Schnepp’s documentary is funny, inventive, and full of love for the movies, and what might have been. THE DEATH OF SUPERMAN LIVES: WHAT HAPPENED will be released this July 9th on Blu-Ray. See TDOSLWH.com for details coming soon!