The Death of "Superman Lives": What Happened? (2015) / Documentary

MPAA Rated: Not rated, but would probably be R for language
Running Time: 107 min.

Cast: Jon Schnepp, Kevin Smith, Tim Burton, Jon Peters, Colleen Atwood, Dan Gilroy, Wesley Strick, Lorenzo di Bonaventura, Grant Morrison, Robert Meyer Burnett
Archival footage: Nicolas Cage
Director :Jon Schnepp
Screenplay: Jon Schnepp

Review published July 16, 2015

Believe it or not, there was a time in our not long ago in which movie studios were reluctant to make blockbuster superhero films, who thought that the general public had been fickle in terms of whether they would go to the theaters with consistency. Jon Schnepp's somewhat amateurish documentary (it is a crowd-funded effort made on a shoestring) takes a penetrating look at one such potential studio gamble, Superman Lives, which was to be directed in 1998 by the only director of the past decade to make a superhero franchise work, Tim Burton, who directed the first two Batman films, the first which would become a pop culture phenomenon in 1989. 

However, in the wake of a disappointing Batman & Robin, and with Warner Bros. producing dud after dud in the months prior to when filming was scheduled to take place, the thinking quickly turned from hot commodity to risky venture, when the one big proven franchise could find a way to lose money, despite a hefty budget for sets and costumes, along with a big name cast.  Plus, the Christopher Reeve led Superman films had also left on a sour note financially, which meant the return of Superman to the big screen would meet with even more skepticism.

Though this is a movie more likely to appeal most to comic book fanboys than anyone else, or perhaps fans of Tim Burton and Kevin Smith to a lesser extent, if you fall into this camp, you'll likely find plenty to chew on throughout this very well researched look at the would-be blockbuster that almost was.  Schnepp gives a richly detailed account at the environment that led to the exploration for a return of Superman to the big screen, the fan-fiction first draft cooked up by Kevin Smith (whose interplay with hairdresser-turned-producer Jon Peters would become the source of hilarious anecdotes), to the handing off of the property to Tim Burton and its subsequent artistic conceptual evolutions after tagging Nicolas Cage to play the title role.

Schnepp's documentary style includes several conversations with just about every major player in the story necessary, save for Nicolas Cage (though we see lots of him in archival footage).  Schnepp treats the subject matter seriously and objectively, with earnest interest, astutely avoiding the kind of snarky commentary that might shift the focus away from the topic to his own moot feelings on the matter, and letting the creative forces that were actually responsible to frame their own perspectives without a filter.

Some of the highlights include Smith's amusing recollections that have also been recounted in his "An Evening with Kevin Smith" DVD's, Jon Peters' frequently absurd requests (including that Superman had to fight a giant spider for the film's climax, though he denies telling Kevin Smith that he didn't want Superman to fly or have his costume) and his bizarro (no pun intended) assertions that his whims produce good movies (they made the creative partners bristle every time, including being occasionally physically manhandled when he would show up in person), and lots of conceptual art and costume work that shows just how much thought, energy and expense goes into every step of the production process on a film with this massive a scale.

While Schnepp's research on the subject would be enough to produce a popular book, the film documentary would have been useless without the on-camera interviews, so it's to his credit that he carries the clout and skill to secure some rather lengthy discussions with those most firmly in the know, as well as rare drawings and test footage that one could never have seen anywhere else.  The production values aren't high, as Schnepp appears to have had to go to these participants' home turf to get the interviews with no real consideration on their part as to what might look and sound best, and most shots include Schnepp in the frame, incessantly nodding and listening, which can be distracting.  However, those also produced a nice, relaxed quality that allowed for more candid responses, some of which are genuinely surprising to hear from those high up in the industry.

And it isn't just for the interviews that the film is interesting.  Though it may lack professional spit and polish, Schnepp does a very good job at putting all of the different perspectives in the right area, going from Smith's take to Peters' to Burton, then a host of other production and design assistants, then back again, if they have something to contribute.  Schnepp is also quite judicious about what he puts in.  A complete novice might have run interviews with high rollers in the industry in their entirety, but only the pertinent information is extracted (save for one phone call taken by Peters during his interview that is shown, perhaps only for its amusement).  Schnepp also digs deep into the archives to put in clips from the prior Batman and Superman films, TV shows, cartoons, and he even has original animated sequences made specifically for this film (Schnepp's background includes animation and character design) in order to illustrate the kinds of scenes, sets, and hairstyles that the interviewees are referring to.

For those of you who like to imagine what might have been, this is about as close as you're ever going to get to seeing this defunct project that shut down production mere weeks before shooting film. You'll see what Burton and his design team had in mind, at least in the pre-production phases, for the look of Superman's costume, Brainiac's body and skull spaceship design (Burton envisioned Christopher Walken in the role), the possibility of Chris Rock as Jimmy Olson, and the decidedly different story arc of Superman being an outsider who never quite adjusted to being on Earth - another archetypical Burton fish-out-of-water that wrestled with acceptance. 

As for whether true-blue(-and-red) Superman fans would accept such a departure from the traditional Superman mythology is left purely to speculation, but for being able to pick the brain of some truly creative people and what they envisioned (similar to Jodorowski's Dune), this is an interesting insider's look at the process of filmmaking, and of how surefire projects can all go wrong.  Nothing envisioned in the creative mind of Burton is nearly as bizarre as the way films get produced by Hollywood.

Qwipster's rating:

2015 Vince Leo