Superman Lives: Tim Burton’s Man of Steel by Jerry Whitworth
With the announcement of Batman ’89 and Superman ’78, the memory of an entity that almost was can be stirred up. 1987’s Superman IV: The Quest for Peace effectively ended the life of Superman at the box office while Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) brought superheroes back into theaters. Warner Bros. sought to tap Burton to apply his magic touch to the Man of Steel with Superman Lives. However, three weeks before filming, the motion picture was abruptly canceled. For years, stories have been told about the doomed project with a snapshot of star Nicolas Cage dressed as Superman one of the few relics of this mysterious work. Filmmaker Jon Schnepp finally got to the heart of Superman Lives and revealed its secrets in his 2015 documentary The Death of “Superman Lives”: What Happened?
Before becoming Tim Burton’s Superman Lives, the film was provided a treatment by Kevin Smith under the direction of eccentric producer Jon Peters. It was this version that really kept the legend of Superman Lives alive for decades as Smith regularly told aspects of the tale of loosely adapting the story of the “Death and Return of Superman” from the comics during speaking engagements. Therein, the creature Doomsday effectively killed Superman and four individuals arose claiming in some manner or another as being a resurrected Superman before the actual Superman returned. However, under Peters’ orders, elements such as the alien robot Brainiac fighting polar bears and Superman facing a giant spider in the finale were added. Smith effectively talked himself out of the job by suggesting Burton as the director who hated the scribe’s script and scrubbed it.
Burton wanted to tell a more human story in Superman Lives of Clark Kent living his life unaware he was an alien and wondering why he was such an outsider and what was the source of his abilities. Lex Luthor would have discovered Kal-El’s spaceship that brought him to Earth, revealing Superman as being an alien. At the same time, the techno-organic entity Brainiac whom destroyed Krypton arrived on Earth, merging with Luthor to become a gestalt being dubbed Lexiac. The hybrid villain spawned the being Doomsday and unleashed it upon Superman. While the Man of Steel managed to defeat the creature, it appeared to have killed him and the world mourned the loss of its champion. A techno-organic being called K retrieved Superman’s corpse and bonded to him, slowly restoring his powers as Lexiac unleashed its horde of monstrous alien creatures from its skull space ship onto Earth. K was ultimately revealed to be a remnant of Kal-El’s father Jor-El that formed a black suit with silver chest shield restoring Superman’s abilities.
Noted, Nicolas Cage was cast as Clark Kent/Superman while Chris Rock as Jimmy Olsen, Christopher Walken as Brainiac, and Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor were the top contenders for those parts. The role of Lois Lane remained up in the air. Michael Keaton also hinted he was going to make a cameo in the picture as Bruce Wayne. Sadly, in the wake of bombs like Batman & Robin (1997), Steel (1997), and Tarzan and the Lost City (1998), Superman Lives died so that, allegedly, its budget could fund the 1999 box office bomb Wild Wild West (where Jon Peters finally got his giant spider). Interestingly, writer Michael Jelenic while promoting the 2017 animated film Batman vs Two-Face (set in the world of Batman ’66) claimed he pitched resurrecting Superman Lives as an animated movie but, for whatever reason, was passed on. Nicolas Cage finally was able to voice Superman for Teen Titans Go! to the Movies (2018).