“Why?” is an immeasurably interesting question that more often than not doesn’t get answered in full view of the public cinema-going audience. Thanks to the modern day introduction of crowd funding services like Kickstarter, film and TV creators are using this venue to fund fully or partially projects which investors may not consider viable. Bless Jon Schnepp (The ABCs of Death, Metalocalypse) then as he pulls off one of the first and high profile movies to come out of crowd funding with a documentary into what happened to that fabled Tim Burton Superman film from the 90’s we were meant to get in The Death Of Superman Lives: What Happened?
After his success in bringing Batman to the big screen in the 80’s/90’s and making it a billion dollar franchise for Warner Brothers Studios, acclaimed director Tim Burton (Big Eyes) was tapped by legendary Hollywood producer Jon Peters (Man Of Steel) to revitalise the Superman franchise in the late 90’s. Starring Nicholas Cage (Left Behind), the new Superman Lives would focus on the uber successful & spotlight shining Death Of Superman storyline from DC Comics and feature new characters previously unseen outside of the comic books, all wrapped up in a Burton-esque gothic touch of other worldly-ness… except it didn’t get made with the plug pulled a few weeks before production was meant to begin. Years later, Schnepp goes out and interviews numerous creative heads behind the film from studio producers to concept artists to find out what happened and why Superman Lives was not made into a reality.
First thing you notice is how creditable the names are that Schnepp has managed to gather here and how candidly they speak about the project. Burton speaks for himself in terms of notability to your average cinema goer and Peters is a very big fish to capture. To a point in a industry filled with notoriety of saying the wrong thing once may leave you shut out from everywhere, I’m surprised both openly critique the studio process and other crew members in regards to the pre-production. It’s certainly a refreshing view and understandable given the passionate yet frustrating period of the project. Notable screenwriters Kevin Smith (Tusk) & Dan Gilroy (Nightcrawler) also turn up and offer their two cents on their involvement with the never-ending changes to the writing of the script. We even get modern billion dollar grossing producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura (Transformers) to offer his thoughts as he was part of the executive process. Hell, Schnepp is not above getting famed costume designer Colleen Atwood (Into The Woods) and pretty much everyone from the concept art process to be included, which is a smart move since their thoughts really get over the heavy bulk of the film of showing suit test footage and artwork. In fact, the only big name they don’t manage to get their hands on in regards to cast and crew is Cage himself. It does hang over the film as a distraction though since they never say if they did approach him or not, but at least Schnepp makes a point of Cage’s appearances or comments being attributed from elsewhere. Still, top marks for the level of depth of crew members we get the pleasure to listen to.
As a documentary, Schnepp is happy to take a backseat whilst the talking heads get on with discussing the film with minimal directing or shepherding, as it’s clear most of his “cast” want to talk about their time on the project as they truly cared for something that they put their hearts, souls, blood, sweat and tears into – only to have it snatched away from them. Indeed Burton’s line of “Why are you trying to depress me so much today?” is one with only the slightest edge of humour over a project he clearly is gutted he didn’t get to make. The “Why” behind this documentary is fully explored and time is given to go fully in-depth to the answer with plenty of context behind the filmmakers careers, production, comic book lore and decision making, so those asking will have a clear and informed picture by the end of this film.
Not to say that this documentary is a total love in with me. I dislike the lack of any real hardball questioning. For years, Smith has been on his numerous soapboxes, hacking into Peters about his quaint demands for Superman Lives (“No flying, no costume and I want him to fight a giant spider at the end”) and it’s brought up again here. Well, guess who is here to respond to Big Kev’s mutterings. He fobs it off as untrue and… that’s it. No pressing. No retort from Smith. It didn’t sit well with me for the rest of the film and still bothers me now. I understand Schnepp may choose to be polite to all those who have decided to appear in this documentary of their own freewill and not every doc has to be at a Louis Theroux level of digging & prying to get to the truth of a subject matter but it comes off as soft. There’s a weird inclusion of a mid-interview break with Peters that Schnepp decided to leave in, which seems indulgent and only really aims at “Gee Jon Peters is a bit odd eh?” The worst of all, at times – and LONG times at that – the unrelenting action of clipshows of concept art and test footage makes TDOSLWH come off as this motion picture coffee table book, which is certainly pretty to look at and engaging with the creator’s commentary but bores you silly when you’re forced to view so much in a short time.
Still, if anything, TDOSLWH succeeds at pulling off a true “nerd” cinemagoer fan film or at least one which will satisfy any passionate lover of film. Everything is answered with great detail that will appeal to them and gets into the mindset of just how far a Burton Superman film would go. Whilst it sounded like a similar Burton project with him identifying Supes as an alien outsider to Earth much like most of his characters, the thought of seeing Burton do a film with day and light as a theme rather than characters sticking to night and tackling a hero which embodies hope sounds very watchable and out of his comfort zone to this day still. I mean an anxiety ridden Superman does unique but definitely worth exploring also. Beats the hell out of Richard Donner’s idea of Supes either way. The numerous concept art piece offer a tantalising ‘What if…’ with a spider body Brainiac which is concealed by a cloak and, although a bit grim at first, the final costume for Superman and the in-depth detail into how it was create is insanely engaging. The production values of the documentary itself with an original score and animated cut aways are surprisingly well done, considering the fairly low budget raised from its crowd funding sources.
I feel TDOSLWH manages to pull off a rare feat in documentaries – a rather balanced handling of the material placed in front of you with no real bias (apart from “Aw shucks, it’s a shame this didn’t get made isn’t it?” but then that’s a natural reaction to anything being pulled anyway & why would you watch this if you were not curious about Superman Lives in the first place on some level?) so you’re left to form your own opinion on whether or not this certainly ambitious take on Superman would have worked. Personally, no. The curiosity of seeing Tim Burton with his take on Supes would be a spectacle and the ideas coming out of pre-production are wonderful… but the numerous scripts and writer changes does not come across as one pure settled idea and the elaborate nature of the plot seems too far, on the verge of becoming a convoluted multi trainwreck pile-up. But that’s just me – to you, you may have a completely different view of how Superman Lives may have turned out and it’s a credit to TDOSLWH to offer a unique viewing experience that no two viewers will have the same opinion after watching.
As far as The Death Of Superman Lives: What Happened goes though, while I am pleased – ecstatic even – that a film on this level for super fans having that itch scratched as to finding out what happened to this huge sounding movie is out there, there are a few niggles that I can’t shake off. The lack of any digging hardball questions and the fact it comes across as a Powerpoint presentation at times, with concept art dully shown at you for long periods, dilutes it’s special nerdvana potency somewhat. It is a very slick production though that I would happily revisit again, although I may to buy a coffee table to get the full effect. Still, Schnepp’s effort of gathering the various talking heads and pre-production into one source is in itself engrossingly and enthusiastically faultless.
The Death Of Superman Lives: What Happened is available now on all formats only at www.tdoslwh.com