Director Jon Schnepp (left) talks to Superman Lives producer Jon Peters (right)

Directed by Jon Schnepp
Starring Jon Peters, Tim Burton, Kevin Smith

Superman Lives is literally a punchline.

As used by Kevin Smith in his spoken word shows, it’s a textbook example of Hollywood excess and William Goldman’s old axiom that nobody knows anything in tinseltown. Smith spent some time working on the script, and describes the players involved – including Jon Peters, erstwhile producer, and Tim Burton, then at the height of his directorial powers – in funny but unflattering terms, couching the whole thing in “Can you fuckin’ believe this?” incredulity. It’s a great bit.

But it’s not the whole bit.

Director Jon Schnepp has had a long-standing fascination with the Superman Lives project, which sought to return Superman to A-List movie star status after the disastrous Superman IV: The Quest For Peace killed off the previous franchise. It was going to a big-budget, all-star epic. Producer Jon Peters had previously ushered the ’89 Batman movie into existence, and his director on that, Tim Burton, joined the project, too. Nicolas Cage, then not the cautionary tale he’s become in recent years, was slated to take the lead role, and millions of dollars and thousands of man hours were spent in development before the whole thing fell to pieces and everybody took their pay-or-play payouts and moved on to pastures new. Eventually we got got Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns – let history be the judge of whether we, as a culture, came out ahead on that one.

Still, it’s an intriguing story-behind-the-story kind of thing, so Schnepp turned to Kickstarter to put together a production budget and started putting out feelers for interview subjects. Now, two years after its anticipated release date*, we have The Death Of Superman Lives: What Happened?

Schnepp’s film is both exhaustive and enthusiastic, combining a fan’s gleeful joy of discovery with a disciplined approach to research and a patience that borders on the uncanny (they worked a long time to get in the same room as Burton). Acting as our guide into the world of the film, Schnepp interviews pretty much everyone he can lay his hands on, the obvious absences being Cage and mooted villain Kevin Spacey. Writers Kevin Smith, Dan Gilroy and Wesley Strick get a look in, as does producer Jon Peters – who takes pains to disavow everything Kevin Smith ever said about him – and Warners exec Lorenzo di Bonaventura. 

What really comes across here, though, is this: nobody involved was trying to make a bad film. There’s a sense of boundless passion from the interview subjects, coupled with sincere disappointment that the film they laboured on will never exist. You can question some of the creative choice made, sure, but you can’t doubt that they were coming from a passionate and creative place. Perhaps the best example of this comes when the film spends time talking to costume designer colleen Atwood and her collaborators thier work. When images of the prototype costumes leaked on the net not too long ago they were much maligned, but Schnepp’s careful interviews, combined with a wealth of newly uncovered footage, not only puts to rest the notion that Superman Lives team didn’t know what they were doing, but actually leaves you in awe of their meticulous methodology and work ethic. I don’t think you could convincingly make the case, based on the info at hand that Superman Lives would have been a good movie, nor a bad one – but it would have been a hell of an interesting thing to see, regardless. Besides, given the current dour state of affairs with the Big Blue Boy Scout’s cinematic outings, maybe it would have been the horseshoe-nail that saved the kingdom, if you follow my drift.

This is one for comics fans, movie geeks, and those who love the minutiae of filmmaking and the unscratchable itch of “what if”  –  and I’m all those things. If you are too, this is worth your time.

*Full disclosure: I backed this, and am now the very happy owner of a nice, signed Blu Ray copy. But there were certainly points during that delay when I was certain the film would never see the light of day.

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