Superman Lives is one of the craziest curios in superhero movie history. It all began in the mid 1990s, when Warner Bros were desperate to bring DC’s iconic Man Of Steel back to the big screen following the cash-collecting success of the Batman franchise that began with Tim Burton and wound up with Joel Schumacher.
Geek icon Kevin Smith spent a long while trying to bring a script together, having been paired up by the studio with Jon Peters (producer of Batman and Batman Returns). The seriously strange stipulations that Peters put upon Smith became the stuff of legend.
Eventually, Smith departed the project and Tim Burton came in. As you can imagine, Burton’s vision was even weirder than the one that Smith had been cooking up. Villains were going to merge together, Superman was going to die, and a very unlikely actor ended up in the dual roles of Clark Kent and Kal-El.
If all of this sounds like the barmy bizarro ‘could’ve been’ of your cinematic dreams, read on for 15 WTF Ideas From The Doomed Superman Lives Movie…
15. One Version Left Superman Dead And Replaced Him With His Son
All versions of this film were going to take inspiration from The Death Of Superman, the comic by Dan Jurgens, Jerry Ordway, Louisa Simonson and Roger Stern, which saw Superman battling Doomsday until both of them died. The story eventually ended up being squeezed into Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice.
The first person to take a pass at the script was Jonathan Lemkin, who previously worked on TV’s 21 Jump Street and afterwards wrote The Devil’s Advocate, Shooter and Lethal Weapon 4. His script, titled Superman Reborn, would’ve seen Superman professing his love to Lois Lane moments before his death at the hands of Doomsday.
Rather than resurrecting this version of Superman later in the film, Lemkin was planning to reveal that some sort of life force had jumped from Clark to Lois during the aforementioned declaration of love, and impregnated her. Lois would give birth to a young Kryptonian that would age rapidly, replacing his father as Superman after just three weeks of being alive.
14. Kevin Smith Was Forced Not To Include Capes Or Flying
Kevin Smith went to Warner Bros to chat about potential projects around 1996/1997. The YouTube video of Smith recounting all of this is utterly hilarious.) After passing on Beetlejuice Goes Hawaiian, he got into discussions about bringing Superman back. He was called in again and again to talk ideas with different executives, and eventually landed a meeting with Jon Peters, the aforementioned Batman producer who was custodian of Kal-El at the time.
Peters put some weird rules on the table straight off the bat: “One, I don’t want to see him in that suit. Two, I don’t wanna see him fly.” Smith asked for some reasons – which is fair enough, considering that Peters was taking some iconic facets of the character out of the picture – and got hilarious responses.
The suit? “Too faggy.” Superman flying around, saving people? “Horse sh*t.” Peters, a former hairdresser, also had an interesting idea on who should play The Last Son Of Krypton: Sean Penn, because in Dead Man Walking he had “the eyes of a violent, caged animal. A f**king killer.” It remains a mystery how Peters saw that as relevant experience for Superman.
13. Superman And Brainiac Would’ve Beaten Up Animals
Peters’ third demand was this: “he’s got to fight a giant spider in the third act.” After questioning the no suit/no flying rules, Smith asked for some more information about the arachnid idea.
“Do you know anything about spiders?” Peters asked, before explaining “they’re the fiercest killers in the insect kingdom.” He went onto describe how he wanted an eight-legged recreation of scene from the classic King Kong, where giant doors opened and unveiled the huge beast.
Smith came up with a way to work it in, giving the main villain Brainiac a menagerie of monsters, one of which was a ‘Thanagarian Snare Beast’, a giant alien spider of Smith’s own invention. Brainiac would let this creature loose in the third act, giving Peters the scene he wanted.
Smith put a script together and read the whole thing out to Peters, including a scene, while Superman was dead, where Brainiac went to The Fortress Of Solitude. Peters thought some action was needed, and after Smith shot down his idea of Superman having guards, Peters came up with an alternative: “what about the polar bears?”
Smith asked, “You want me to write a scene where Brainiac is razzlin’ polar bears?” Peters retorted, “Yeah, do you know anything about polar bears? They’re the fiercest killers in the animal kingdom.” Smith surmised that Peters had “way too much access to the Discovery Channel.”
