Movie Review - The Death of Superman Lives: What Happened?
“What if…?” can be either fun or tragic. That simple question alone brought forth a multiverse in both Marvel and DC Universes (comics as well as other media), but is also a question that eats away at every single one of us. “What if I had just left a little bit sooner (or later)?” “What if I’d just told her how I felt?” So on and so forth. “What if…?” has also been a question floating around the documentary circuit lately. One such documentary, Jodorowski’s Dune, has been reviewed here…and others are coming, one focused on the failed George Miller Justice League movie planned for the mid-2000s and another focusing on the Roger Corman produced Fantastic Four movie that was never intended to see the light of day (and in an official capacity, still hasn’t). The one we’re focusing in on today though is actually one I contributed to the making of. Sure, it was a Kickstarter and I threw in enough bucks to make sure I got a Blu-ray copy of it, but still…it isn’t about the fact that I helped contribute [in a very…very small amount – Ed.], my biases are rooted in two factors; first, I’m a huge Superman fan, second, I absolutely HATED the subject of this documentary when it was initially revealed in the late 90’s. See? My biases cancel each other out. So, pull up a chair [what? People stand up and read the internet??? – Ed.] and let me tell you about the time Batman, Robin, Samuel L. Jackson, Shaquile O’Neal, Steven Segal, Casper Van Dien, Dustin Hoffman, John Travolta, Kevin Kostner, Sharon Stone and the Cleveland Indians (who were no longer the Cleveland Indians) all worked together to kill Superman as we take a look at Jon Schnepp’s ‘The Death of Superman Lives: What Happened?’.
November 18th, 1992. I was a freshman in high school and, to be honest with you, was more of a Star Wars fan at the time with my favorite comic at the time being Todd McFarlane’s Spawn. But a couple of months prior to this date, I had heard the grim news. Superman was going to die. Cheap scheme or not, DC had succeeded in bringing me back to my childhood idol. As many writers either associated with the event or just Superman in general often say when asked about the subject, “As luck would have it, nothing else was going on in the world that day,” so the media took the story and ran with it. While the cultural impact that this event had can be debated…as can what exactly that impact was [There’s an idea for a future article…you know…if you ever get around to it – Ed.]…one thing was certain, Warner Bros was definitely interested in adapting what was, at the time, the highest selling comic book at the time…betting that whoever bought a comic was certainly likely to buy a ticket. And that is where our story begins…
Now, one thing I’ve learned from watching Jodorowski’s Dune is that in a story like this, there’s always a “crazy uncle”. It’s the one guy that’s involved that is just absolutely bat-shit bonkers. With Dune, it was Jodo himself. And as I said in that review, he’s an enthralling madman…the crazy uncle you only really see at Christmas and every year his stories only get crazier and crazier the older he gets and proves to be the only highlight of the holiday. Dune would’ve thrived under such madness. Superman’s crazy uncle? Jon Peters. Ho boy.
So, how did one of the producers from 1989’s Batman get his mitts on Superman? Well, it was a combination of factors. First, Superman IV – The Quest for Peace sucked…hard…proving to be a bomb for the already financially strapped Cannon Films (headed by infamous schlock-meisters Golan and Globus). Second, Tim Burton’s Batman proved to be a phenomenon (one that even I took part in…gladly, I might add. If only I knew what was to come from that…sigh…) making a metric ton of money for all those involved. So, you’ve got one side with lots of money and another side with not so much. You do the math. Add to that the fact that in those days, computers were still in their infancy, most things of importance still being on paper. Thus, imagine Warner’s surprise when, itching to adapt the Death of Superman storyline, that they did not have the film rights to their own character. From this, a secret saga is born. Schnepp’s documentary is a thorough and entertaining look at the saga behind what just might have been a saga in its own right. Most importantly, whether or not you agree with him in his wishing that this film had been made, the spine of the film is that the images and stories that have made their way to the internet are only the faintest tip of the iceberg. Even the 104 minute runtime feels like you’re just starting to get under the surface. Take my advice, if this is a project you have even the slightest interest in, spring for the Blu-ray disc for a treasure trove of extras that take you ever further down the rabbit hole.
So what makes this a hole worth falling down? For starters, Kevin Smith. Ever since his involvement in the ill-fated film, Kev’s been out there telling the tale of his involvement to much interest…and laughs. Schnepp was actually able to get access to Peters himself, making for a very interesting “he said/he said” set up. While I do have to confess…maybe for reasons similar to the conventional wisdom that typically you like the first version you hear of a song best…I tend to believe Smith’s portrayal of events more. What helps to support Smith’s side of the story are the accounts of others in the production. Wesley Strick, the screenwriter to follow Smith on the project, simply points to an antagonistic relationship between director Burton and his producer. The artists behind the scenes, however, provide the bulk of the evidence with stories of Peters bringing in an entourage of his children and letting them make design decisions or of practicing judo moves on various members of the art team. Even those that tried to be polite emphasized a very antagonistic relationship was in place, so much so that the art department had dubbed him with the dubious nickname “Loudmouth”. In his defense, Peters says that he was simply trying to create energy for the team and wanted them to know the feeling of broken bones and being bloody. As a self-proclaimed street fighter with 500 fights under his belt [Yeah…from a former hair-dresser? And not just any former hair-dresser…but Barbara Streisand’s former hair-dresser??? I think we’re going to go with a ‘Citation Needed’ here. – Ed.]...I can’t even finish that sentence with a straight face. Let’s move on and just say the man’s Bat-Shit Crazy. Yes. In capital letters. Plus…see what I did there? ‘Cause he’s the producer of Batman…and he’s fucking bonkers…and I have a low opinion of Batman? [Yes, we see…now get on with it! – Ed.]
