Superman Lives: The Awesomely Bad Movie That Was Almost Made

This was the teaser poster that premiered at American International Toy Fair in 1997. It looks a little different than the Superman that we're all used to. No red or blue, instead trading the iconic colors for chrome and black. That didn't stop anyone from being excited and curious at the possibility of a new Superman movie. At this point, it had been a full decade since Superman IV: A Quest For Peace bombed at the box office and put the final nail in the coffin of the Christopher Reeve Superman franchise. Fans clamored for a new movie, and at the fair, they had what they thought would be a very limited glimpse of a future film.

This was a few years prior to the Internet spoiling everything about a movie a year before it comes out. This was also a few years before Comic Con was the massive event it is today. No one knew anything about it, which only added to its mystique. This was the only preview that anyone would get. No trailers, no screen caps, no behind-the-scenes footage for fans of the most famous superhero of all time to salivate over. Speculation on what a new movie would entail is all the fans had, and it's all they'd ever get.

Warner Brothers Acquiring The Rights (1993-1996)

In 1993, with the success of "The Death Of Superman" comic book storyline, Warner Bros. purchased the film rights of Superman. They then put the burden of producing a Superman film on Jon Peters. What most people didn't know, and still don't know, is that there was a script flying around called Superman: The New Movie since Superman IV came out in '87 to a fizzle. Peters wanted nothing to do with that script, so he hired Johnathon Lemkin to write a new one. Warner Brothers wanted Lemkin to write a script with the a 90's MTV cool edge to it, but at the same time keeping the film family friendly to maximize toy sales. Not exactly the best way to make a movie.

Titled Superman: Reborn , featured a battle with Doomsday (the creature that killed him in the comics) and a virgin birth between Clark Kent and Lois Lane, with the child quickly growing up and saving the world in Superman's absence. I might have to suspend my disbelief as a movie goer watching a spawn of Superman grow to 21 years old in a span of 18 months...which was Lemkin's plan. Warner Brothers ended up rejecting the script because of similar themes with another movie about to actually be made, Batman Forever . I never read the script, but I don't understand how anyone would mistake this with that.

After Johnathon Lemkin was canned, Peters hired Gregory Poirier to rewrite the script that he finished in December of 1995. This one was much weirder so I'll try to give you a very brief synopsis. Doomsday has kryptonite blood, Clark and Lois see a couples counselor, Doomsday kills Superman. Then a victim of the supercomputer Brainiac, who created Doomsday, steals his corpse and they revive him in a top-secret lab. Back from the dead, Superman is powerless and a robot suit is made for him to wear that somehow mimics his old powers exactly. But it turns out he can learn his old powers using something called "Phin-yar," which is obviously a "Force" rip-off from Star Wars. Believe it or not, this script somehow impressed those in charge at Warner Brothers. It didn't impress them enough to keep Poirier in charge of his own script though. The script wasn't rejected, but it would have to be rewritten.

Kevin Smith Is Hired To Write The Film

Kevin Smith had the opportunity to pitch his own screenplay on the project in August 1996. Fresh off the success of Chasing Amy, a life-long comic book geek in Smith had the chance to live his dream of writing a Superman movie. Keep in mind, Smith was still in the early stages of his career in Hollywood, so he jumped at the chance to take on a workload of this magnitude even if it was more molding a preordained idea than it was writing from scratch. There were many catches of course. Peters allowed Smith to write for him under three conditions, and I'm completely serious here.

1) Superman had to wear an all-black suit.

In Peters' on words, "the classic blue and red looked too f@ggy." Maybe this isn't the right man to put in charge of making a Superman movie. There was a suit made and screen tested with an anonymous actor. It also had the ability to glow in the dark in what appears to be the whole stock of rope lights from Spencer's gifts. I'm surprised it didn't have a black-light, a plasma ball, and a bunch of glow sticks. Apparently at some point in the movie, Superman attends a pretty sweet rave. It was the late 90's.

Apparently the idea of a black suit evolved into the rainbow bright amalgamation you see here.  Don't forget your pacifier!
Apparently the idea of a black suit evolved into the rainbow bright amalgamation you see here. Don't forget your pacifier!

2) He wasn't allowed to fly.

In another attempt to make Superman completely unrecognizable, the wonderful producer thought seeing the last son of Krypton fly would, again, make him look too effeminate. Yes, he was teaching Superman how to be a tougher man, sigh...

3) Last but not least, the climatic battle of the film would take place between Superman and a giant spider.

This is my favorite part. I learned a lot about the proposed Superman Lives from Kevin Smith's Q&A DVD, An Evening With Kevin Smith. Here Smith goes in depth about his meetings with Producer Jon Peters at his residence. When the topic of the final conflict of the movie arose, Peter kept insisting that a giant spider was "the fiercest killers in the insect kingdom." Dumbfounded, Smith would keep asking what that had to do with Superman. Peters wanted a big reveal, and epic unveiling of the arachnid that reminded him of a favorite moment of his youth, King Kong.