12. A Recycled Idea Made It Into Wild Wild West
Smith eventually left the project, but one of Peters’ baffling ideas followed him around. “I was really reminded the next summer,” Smith recounts in the second part of that YouTube video. “When I went to the movies and saw a movie that Jon Peters had produced, and it was called The Wild Wild West.”
“So I’m sitting in the theatre watching the movie,” Smith continued, “and I’m like, ‘good lord, this is a piece of sh*t.’ But then, all of a sudden, like a giant f**cking spider shows up.”
Yep, clearly, when Superman Lives didn’t work out, Peters took his idea to grow “the fiercest killer in the insect kingdom” into a ginormous action movie monster and plonked it in Barry Sonnenfeld’s Will Smith-starring western instead.
And here’s another fun fact: over a decade later, when Kevin Smith was first directing for Supergirl, the writers titled the episode “Supergirl Lives” and threw in a dialogue reference to The Thanagarian Snare Beast, Smith’s alien arachnid that never made it to the screen.
11. Jon Peters Wanted “A Gay R2-D2”
Jumping back in time a bit: after Peters told Smith to chuck in a polar bear fight to increase the action quotient, Smith invited Peters to the premiere of his latest film, Chasing Amy. Seeing Smith’s Ben Affleck-starring romantic comedy only served to give Peters more strange ideas.
Peters told Smith, “You know what I really liked? The black guy, I liked that a lot.” Smith responded, “Yeah, Dwight [Ewell, who plays Hooper X in the film]. He’s really funny.” And Peters proclaimed, “That’s what we need in our movie.”
“We need that voice, we need that character, somebody like him”, Peters elaborated. “Can’t Brainiac have a sidekick? Give him a little robot sidekick, and give him that dude’s voice. […] That’s what this movie needs, just a gay R2-D2.”
Duly, Smith wrote in a robot character called L-Ron, who shares all of his scenes with Brainiac. In a leaked draft of the script, L-Ron even gets the final line of the movie by breaking the fourth wall, addressing the audience and declaring himself a “glutton for punishment” while trying to bring his not-very-friendly boss back to life.
10. Lex Luthor’s Pet Was A Cute Chewbacca Substitute
Okay, one final thing from that excellent pair of YouTube videos. R2-D2 wasn’t the only Star Wars character that Peters wanted to emulate in Superman Lives. The original Star Wars movie was back in cinemas at the time, Peters went to see it, and he came back with another demand.
“We need more sh*t like that in our movie,” Peters told Smith. “We need something we can make toys of and sh*t like that, like Chewie. We need Chewie in this movie.”
Surely rather bemused by this point, Smith asked, “You want me to just write Chewie into the movie? Superman razzling Chewie?” Peters said, “No, but just something like that, like maybe Brainiac has a dog, and it’s a little cute dog, and we can make a toy out of it.”
“I don’t really know it’s that’s going to work,” Smith told Peters. “Don’t tell me that’s not going to work, I want my Chewie,” Peters demanded. An online forum post, alluding to another Kevin Smith interview that it’s hard to find at this stage, suggests that this idea developed into “Brainiac [giving] Luthor a hostile space dog as a gift.”
9. Batman Gave A Speech At Superman’s Funeral
Batman would’ve made a cameo in Kevin Smith’s version of Superman Lives, though it’s unclear who would’ve played the part. Funnily enough, Smith had just come off Chasing Amy, and (as he told Wizard Magazine years later) he believed that Ben Affleck would be a good fit for the role of Superman. He also fancied Jason Mewes as Jimmy Olsen and Linda Fiorentino as Lois Lane, but Smith never said who he envisioned as the Batman.
But yes, Smith had written a small role for Gotham’s Caped Crusader into his Supes-centric script. Following the Doomsday fight, during Superman’s televised funeral, The Dark Knight would’ve interrupted the feed with a public service announcement.
“Good evening, Metropolis. It is with heavy heart that I offer you my and Gotham’s deepest condolences”, Batman says in the aforementioned leaked script draft. He goes on to urge the citizens of Superman’s city to “honor this fallen soldier well by keeping his memory alive in the face of this adversity.” Shortly after Batman’s speech, Braniac and Lex Luthor crashed the funeral.
