Wednesday, April 18, 2012

What if Tim Burton's "Superman Lives" had been made?

Actual Teaser Poster
What would the world be like had director Tim Burton actually gotten to direct the film Superman Lives?  Believe it or not, this was at one time a real possibility, in fact it was nearly a reality.

In the mid-90s, Warner Bros. saw the success of their Batman franchise and wanted to revive Superman for a modern audience, so they hired filmmaker Kevin Smith of Clerks fame to write the film that came to be known as Superman Lives.  The idea of the film was not very much different than what it seems that Zack Snyder is actually doing with The Man of Steel, hitting theaters in 2013.  The idea was to make a contemporary Superman, because somehow the character of Superman had lost touch with the cynical society of the 1990s, so their goal was to make an edgier, more grounded Superman tale that was loosely based on the "Death of Superman" storyline from the early '90s.   (Don't believe how close it came to reality, the poster on the upper right that was in movie theaters Summer of 1997 teasing the movie to come out the following year).

Nic Cage's costume fitting for the film
So WB, after having so much success with Burton on the first two Batman movies, they thought why not give him a crack at Superman and work that magic again on a different, albeit radically different character (can I stress that enough).  The movie went into production and nearly actually started filming, with some sets and costumes already designed and being made when Warner finally pulled the plug.  It was rumored that when WB finally pulled the plug, they had already spent close to $50 million on the film, and those skyrocketing costs are often attributed by most fans as to why the movie never got to go under the camera.  To make matters worse, Nicholas Cage had already been paid to play Clark Kent/Superman in the film and had already been fitted for the costume (as seen to the left).  Yes, you did not read that wrong.  Nicholas Cage as Superman.

Cage in Chris Reeves' costume
This was Tim Burton's choice to play the Man of Steel.  Much like the backlash he got when he cast comedic Michael Keaton as Batman, he got similar backlash and still does to this day for that casting choice.  In all honesty, there is no way of telling whether or not the casting of Cage was a bad idea, because no one actually saw his performance.  There was much trepidation before Keaton played Batman, and he wound up knocking it out of the park.  The same could have held true for Cage.

While I am not a big fan of Nicholas Cage, I have to be honest and say that in some weird sort of second Earth, I can picture Cage as Superman, and especially as Clark Kent.  The bumbling everyman he played in National Treasure very well might have been how he would have played a more dialed down and realistic Clark Kent, and who is to say that Cage couldn't have pulled off Superman.  Imagine that same role with a little more confidence and the same morals and you'd have a really nice, likable hero who isn't as goodie-good as Christopher Reeves was, but not as dark as Christian Bale's Batman, a perfect balance for a slightly less sentimental take on the character.

Cox from the '90s
Other casting for the film saw mid-90s Courtney Cox cast as Lois Lane, and Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor.  These two bits of casting were, and still are in my opinion, perfect casting for that moment in time.  This was at the time when Friends was at its most popular, and the look that Cox had at that time, and the way she played the character of Monica on Friends as a very business-like, slightly neurotic woman, makes me really sad that I never got to see her as Lois Lane.  Similarly, while we eventually got to see Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor in Superman Returns (more on that one later) I keep on thinking about what it would be like to see L.A. Confidential aged Spacey as Luthor and once again I miss what could have been.  Even still, none of this answers the biggest question marks of the dead Superman Lives:  Tim Burton's direction and Kevin Smith's writing.

Spacey as Luthor
Tim Burton is a filmmaker known for the macabre.  His films tend to either be dark and twisted or so quirky that they're funny, neither of which screams Superman.  However, at this point in Burton's career, he seemed to be interested in making more straight forward blockbusters, with him getting to make a remake of Planet of the Apes only a few years later in 2001.  While that movie pales in comparison to the original, in the overall scheme of Burton's work as a director, it is the most normal film he's ever directed because his great eye for artistic detail and illustration, allowed him to create a living breathing future Earth ruled by apes that was believable and staggering without any of the excesses that come when he does quirky stories like Edward Scissorhands.  Imagine the design Burton could have conjured for Krypton, the home planet of Superman?  Or how he'd have designed Superman's Fortress of Solitude?  While thematically Burton has never dealt with themes that make me believe he'd be right for the job, his visual eye as a filmmaker could have at least produced a movie that was cool to look at.  Of course, what about Kevin Smith?