Not being able to fly is beginning to make sense here. If you have to fight a giant spider, flying would seem to make it an unfair playing field. So the plan seems to basically be to weaken Superman enough so it's somewhat believable if he fought the spider. It still seems like a cop out though.

After the meeting, Warner Brothers talked to Smith and told him that Peters liked him and that he'd continue with the project. They also asked him if he brought up the spider. Smith told him they did. WB exclaimed, "Every day with the spider...."

As you know before reading this, the movie never got made, but Peters did get his spider idea in a movie. Kevin Smith recalls a couple years later seeing Peters' name attached to The Wild Wild West. He's watching the movie in theaters and sure enough, coming over the ridge in the desert, a giant mechanical spider to do battle with.


Another Meeting/Script Revisions

After Smith finished with an extensive outline, they again met in Peters' luxurious residence. After having the outline read to him, yes...he required that for some reason, Peters was adamant there weren't enough action scenes. When you hire Kevin Smith you're going to get a fair amount of dialogue. He's great at what he does, but he really doesn't stray too far from his talking dirty and analyzing things comic book geeks talk about wheelhouse.

There's a scene after Superman dies in which Brainiac searches for him at the Fortress of Solitude. Peters persisted that something should happen here, like a big fight. Kevin again tells him that Superman is dead.

Peters: I know, but can't Brainiac fight something else up there? What about his guards, his soldiers?

Smith: It's the Fortress of Solitude! No one else is supposed to be up there with him in the arctic. And why would Superman need guards?

Peters: Well there are polar bears in the arctic right? Have him fight and kill a bunch of polar bears. Do you know anything about polar bears?

Smith: No, I don't.

Peters: They're the fiercest killers in the animal kingdom!

Again, Kevin Smith is basically being told what to write, he obliges and finishes the script and sends it in to the studio...they love it. Warner Brothers starts sending it off to people.

Jon Peters' fridge must have been filled with Pepsi.
Jon Peters' fridge must have been filled with Pepsi.

A few weeks later, Peters was invited to attend Smith's Chasing Amy premiere as a special guest. According to Kevin, Peters didn't really seem to enjoy watching the movie very much, but he did really like the gay black guy in it. He liked his voice and wanted it in the movie as a little robot sidekick to Brainiac. He actually is quoted as saying he wanted "a gay R2D2 with attitude." At this point in 1997, the original Star Wars trilogy was in re-release and had opened up tremendously the previous weekend. If he couldn't have the little robot, Peters was also open to having a cute dog following Brainiac around. He just wanted something else he could make toys and merchandise out of and sell to kids. It was pretty obvious at this point that Jon Peters slept with a George Lucas bedspread.

Not long after the premiere ended, Tim Burton signed on to direct and Nicolas Cage signed on to play the Man of Steel. Both were inked to very large "pay or play" contracts, which meant that if the movie was made or not, they would still get paid. Cage made $20 million and Burton was set to pocket $5 million. Burton decided he wanted to scrap Smith's script and get his own people to write one, even though it would retain a lot of the ideas Peters and Smith wrote together. But of course, this is Burton's new movie...presumably one where Superman has scissors for hands.

An Attempt At Making A Movie

Casting was beginning to take shape. Along with life-long comic fan Cage, Kevin Spacey was approached to play Clark Kent's nemesis, Lex Luthor. Tim Allen claims to this day he was in talks to play Brainiac...I guess with more power . A studio writer, who ended up penning the script for Burton wrote the role for Jim Carrey, but he turned it down after just playing The Riddler in Batman Forever . Casting for Lois Lane was reportedly between Cameron Diaz and Courtney Cox. Unbelievably, Chris Rock was the only one being considered for the role of Jimmy Olson, the nerdy photographer for The Daily Planet newspaper. I can't really see Rock wearing a bow-tie and saying "Mr. Kent." This is only a rumor that I've read, but Tim Burton wanted Hulk Hogan to play Doomsday. At the time, Hogan was a huge moneymaker for World Championship Wrestling with the New World Order storyline. It's a shame, this could have been the worst movie ever made.

There were a couple smaller redeeming qualities, but I doubt it would have made a huge difference. Michael Keaton was supposed to make a cameo as Bruce Wayne, possibly setting up a sequel where we would see Superman and Batman either fighting alongside, or against, each other. Also, Industrial Light & Magic was signed to provide all the visual effects for the movie.

Warner Brothers and Tim Burton may have been pushing forward and trying to make it happen, but ever since Kevin Smith was fired from the project, ideas only seemed to go downhill. In the chopping up and constant script changing, Lex Luthor and Brainiac somehow became melded together to create "Lexiac." The sun was being blocked out by a metal disk to weaken the solar-powered Superman straight out of an episode of The Simpsons when Mr. Burns did it to make money. My god, can anyone in Hollywood have an original idea!