8. Kevin Smith Recommended Tim Burton, And In Doing So Got Himself Fired
Smith later told Mania.com that, early in the process of developing the film, he was talking to an exec about who could direct Superman Lives: “I suggested Tim Burton. They said, ‘Nah, Tim doesn’t have the right kind of sensibility for this movie,’ and I said, ‘Yeah, I guess you’re right. Tim’s kind of dark, and this movie’s not about darkness.’”
But after Smith sent off his second draft, having incorporated Jon Peters’ wacky demands, the director of Batman re-entered the discussion. In Smith’s words, “Tim Burton comes to Warner Bros, where he’s made Mars Attacks! which went right in the sh*tter, and he wants to do a sure thing. At one point he was thinking about doing Scooby Doo but they handed him the script for Superman, the one I’d done, and he dug on it.”
Smith must’ve been excited, since Burton was the director he’d suggested. But as it turns out, this appointment led to Smith being booted from the project.
As Smith recalled it, “Tim Burton turned around and told the studio, ‘I want to do my own version of Superman; I want to go another way, and I only work with these four writers, so I want Wesley Strick to redraft it.’” Suddenly, Smith was out and Burton was in.
7. Brainiac’s Plot Was A Mr Burns Scheme From The Simpsons
Brainiac’s evil plan in Kevin Smith’s version of the movie involved teaming up with Lex Luthor to launch a disc into space and block out the sun, stopping its rays from reaching Superman and endowing him with superpowers. This makes a certain degree of story sense: without his powers, Superman would be significantly weaker, and his death at Doomsday’s hand would’ve been more palatable.
In David Hughes’ brilliant book The Greatest Sci-Fi Movies Never Made, it’s revealed that Wesley Strick (the writer, who had previously penned Cape Fear, that Tim Burton brought in to replace Smith) was not happy with this element of the story. When he came on board, Strick apparently pointed out that Brainiac’s scheme “was reminiscent of an episode of The Simpsons, with Mr. Burns doing the Brainiac role.”
And of course, he has a point. Strick was right to say ‘Boo-urns’ to this idea, as it had already been explored in one of the most famous TV episodes ever, “Who Shot Mr. Burns?” Therein, Burns blocked the sun using a disc in order to limit natural light, forcing the residents of Springfield to use electricity from his plant at all times.
6. Michael Keaton Would’ve Re-Teamed With Burton
Here’s an interesting nugget of information: in an interview with MTV, which only exists now as a write-up on a Superman fan forum, Michael Keaton confirmed that he would be appearing in Tim Burton’s Superman Lives. He was asked if he was reprising the role of Batman, to which he said, “Not exactly.”
What on Earth does that mean? At this point, nobody knows. Perhaps Keaton would’ve had a cameo as Bruce Wayne, but not worn the Batsuit. That’s just rampant speculation, though, since Keaton never again spoke publicly about his proposed involvement in the film.
Interestingly, this was all happening around 1998. Warner Bros had already handed the keys to Tim Burton’s Batman franchise over to Joel Schumacher, who had recast the role twice with Val Kilmer (1995’s Batman Forever) and George Clooney (1997’s Batman & Robin).
Maybe reintroducing Keaton in Superman Lives was part of some elaborate plan to course-correct on the Batman franchise? Hopefully someone will ask him about it someday, and unearth some more tantalising details of what could’ve been.
5. Tim Burton Got $5 Million For Not Making It
Ken Hanke’s 1999 biography of Tim Burton states that the director signed a $5 million ‘pay or play’ contract when he boarded Superman Lives. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, it means that he gets paid whether the film actually gets made or not. Essentially, then, Burton got paid $5 million for a movie that never happened. And considering this was the 1990s, that’s a humungous amount of money.
Burton’s time on the film, as well as Smith’s, is chronicled in the wonderful documentary The Death Of Superman Lives: What Happened? Therein, it’s revealed that countless pieces of concept art were drawn up, blending the iconic imagery of DC Comics’ Superman with Tim Burton’s trademarked visual style.
Meanwhile, under Burton’s guidance, Strick rewrote the script. According to David Hughes’ aforementioned ‘movies never made’ book, they inserted ideas about Superman being an alienated “existentialist”. Their version would’ve had some degree of angst to it, then, adding deeper personal issues to the story of Supes dying and being reborn.
