Superman Lives and its varied production issues before being shut down are (and were) a movie unto themselves, but it just gets more and more insane the closer you look at it. There were so many different pieces of this film that were at odds with each other it’s a wonder it even got as far as it did.
To understand how it ended you need to know how it began though, with an idea by a fresh new writer/director named Kevin Smith…
Kevin Smith pitched Superman Lives in 1996, suggesting Tim Burton to direct the film, with Burton having previously made his mark on Batman just years before. Smith’s pitch got accepted, but Jon Peters, the producer he was pitching to, gave Smith a list of demands that were a little strange at best.
Said demands included a gay robot caricature, Brainiac fighting a polar bear, no Superman suit, and the Jon Peters Special, a giant f*ckin’ spider for the finale. Smith still managed to deliver a script worth reading while meeting the demands, leading to Peters’ acceptance.
Smith’s original was definitely a Kevin Smith movie cast. Ben Affleck as Superman (how the Batarangs turn) and Jack Nicholson as Lex Luthor. Even better is Jason Lee as Brainiac while Jason Mewes played Jimmy Olson. Look, they’re fantastic actors but I can’t say it’s not weird casting in retrospect.
It Gets Weirder
Sure enough, Tim Burton becomes involved at Smith’s suggestion, comes in, requests a rewrite of Smith’s script, and makes it really weird. This almost completely changed Smith’s original story, adding in a strange Luthor-Brainiac fusion at the end with a host of other questionable additions. There was a resurrection due to the “soul of Krypton” if that says anything. Then there was Burton’s casting.
Nicolas Cage was the frontrunner for Superman and was paid $20 million to play his favorite character. That’s $20 million by 1997 standards too, which is a massive amount. Then there was… oh god it’s Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor. Spacey would, ironically, play Luthor in Superman Returns, long after playing himself in Seven and American Beauty.
Burton’s casting audacity had no bounds either, with Christopher Walken as Brainiac (this would have been amazing in the worst way) and Jim Carrey as his backup. This is a 90s fever dream.
As with most things directed by Tim Burton that aren’t named Big Fish, Superman got Burton-ized with the director’s concept art for the film. While it’s easy to tell the work is Burton’s, it’s not easy to tell that the sketches are related to Superman in any way or form. Brainiac was a head in a bowl, perched right on the tip of a cone.
Oh, and Jon Peters’ spider clause remained, with Brainiac turning into a giant eight-legged menace during the big climax. The art department didn’t understand it either, apparently.
Burton’s goth aesthetic was on full display though, with Superman himself being dressed in all black and the director describing him effectively as “Edward Scissorhands-esque”. Then Spider-Brainiac was rocking horizontal stripes. Fashion was a real disaster in the 90s. Learn from our mistakes.
Superman Dies… Slowly
By this time Nicolas Cage was being fitted for a surprisingly colorful suit, all things considered. Kevin Smith had long departed the movie, and Burton had requested another rewrite, this time from Dan Gilroy as the previous rewrite was deemed too expensive.
Gilroy kept the story on the same track pretty much, just lowering the budget by reducing set pieces. Brainiac-Spider stayed though, as required by the Peters Pact. Meanwhile, Nic Cage was getting into shape for his Superman suit… which the movie would ditch halfway through for a suit of armor. A suit of armor for a bulletproof man. We’ll just roll with it at this point.
This is about the point that things go off the rails. Right before production was set to get into full swing, with camera tests being run according to Gilroy, the studio pulled the plug. While they cited the financial insecurity of the project, Burton had obviously moved on at the time, later saying he wasted a year of his life on the project over disagreements with Peters. The spiders strike again.
Production would fizzle over the next couple of years, with various rewrites and directors being approached but most turning it down. Cage, having blown most of the original $20 million on the dumbest things possible, decided to leave in 2000. This effectively killed the entire production.
The troubled production got a retrospective movie called The Death of Superman Lives in 2015, and it’s a fantastic watch with interviews and stories from those involved. Also, Jon Peters still got to fulfill his giant spider quota with Wild Wild West not long after. Good for you, man. It’s weird but I’m not here to shame.