Superman Lives was going to be the kind of superhero film that they just don’t make anymore… well, at least not since 1980′s Superman II. That film and its predecessor had wowed audiences with definitive big screen portrayals of Superman, Metropolis and Krypton. The films also featured otherworldly villains (from Krypton no less) and exploited the potential of an interstellar adversary who could put up a fight with the Man of Steel. But these films were followed by two mediocre sequels. So a decade after the release of 1987′s Superman IV, and Christopher Reeve’s farewell to the cape, word went out that a new Superman film was on the way. It was going to be the return of a superhero who kicked off what has today become a multi-billion dollar comic-to-film adaptation industry. It was also going to be directed by Tim Burton, a bankable director with a proven and profitable track record of rehabilitating a very iconic superhero for the big screen — and not being afraid to change the look and feel of that superhero in the process. Less than a decade earlier, Batman producer Jon Peters and Burton had gambled on Michael Keaton as Batman, and the gothic/noir production design of Anton Furst. Before this, movie-goers who knew Batman from his screen incarnations usually thought of Gotham City in the the vividly-colored tones of the ’60′s action/comedy Batman TV series. But in 1986, Frank Miller’s limited-run Batman comic book series The Dark Knight Returns was published. It was adult-oriented and dead-serious, and to this day resonates with comic readers and filmmakers alike. Its publication helped sway perceptions about how entertaining (and profitable) a darker, more-serious Batman could be. Miller’s story pitted Batman against an unrepentantly murderous version of his arch-nemesis, the Joker within the very-unfriendly confines of a dystopian Gotham City. Burton’s Batman would glean some of that dark tone for a 1989 film which had enormous box office success, leading to a Burton-directed sequel in 1992. That same year, DC Comics published a storyline across all of its Superman titles telling of his death at the hands of a new villain, Doomsday, and of his eventual resurrection. The storyline sold millions of copies, and was punctuated by Superman #75′s death issue. It was sold in a special black polybag that bore a bloody Superman insignia — emphasizing the levity of this (temporarily) dire moment in the life and times of the pen-and-ink Man of Steel. Over the next five years, a live-action take on Superman’s death and rebirth was among the plots discussed for a feature film — a project that would eventually see Tim Burton and Jon Peters re-teaming to bring Superman back to the big screen, with Nicolas Cage taking the lead role. Things got far enough along that a preview poster was released telling audiences to expect the film in theaters in 1998. Then… nothing. Like the sudden destruction of the planet Krypton, Superman Lives was abruptly scrapped for reasons that remain somewhat murky. Film audiences wouldn’t see another live-action Superman until 2006, when director Bryan Singer brought Superman Returns to theater screens with a plot continuity from the popular Richard Donner films (well, film-and-a-half). This new Superman film was a massive hit at the box office, with audiences turning out in droves to see Brandon Routh as a Reeve-like Superman inhabiting a world that echoed the New York-like Metropolis of Donner’s vision. But it also suffered from an adherence to the previous films’ familiar Earthbound land-grab plot revolving around villain Lex Luthor. The film’s theatrical cut also excised an expensive “Return to Krypton” sequence that had been shot, thus maintaining Donner’s long-ago icy depiction of Kal-El’s home world as the only one most viewers thought of. While Superman Returns stood apart from its predecessors with advanced camera equipment and a meticulous approach to quality effects — including the clever re-creation of Marlon Brando’s ghostly visage as Jor-El — the film’s approach to its story felt like it had been done before. There were those watching Singer’s film who still wondered what it would have been like to see Burton’s attempted reinvention. Like pieces of Kryptonite flung across the cosmos, tiny questions reached into the minds of Earth’s Superman fans. Was the abandonment of Superman Lives a missed opportunity to take the character in a new and vibrant direction? Would Nicolas Cage have been a great Superman? Would the final film’s strength have derived just as much from its distance from the Donner films, as Superman’s was from proximity to our yellow Sun? Someone who never stopped asking those questions is filmmaker Jon Schnepp.