4. Superman’s Robot Friend Would Become A Metallic Costume
Warners deemed Strick’s script too expensive, and they brought in Dan Gilroy (who has since gone on to work on Real Steel, The Bourne Legacy and Nightcrawler) to work on a new draft. In the aforementioned Death Of Superman Lives documentary, it’s established that the Gilroy draft of the script developed the idea of a metallic character named K.
K was envisioned in concept art like the piece above, and as a flying robot with artificial intelligence, it was the closest thing to R2-D2 that still existed in the script at this stage.
K would prove to be vital in the resurrection of Superman after his fatal Doomsday battle: the cute little robot would transform into a temporary metal super-suit to revive Superman and enhance his strength without the help of the sun.
A third act reveal would’ve explained that K contains the ‘life essence’ of Superman’s deceased parents, tying the whole ‘death and rebirth’ arc back to the death of Kal-El’s parents and the destruction of Krypton.
3. Tim Allen, Jason Lee, Jim Carrey And Kevin Spacey Were All Linked To Brainiac
Casting the extra-terrestrial android villain Brainiac was a tricky one, with a long list of names being linked to the role. When Kevin Smith was involved, he had written the part with his Mallrats star Jason Lee in mind.
After Smith left, an Ain’t It Cool News report linked Kevin Spacy to the role (although he was also linked to Lex Luthor). And rumours persist to this day that Tim Allen was highly close to landing the part.
Speaking to Mania.com, Smith also recalls bumping into a Warner Bros executive at San Diego Comic Con, after departing the project: the unnamed exec said, “’Did you have anything to do with the draft in which Jim Carrey is supposed to be Brainiac?’ I said, ‘Heavens no.’ The exec said, ‘It’s so bad, so f**king abysmal.’” Yikes.
And in that Death Of Superman Lives documentary, Tim Burton says that Christopher Walken was his choice for the role of Brainiac, throwing yet another name into the hat. It sounds like the character veered wildly from comedic to scary in the various script drafts.
2. Lex Luthor And Brainiac Would’ve Merged Into ‘Lexiac’
Here’s one idea that was definitely on the cards during Tim Burton’s tenure on the project: Brainiac coming to Earth and teaming up with Lex Luthor, with the pair going so far as to merge into one entity.
In Strick’s draft, the resultant hybrid cyborg character was named Luthiac, and in Gilroy’s version is was Lexiac. Either way, the idea of combining them into one uber-villain sounds weird, but you can imagine Tim Burton doing some intriguing, creepy stuff with the visual element of that.
Also, in both drafts that were drawn up for Burton, Brainiac was responsible for the destruction of Krypton, and has been hunting Superman ever since, as a means to tie up loose ends. After becoming one with Lex, he would create Doomsday and kill Superman.
After succeeding at that, Lexiac would begin plotting to destroy Earth using nuclear warheads, taking frequent breaks to try (and fail) to seduce Lois Lane. In the end, of course, Superman would return, stop Lexiac and woo Lois, with one second to spare on the nuclear apocalypse countdown clock.
1. Nic Cage As Superman
The weirdest thing about Superman Lives has to be the casting of Nicolas Cage as Clark/Superman. The wiry and facially dextrous star of Con Air and Face/Off is hardly the first person you’d think of when conjuring an image of DC’s Man Of Steel made flesh.
But Cage is exactly who Burton brought in. In Mark Salisbury’s book Burton On Burton, the director explained the casting: he believed that, for “the first time, you would believe that nobody could recognise Clark Kent as Superman,” because Cage “could physically change his persona.”
Jon Peters approved the casting, and he’s quoted in Kim Masters’ Hollywood history Hit And Run as saying Cage could “convince audiences he came from outer space.” Maybe Nic Cage would’ve actually bossed it.
In the Death Of Superman Lives documentary, there’s footage of Cage chatting about the dual roles of Clark and Superman, hitting upon an interesting idea: what if Clark can barely concentrate on the situation he’s in, because his super-hearing is always switched on? He’ll be laughing at a joke someone made on the other side of the room, for example. There’s certainly potential in that.
Cage’s costume fittings were well underway when the film fell apart. Essentially, the studio got fed up of waiting for Burton and they started searching for a different director.
It would be years before they landed Bryan Singer and Superman Returns got made. And for fans like us, Superman Lives remains a brilliantly barmy ‘what if?’ story.