Remember that story Kevin Smith tells about Jon Peters in An Evening with Kevin Smith? They made a whole movie about that. Franchise Fred approves The Death of Superman Lives: What Happened? on so many levels. Of course I’m fascinated by the untold story of the aborted Nicolas Cage/Tim Burton Superman, the greatest performance Nicolas Cage never got to give. But also in this new genre of documentaries about films that never got made, Death of Superman Lives gives us the closest look at the movie that might have happened.
This documentary actually changed my opinion of Superman Lives. Except for the Nicolas Cage curiosity, I’ve always been at peace with losing Superman Lives. I was never a fan of the Doomsday story (Superman is unkillable on Earth, but now Doomsday can kill him because he’s bigger than the other monsters Superman fought?) and I sort of sided with the studio. They knew what they were doing cutting their losses. But now it looks like this might’ve actually been a really good movie.
The key is in late ‘90s VHS of Cage in costume fittings. The first costume in 1997 is temporary but it’s coming together, but then by ’98 it’s starting to really look like Superman. But then when Cage presents his look for Clark Kent, you really get to see that creative process that makes all of Cage’s performances so special. That is some precious footage, without which the whole movie would be hearsay. Thanks to that, we kind of get the best part of a Nicolas Cage movie without Cage even having to film it. Even still frames of Cage posing as Superman show you he nailed it.
From there, it is nice to see animated recreations of some concept scenes. Whether actually using Cage’s likeness in animation or just hiring actors in shadowy recreation, it’s just enough to let us see forms the movie could have taken without overdoing it on speculation.
Key to the documentary also is the interview with Burton himself. That’s nearly unheard of, an A-list director going on record about a failed project that never got made. So too is Jon Peters, who finally gets to tell his side of the Kevin Smith story after all these years. All the artists whose names don’t go on posters complete the story, and provide that priceless archival material, including ILM visual effects tests that look damn good for 1998 CGI.
I’m left wondering, was the world creatively robbed of a 1998 Superman movie? Cage ended up doing Snake Eyes, 8mm, Bringing Out the Dead and Gone in 60 Seconds after dropping out of Superman Lives. I don’t know which of those films wouldn’t have happened had he gone into production, but none are what I consider vital Nic Cage. Burton went on to do Sleepy Hollow and then his Planet of the Apes remake. Looking back, I’d give up any of those films to have their Superman Lives. Some movies are just victims of circumstance, but thanks to this new genre of documentary, they can live on. Thank you Jon Schnepp. Now do George Miller’s Justice League!