One aspect of this doc I found to be fascinating was the discussion of the constant evolution of the screenplay. The film’s story would pass through three sets of hands, Kevin Smith then Wesley Strick and finally Dan Gilroy. Peters claims he found Smith’s initial efforts to be “amateur” and “not crafted”…and in typical self-deprecating fashion, Smith loosely agrees, calling it “fanfic”. But even in his initial pitches, Smith implored the powers that be at Warner Bros. to just hire someone from within DC that had worked on the story they were trying to adapt. Makes sense, right? And with the Marvel Creative Council that provides input on the current wave of Marvel Studios films and Geoff Johns’ similar position with DC Entertainment/Warner Bros. of Chief Creative Officer…that’s the place we’re at with comic book movies now…so why not? Well, the thinking back in the late 90s was VERY different. “Those are comic book guys”. And that was the end of the conversation. And maybe…just maybe…that’s why it’s so hard to point to a decent comic book movie in the late 90s. As we move on to Strick, he flat out says he hadn’t even read the source material…you know, the “Death of Superman” story that was at the core of the film…but instead was brought in by Tim Burton to work in ideas the director had about the main character. The last man holding the typewriter was Dan Gilroy who, if his interview in the doc is any indication, clearly has no “inside voice”. It’s hard to get a feel for what either of these writers would’ve brought to the process. Strick had worked with Burton before on Batman Returns…which…I dunno. If you were going to pull a writer from Burton’s Batman films, I’d have been much more at ease with Sam Hamm. Gilroy’s resume at the time was pretty slim too. His first writing credit was 1992’s Freejack, which I liked…but the bulk of humanity did not…so…did I mention he’s married to Rene Russo? [Nice distraction…now duck out the back, QUICK! – Ed.]
And that’s just one aspect of the film I could go on about. There’s more…so much more…covered by the documentary itself. I think maybe the best thing I could do in reviewing this is to tell you my own experience with the subject material [You mean like you started to at the beginning…then just veered off in the narrative? – Ed.] When I first heard, back then, that Tim Burton had been tapped to make a Superman movie, I was aghast. The casting of Nicolas Cage as Superman DID NOT help. At first, I thought it was a joke…and then I HOPED it was a joke. As pictures and stories began to leak out onto the infant internet, I’ll admit that I kinda hoped it wouldn’t get made…and then it wasn’t…and I breathed a sigh of relief. Jon Schnepp’s documentary changed all that. In retrospect, the parallel of Michael Keaton’s casting as Batman feels VERY applicable here. My proof for that comes from later costume tests featuring Nic Cage. Sure enough, they look…very not bad. It’s still Nic Cage though. And I don’t mean that the obvious way that most comic book nerds would. Sure, he doesn’t have the classic facial features one associates with Superman, but instead I point back to the rationale Richard Donner used when casting a relatively unknown Christopher Reeve in the role as opposed to an established star. Cage had 20 films in the 90s…including high profile action hits such as The Rock, Con Air and Face/Off, to say nothing of his Oscar-winning turn in Leaving Las Vegas. It’s safe to say Cage was a star at the time he was approached to play Superman. Thus, it’s not Superman…it’s Nic Cage in a Superman suit. All of that being said, the material that Schnepp presents makes me at least want to see him give it a try…and given how staunchly I was against that in my youth…that’s really saying something. In fact, I will say that there’s only one vital thing missing from the documentary…and that’s participation from Mr. Cage. I can certainly understand why he’s not there, and it’s certainly no fault of Schnepp’s…but it does give rise to another “what if…?”.
The remainder of what Schnepp presents, from production artwork to costume tests to recorded conversations from the time to actually getting Tim Burton’s participation sold me and sold me hard. Would it have been a definitive Superman film? I doubt it. Would it have been GOOD film? I dunno. Honestly, from what was presented, it looked like it had enough madness behind it to be either an absolute train wreck…or a master stroke of genius. What I can say with certainty was that this film would’ve brought Superman back into the spotlight after having been gone since 1987…and given that 1) the break would go further into the 2000s with the release of Superman Returns in 2006 and 2) the downward spiral of the Man of Steel’s perception in popular culture…that would’ve been a good thing. Heh. Yet another “what if…?”. Whatever it would have been, good or bad, after this documentary, I’m certainly on board. And I DEFINITELY agree with Schnepp, had it been made, it ABSOLUTELY would still be a film we’d be talking about to this day.
However…I TOTALLY reserve the right to backpedal on this opinion if it EVER comes out that Danny Elfman was going to do the music. That…just…no.
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