Schnepp remembers the Death of Superman story arc very well, because he was one of those comic readers who purchased the black-bagged Superman #75 back in 1992. Since then, he has found a successful career in television animation — designing the look of the members of Dethklok in Metalocalypse (which he also edits and co-produces) and directing several episodes of action/comedy/satire The Venture Brothers. Early in 2012, Schnepp was involved with the successful Kickstarter campaign that raised $188,970 for a Grimm Fairy Tales animated series, which he will direct. In January 2013, he set about satisfying his curiosity about Burton’s lost Superman film by launching a Kickstarter campaign to raise $98,000 by March 10th for a high-quality documentary about the project. He posted a video spelling out his plan of action. This included interviewing the principal members of the film’s production team and cast; securing rights to utilize the vast backlog of detailed concept art depicting the planned look of the film’s characters and settings; and the promise that if enough money was raised he would actually film individual scenes based on the film’s script for inclusion in the final documentary. I recently talked to Schnepp by phone as his Kickstarter campaign entered its final weeks of fundraising. He told me that the project had attracted the attention of several artists and production designers who had worked on Superman Lives, and were now reaching out to contact him. He had also acquired some valuable artifacts, like the rare draft of Wesley’s Strick’s script sent by a donor. It differs severely from Kevin Smith’s earlier draft, which helped attract Tim Burton to the film — and which apparently led to Smith’s dismissal from further re-writes, while Burton and Strick took over.
Schnepp also cleared up some misconceptions about leaked photos from the film’s development — including a test shot of someone wearing what appears to be a rainbow-hued Superman suit. Schnepp said this outfit was actually meant to be a lighted layer of an effect involving the reborn Superman’s costume. He also notes that such practical effects are one of the reasons why fans of earlier Superman films should have gotten excited about Burton’s approach. Like Donner’s films, Superman Lives would have relied much more on practical effects than the digital effects-laden Superman Returns. The popularity of employing such physical artistry was quickly going out style, because of advancing technology that lowered the expense of doing most everything in post-production.
Another throwback to the first films was a planned glimpse of Krypton, and the featuring of its most intelligent/destructive creation: Brainiac. Schepp said the supercomputer villain from Superman’s destroyed home world got plenty of attention within the film’s concept art — perhaps most memorably with its disembodied head perched atop metallic spider legs — as did its fantastically-rendered interstellar transport, the Skull ship. Krypton itself appears to have been intended to maintain its icy other-worldliness. But to know for sure, Schnepp will be talking to Steve Johnson at what is now Edge FX. Johnson was charged with bringing the film’s visual concepts to life on screen.
But this film wasn’t only going to be about visual effects. Schnepp said he liked how the plot focused on Superman dealing with personal crisis. There would be no origin story for this reinvention. Instead, we would see an already-established Superman meeting his death from a re-conceived version of the Doomsday character. Audiences would also have met alter-ego Clark Kent’s colleague, and Superman love interest, Lois Lane — with Sandra Bullock in the role. Asked if he thought there was sufficient time to develop their relationship in an engaging way, given all the action taking place in the film, Schnepp said Lane’s inclusion was important to any tale of the most indestructible of comic superheroes — because she provided a link to Superman’s humanity and emotional vulnerability.
Schnepp’s cast and crew interviews should provide a fair share of great anecdotes about the production, and abandonment, of the largest-scale superhero film production of its time. Kevin Smith has already given viewers of An Evening with Kevin Smith a taste of what took place, when he recounted working with Jon Peters on his draft for a script of what was then known as “Superman Reborn” — one that came complete with polar bears guarding the Fortress of Solitude, a “Thanagarian Snare Beast”, and adherence to Peters’ directives that Superman have a new suit, could not fly, and fight a giant spider in the third act. Now, that’s just one writer’s experience on this film. I really look forward to seeing what else Schnepp unearths in his research.