Tuesday, November 24, 2015

The Greatest Superman Story Never Told?

As I’ve written here before, the super hero I followed closely early in my comic book reading days and later for a big chunk of my adult life was Superman. While my original captivation with the Man of Steel was the iconic costume and the cool super powers, it was the concept of Clark Kent that intrigued me most, the mild mannered man no one suspects of hiding a most extraordinary secret. When I was young and felt like an outcast, Clark Kent was as much my hero as Superman. 

After moving away from Superman for a few years, I returned to the character when John Byrne stepped in to relaunch the character and I stayed for nearly 20 years after that. The heyday of that time came under the stewardship of editor Mike Carlin with 4 interlinked monthly titles building story arc narratives and one of the most impressive supporting casts in comics. The mythology of Superman was being rebuilt piece by piece, classic elements of the Silver Age being restored with a modern twist.

I would say I drifted away from Superman about 5 or 6 years ago but in many ways, I felt like I was being pushed. The so-called “New 52” Superman did nothing to reverse that although I did following Grant Morrison’s run on Action Comics. 

As Superman struggled for a direction in the comics, there were similar conflicts on what to do with Superman as a film star.

The first two Superman movies are considered in their own ways as classics and Christopher Reeve was perfect casting as Clark Kent and Superman. But while Reeve continued to enchant as the Man of Steel and his mild mannered alter ego, the next two films suffered from diminished quality of writing and special effects. The Superrman movie franchise went from distinguished achievements in film to little more than life action cartoons.

In 1989, along came Batman. Directed by Tim Burton, it was a revelation to what a comic book super hero movie could be. It also scored a gazillion dollars so naturally not only would sequels be on the way but perhaps other comic book super hero movies. Perhaps Superman could soar once more on the silver screen?

So Tim Burton was handed the keys to the Superman franchise with Nicolas Cage on board as Kal-El, AKA Clark Kent, AKA Superman. And if Cage seems an odd casting choice for the Man of Steel, so too was casting Michal Keaton as Batman. Still, Nic Cage as Superman? Tim Burton directing? Who could imagine such a thing?

Apparently a lot of people did and we get to hear what they have to say about Superman Lives, the years in the making and ultimately doomed production in the form of a documentary called The Death of Superman Lives: What Happened? I’ve been meaning to see this for some time and had an opportunity to do so when I stumbled across it on Showtime this past Sunday.

Superman Lives began as a screenplay from filmmaker and occasional comic book writer Kevin Smith. A balls to wall fangasm of Superman’s comic book mythology brought to life on the big screen, Kevin’s script included Lex Luthor, Braniac, Batman and other heroes of the Justice League with the central conflict of the movie: Superman vs. Doomsday. Superman defeats Doomsday at the cost of his own life. But Superman comes back from the dead thanks to Kryptonian super science just in time to stop another menace to the Earth. When asked to suggest a director for Superman Lives, Kevin Smith suggested Tim Burton. Whether or not Smith had any influence on getting Burton on board, it did have the ironic consequence of removing Kevin Smith from the project. Seems Tim Burton didn’t care for the screenplay.

And from there the dramas behind the scenes continued. Burton brought in screenwriter and frequent collaborator Henry Strick  for another pass at the screenplay only to have to fire Strick due to pressure from the powers that be at Warner Brothers. And a third writer was brought on board. Despite the revolving door at the scriptwriter position, Superman Lives continued forward in fits and starts. Concept art, costume designs, storyboards were being drafted with strange new visions of Krypton, alien creatures, Superman’s foes and of Superman himself. It was all wild and wonderful, weird but enticing. Executive producer Jon Peters noted that Superman Lives would’ve been laughed off the screen or it would’ve been the biggest thing ever", there was no middle ground. 

But Warner Bros. remained nervous about this production. Yes, Tim Burton struck box office gold with Batman in 1989 but almost tarnished that gold with Batman Returns which looked more like a Tim Burton film than the first one but was less commercial. Yes, Michael Keaton had been an unconventional choice to play Batman but maybe Nicolas Cage was too out there. Meanwhile, Batman Forever restored Batman as a premium moneymaker under the guidance of the more mainstream director Joel Schumacher and the more conventionally handsome Val Kilmer as Batman.

Perhaps Warner Bros. could’ve toughed out their  bad case of nerves and let Tim Burton do his thing if not for all the bombs. A string of movies with high profile releases backed by massive budgets crashed and burned. Among the bombs Warner Bros. was reeling from included Batman and Robin. Yep, the super hero who had started it all back in 1989 brought it screeching to a halt a decade later. Warner Bros. was already nervous about Tim Burton and Nicolas Cage; now they were skittish of the whole super hero film genre.  

So the plug was pulled and Superman Lives lived no more. 

Watching the documentary, I was struck by the level of creativity and talent that went into developing the movie we never got to see. Would Superman Lives have succeeded if could’ve moved forward? Or did the studio execs at Warner dodge a very expensive bullet? It’s hard to tell. Sometimes the public embraces creative risks and sometimes it doesn’t. Still, loved or hated, Superman Lives would’ve been different, unique.

Instead when the Man of Steel did soar once more on our movie screens, it was the decidedly tepid Superman Returns. Bryan Singer who had successfully brought the X-Men to the big screen did not chart a new path with his next super hero project. Instead, he paid homage to the first Superman movies, staging Superman Returns as a defacto sequel to Superman II. Despite some strong performances from Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor and the underrated Brandon Routh, Superman Returns gave us more of what we had seen before. Man of Steel from two years ago gave us a distinctive vision of the Superman mythos but one that was distressingly short on joy and wonder.  (Yes, I did describe Man of Steel as the best Superman movie to date here and here, but honestly people, that’s a really low bar to jump over.) Henry Cavill was perfect to play the Man of Steel; perhaps a bit too perfect.

Oh, what kind of offbeat path would Tim Burton and Nicolas Cage had taken Superman? Thanks to The Death of Superman Lives: What Happened?, we have a glimpse at what might’ve been. If Superman Lives had made to the screen, whether as a success or a failure, the results would’ve still been amazing. 

Thanks for popping by.  A new post is coming up on the blog tomorrow. Until then, remember to be good to one another.


I’m So Glad My Suffering Amuses You

Superman Lives would be director Tim Burton and Nicolas Cage during a costume test.

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