Concept art of Costume
Up to this point in Smith's career all he had really done was Clerks and Mallrats, both low budget Indie slacker films, a far cry from an epic superhero production like Superman.  However, Smith is a huge comic book nerd, so in all honesty, even though his style of writing is usually very raunchy, he would have made sure that the core of Superman always remained faithful to his comic book counterpart.  Since then, Smith has proven himself a capable comic book writer having written some good Daredevil, Green Hornet, and Batman stories, however his forte seems to be in darker, more mature characters and stories, so how would that translate well to Superman?  In all actuality, not that bad from the script for Superman Lives that has been floating around the internet for years.  While by no means the best examination of character, Smith obviously has a grasp on the world, more than likely from all of his years reading the comic books.  But enough about the cast and crew, the real question is what would the film more have likely been like had it been made?

Concept art of Supes vs. Brainiac
Using all of the clues listed out above, and producer Jon Peter's obsession with wanting to market the brand of Superman as he had Batman in the '90s, it is very likely the movie would have been true to the source material with very little deviations, however it would have been a face value movie.  If you were looking for a Superman movie with great depth of character or a sophisticated story, this wouldn't be it.  While the characters would be true to the comics, the story would have just been a relentless action/adventure tale designed to sell toys to kids.  While it will have more than likely been a few shades better than Batman Forever and Batman & Robin, it would more than likely have never reached the emotional heights that Superman:  The Movie and Superman II did in the late '70s and early '80s.  Of course, how would the landscape of superhero cinema be different had the movie actually been made and released?

Concept art of Doomsday
Well, it's pretty safe to assume that the movie would have done well at the box office.  I mean, even Batman & Robin had a respectable box office haul for a critically lauded movie that was also despised by fans and audiences alike.  Superman Lives would have at the least pleased the kid demographic, and the people just wanting to see some action, therefore I think it would have probably done enough good business to warrant a sequel or two.  If the movie had in fact been successful, there perhaps would have not been such a long lull in terms of superhero movies in theaters between Batman & Robin in 1997 and X-Men in 2000, and especially such a long lull in between movies based off of DC Comics characters.

I feel the follow-up to Batman & Robin, Batman Triumphant would have more than likely been made if Superman had been successful, simply to keep up the DC brand name and to possibly pave the way for the much desired Batman/Superman crossover film that has been toyed with since the late '90s.  In fact, had Superman Lives been successful, it would have not been out of the realm of possibilities that instead of Batman Triumphant we may have just seen a straight up Batman/Superman crossover as the sequel, after all both film series were being produced by the same producer, Jon Peters.  Just seeing how well The Avengers is tracking in terms of predicted box office, the idea of a crossover, putting two mega characters into one movie is a big money kind of idea, and it would have more than likely done huge business at the box office.
Batman & Superman

The big thing is, I really think that Superman Lives would have at least made back its budget and with the Hollywood studios so sequel crazy in the late '90s a sequel would have been made just to cash in on the property.  So what about things like Smallville, Superman Returns, and The Man of Steel coming out next year?

There really isn't any indication to say that Smallville would have been affected, seeing as it was a TV show, but it's pretty obvious that Bryan Singer's Superman Returns (made in 2006, and which I am a fan of by the way) would have never been made.  Regardless of your feelings toward that movie, the fact that it was a sequel to the Christoher Reeves' movies and that it detailed a similar storyline to Superman Lives featuring the death and resurrection of Superman, that movie would have never been made.  As well, WB would have probably not been so desperate to get a Superman movie made in the 2000s, that when the first filmmaker with a huge passion for the project came in and pitched his idea, they would make it no matter how much it cost -- since Superman Lives would have probably spawned a series of films similar to the Batman series.  And as for The Man of Steel, well it may exist in some capacity, because it is safe to assume that by 2012 in the world of Superman Lives' existence, that franchise would have already imploded and WB would have been gunning for a reboot.  I think one of the biggest things that could have been affected though, is not just Superman films, but all superhero films.

Superman Returns poster
If Superman had been resurrected on the big screen in the late '90s, you could probably bet your bottom dollar that Marvel would have jumped the gun on almost all of their properties, just to keep up, so would we have the same X-men and Spider-man movies we have today?  Maybe not.  As well, what about the Batman franchise?  If my theory of them doing a Batman/Superman crossover did in fact happen, which I feel it would have if Superman Lives was a success in order to cash in on two lucrative properties, then Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins and The Dark Knight may have never been made because Warner Bros. may have not been as desperate as they were in the mid-2000s to reboot Batman if his films were still making money at the box office.

Ultimately, if Superman Lives had been made it would have caused a domino effect that would have drastically changed the cinematic landscape of the last decade and a half, no matter what films would still exist and what wouldn't, it would be different because not every film released since then would have seen the light of day.  While there is no way of knowing for sure what movies would be different or wouldn't exist, the point still remains.  Even still, the legacy that Superman Lives leaves behind is one of missed opportunities and potential success.  There will always be that lingering question of what could have been.

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