With studio slates becoming larger and larger as decades go by, and audiences now exposed to more content than ever before, it’s very easy for people to disregard the enormous amount of films that never quite make the cut, allowing them to slip under the radar. But for filmmaker and self-appointed ‘sweaty nerd’ Jon Schnepp, his fascination with the dismissed Tim Burton-Nicolas Cage Superman film that never was, sparked an infused passion for the cancelled project and ultimately brought to life the story of the Superman movie that would have revolutionised comic book films before its golden age had even dawned.
In the aptly titled The Death of ‘Superman Lives’: What Happened? the documentary chronicles the proposed rebirth of arguably the most beloved superhero character of all time. From its very inception in the mid nineties when Jon Peters – Hollywood powerhouse producer – acquired the rights to the character to the very moment that the dying embers were finally blown out after its long lifespan came to an end, after the project was stuck in an endless development hell-style cycle during its pre-production stage.
Hats off to Jon Schnepp and the unrelenting team behind him that assembled together this documentary. What merely started out as a fan-spearheaded Kickstarter project back in early 2013, has taken the film world by storm, opening up the community’s eyes to a series of what ifs that many never even knew existed. Regardless of what your preconceived notions or final thoughts are on the failed project itself, there can be no complaints found with the extensive documentary that was formed as a result.
Schnepp adopts an irregular, almost off-the-cuff approach in the documentary’s construction, refusing to be tied down by conventions or previous moulds that have come before him. His unique style of storytelling and overall formation – which rivals Tim Burton’s vision for the original 90’s movie – lends a frenetic pace to the entire piece which will undoubtedly leave audiences yearning for more than what its relatively ample 1 hour 44 minute run time serves up. Its incessant editing combined with the very smooth, seamless transitions and natural flow only further add to its impressive production value, which in the grand scheme of things – relating to the budget that the project had at its disposal – establishes the documentary as an exemplary piece of independent filmmaking.
But with this intense rhythm, comes the potential for the film’s comprehensive coverage to be lost in translation. Reassuringly, this isn’t the case here. With an unrestricted access to a host of pre-production designs, footage and an endless supply of anecdotes, the film refuses to come to a halt for its viewers to catch up, but its intrinsic enthralment helps to absorb every minuet detail that the doc has to offer. And when the documentary is described as a comprehensive piece, this is very much an unmitigated fact. The substantial amount of research carried out behind this movie leaves no stone unturned, with a raft of top talents from Tim Burton himself to Kevin Smith and the lesser-known but equally as important side characters including concept artists and costume designers all having a major part to play in the revelation of what could have been.
Seemingly, the only name remaining unchecked from the list is Nicolas Cage himself, who was unfortunately too busy to conduct an interview at the time. But even with the star absent, there is an assured feeling that anything the man could have added, is nothing that hasn’t already been mentioned.
The only aspect of the documentary that did leave an unsatisfying taste is its abrupt ending. It never truly felt like it was building up to when the cut off point was where it was, and so when it did hit and the credits rolled, a short-lived dismay hits about as hard as the news must have been when originally broken to Tim Burton. Although, the documentary not allowing itself to bow out at its highest point is a strong parallel to the sudden ending Superman Lives was dealt itself. If this was its intention, then it has definitely managed to replicate that torrid feeling that the people involved with the original project must have been feeling when the news was delivered.
In regards to Superman as a character himself, the documentary broadens the boundaries that are attached to the cinematic icon, forming a valid case that Tim Burton off the back of his previous superhero success with Batman and Batman Returns, could well have been the perfect choice to reincarnate the man in the red undergarments. The film is very much intent on delving into the project and all of the components involved rather than commenting on the state that the industry was in then or drawing comparisons to now. Schnepp does this without beating you over the head with the catalogue of information and evidence they had to play with, allowing for the audience to come to its own conclusion; an aspect that many documentaries fail to handle in the appropriate manner.
While the original Superman Lives may well have been a very polarising concept and potential execution – as is seen in the prologue of the film itself – the documentary based upon its unique birth and death certainly does not fall into the same boat as its source material. If not for anything else, seeing such a one note character presented with a true visionary’s spin on the pop culture figure would have made the price of admission worth paying alone. Regardless of what light the film would have been painted in, Superman Lives would certainly have still been discussed to great lengths to this very day; which is very much the achievement that this documentary has attached to it. For any comic book fan, Superman fanatic or film connoisseur, The Death of ‘Superman Lives’: What Happened? is a must see, with enough thrills and reveals to leave the audience completely despondent with what unfortunately never was.