Take THAT Superman!  Excellent...
Take THAT Superman! Excellent...

The Beginning Of The End

Art designer Sylvain Despretz claimed the art department was assigned to create something that had little or nothing to do with the Superman comic book. Peters wanted to have focus groups consisting primarily of children to come in and rate their drawings as if they were evaluating toy possibilities. Again, Peters and Warner Brothers were only interested in merchandising, not making a quality picture.

The idea of Brainiac's spaceship even came from a National Geographic magazine cover Peters saw with a skull on it. Tim Burton made a concept drawing for it himself and brought it to the art department. Despretz claims was "a cone with a round ball on top, and something that looked like a emaciated skull inside. Imagine you take Merlin's hat, and you stick a fish bowl on top, with a skull in it."

The studio decided to change the script again with a new writer...another no-name insider. They claimed the $190 million budget for the film was too expensive. No kidding? The new script had the budget down to around $100 million. It was cheaper, but no one really liked it except for Peters. In April 1998, the project's status became the dreaded "on-hold" and Burton left to direct Sleepy Hollow.

To this day, Burton has depicted the experience of Superman Lives as one of the worst experiences in his life, citing various differences with Peters and the studio, stating, "I basically wasted a year. A year is a long time to be working with somebody that you don't really want to be working with." At this point in production, $30 million was spent, with nothing to show for it. The only thing WB seemed to excel at throughout the journey was spending money.

The Death Of Superman Lives

With everything on hold, many scripts over the next few years with a lot of different titles and ideas circulated around Hollywood and online. Comic book fan, Alex Ford even had his online submitted script accepted into Warner Brothers offices. It was even more about merchandising! I'm surprised they didn't green-light it... The two parties later broke ties due to creative differences.

With the $100 million script among a few others, Peters was desperate to find some footing in the next few years and offered the director's position to Michael Bay (Transformers), Brett Ratner (X-men), and Oliver Stone (JFK). All declined. The would-be Superman, Nicolas Cage assisted on many story elements but eventually dropped out entirely in late 2000. Towards then end after Stone turned down directing the movie and Cage left, the Superman role was offered to Will Smith. He also turned down the opportunity because of ethnicity concerns, which makes sense. The NAACP might not like this, but Superman isn't black...just like Wonder Woman isn't a guy.

I know what you're thinking.  Where's the head band?
I know what you're thinking. Where's the headband?

Up until the 2006 Superman Returns that Warner Brothers eventually made, there were a few halfhearted attempts at something different, but nothing ever took shape. There was a supposed Batman vs. Superman project with J.J. Abrams from Lost writing the screenplay. Christian Bale and Josh Hartnett were wanted to play Batman and Superman respectively. Part of the reboot idea was gutted and eventually became the new Batman franchise.

After Batman Begins was to be made with Bale, Abrams submitted another script titled Superman: Flyby in 2002 with filming to start in 2003. It was a lot like Lost with a ton of characters, a cryptic conspiracy storyline, and was really hard to follow. They screen tested a lot of actors but nothing serious ever came from it. After floundering for a couple years, still seemingly offering directing and acting rights every few months until Warner Brothers found Bryan Singer in July of 2004. Superman Returns became a reality and ended up grossing close to $500 million worldwide.

What could have been? To me, Brandon Routh was pretty boring as The Man of Steel. I still wish something different was done with Superman other than some stuff that happened between Superman I & II . I was always a fan of the Smallville television series and thought Tom Welling would have made a perfect choice for Clark Kent after graduating from TV to the movies. I mean he's already been playing the role for 10 years! But instead, there is yet another reboot coming out in 2012 starring Henry Cavill titled simply Man Of Steel . I guess we'll see. I still kind of hope it has a Nic Cage fighting a giant spider somewhere...

You know you want it.
You know you want it.

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Comments 5 comments

innersmiff profile image

innersmiff 4 years ago from UK

This really could have been the worst film ever made! Great article.


kramerjbrandon818 4 years ago

great article


alezafree profile image

alezafree 4 years ago from Las Vegas, NV

Hmmm ... giant spider ... Peters ... Peter Parker! Wait, wrong comic book.

"But of course, this is Burton's new movie...presumably one where Superman has scissors for hands." I LOL'd at this line.

Interesting hub! I enjoyed it. And I agree about Tom Welling.


Thief12 profile image

Thief12 3 years ago from Puerto Rico

Good stuff. This article needs that famous Nicolas Cage pic.


Markshot 2 years ago

I once had seen a poster like the above in 1988. It had Steven Rogers’s Captain America’s shield and nothing more. Three or so years later Captain America came out on videotape.

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