The Death of Superman Lives Panel at MCM London Comic Con

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After Christopher Reeve donned his cape and tights for the last time in 1987, it would be another 19 years before Superman would next appear on cinema screens in Bryan Singer’s 2006 Superman Returns. Yet, during the 90s, another Superman movie – which, after multiple rewrites, came to be known as Superman Lives – was a long time in the works. Based on a comic arc that sees Superman killed by Doomsday and brought back to life by The Eradicator, this mysterious feature eventually fell into the hands of Kevin Smith and Tim Burton, but was ultimately destined never to see the light of day – until now.

Embarking on a journey to discover what went wrong with this ill-fated film, director Jon Schnepp found himself in conversation with its creators, enabling him to debunk many of the myths surrounding it, as well as to unearth some surprising secrets. The result of his detective work is a documentary which Schnepp has used to piece together a picture of what Superman Lives might have been.

The Death of Superman Lives has been far from an easy film to make, as Schnepp explained during a panel at MCM London Comic Con, since a lot of bad feeling about it persists even to this day. The interview he conducted with Tim Burton was the first time the director had spoken publicly about the film in years.

“I think people feel like this movie got so close to being made that it should have been made,” said Schnepp. “There are definitely regrets that it never happened. In a way, I think [this documentary] has helped to heal some of those wounds.”

Nicholas Cage – who would have starred in the title role – proved particularly difficult to get hold of, and with good reason, thinks producer Holly Payne.

“People really rip on Nick Cage as being the wrong person to play Superman, but there are plenty of examples of surprising casting choices paying off. Look at Michael Keaton as Batman or Heath Ledger as The Joker,” said Payne. “It’s important to remember that at the time, he was at the height of his career. […] Nick Cage has always been a big Superman fan. He called his son Kal-El! We really like him, but he has a reason for being a bit shy and keeping people at arm’s length. He’s kind of become an internet meme now. Think about how weird that must feel.”

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The documentary project began around the year 2000 when Schnepp first came across some of the concept art for Superman Lives.

“I was collecting all this art on my computer for about two years,” he said, explaining that the sheer volume of conceptual work that goes into creating a feature film like this is way beyond what anyone outside the industry would expect. “There were like 30 different concepts for Braniac and all of them were awesome. I had to pick just a few to include in the film.”

While it had been difficult to get everyone involved in Superman Lives on board, Schnepp was persistent, and managed to persuade a lot of big Hollywood names to open up about their experiences.

“We were very lucky because Tim Burton gave us access to his entire archive of Superman Lives concept art. There were just so many incredible artists working on these designs, and it’s all stuff you never see,” he said.

Having looked into some of the original designs, Schnepp then had the opportunity to talk to Steve Johnson, who created a lot of the suits for the film. This meeting convinced him that there was a great story to be told, and so he decided to use Kickstarter as a sort of “litmus test” to find out whether or not people were interested in knowing more.

The Kickstarter was a success, more than meeting its funding goal, and over time, the documentary began to expand into something bigger than Schnepp could ever have anticipated.

“You start out with a 500 piece puzzle that turns into a 1000 piece puzzle,” he said. “You find yourself with about 40-50 hours of material that you’re still adding to and you have to cut it right down. We’ll probably end up with an 8-hour version of the film alongside the 90-minute one that gets released.”

One of the most interesting things about undertaking what Schnepp describes as a sort of “archaeological dig” was realising that the case of Superman Lives was by no means unique.

“You realise that this is something that happens for every film,” he said.

“You get a real sense of how the artists and the studios are always in conflict,” Payne added.

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To give a flavour of what they might expect from the finished film, attendees were then offered an exclusive glimpse of footage focusing on the creation of the “regeneration suit”, a version of Superman’s costume intended for use during the scene in which he is restored to life.

Images previously released online showing Nicholas Cage in a test version of the suit were widely mocked at the time, though few of the critics understood that what they were actually seeing was a small part of a process: the pictures were not intended to give a final idea of what Superman would have looked like for the bulk of the film.

For the regeneration sequence, Tim Burton had described a suit that was like “a translucent soap bubble” and a “Las Vegas light.” Constructing something to fit this remarkably specific description was no easy task, yet it was a challenge that Johnson defiantly rose to. A long, arduous and expensive process began with silicone test suits that failed utterly, buckling whenever the wearer bent their limbs. Then Johnson remembered a technique for vacuum forming plastic that had been used in The Abyss.

A series of beetle-like scales were created from transparent plastic with a beautiful, iridescent sheen, which the team soon realised looked even more striking against a black background. The ensemble of plastic scales over black spandex was completed with fibre optic cables and specially designed capillaries pumped full of the liquid found in glowsticks, resulting in a truly stunning finished piece that it’s difficult to imagine being closer to the original description.

Sadly though, the hours of hard work were all to come to nothing, discounting the suit’s appearance in The Death of Superman Lives and a few photos and videos uploaded online.

“Tim Burton is so good at telling stories about misfits, because he identifies with that. His version of Superman was of an alien having difficulty acclimatising to Earth. This could have been a really interesting, unique take,” said Payne, adding with a smile that they had come to refer to Burton’s concept of the character as “Edward Supermans.”

To find out more about the documentary and for updates on its progress, you can visit the Kickstarter page here, or follow the team on Facebook and Twitter.

 

Photos by Caitlin Jenkins.

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1 Comment

  1. […] he was working on a documentary about what happened to the 90s Superman movie that never was. At last October’s MCM London Comic Con, Schnepp and producer Holly Payne spoke about their research and revealed some exclusive preview […]

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