Just think – Nicolas Cage and Tim Burton combining talents to make a feature film. And not just any ordinary feature film (as if), but one that would rock the world of superheroes. Folks, you have no idea just how close we were to get such a film.
Superman Lives could have been that film. Burton and Cage. Cage and Burton. A possible match made in crazy-ass heaven. But before all that, before Tim Burton jumped on board and convinced Cage to tag along, Kevin Smith had a big hand in resurrecting Superman.
Superman officially went into hibernation after the horrendous (many calling it one of the worst films ever) Superman IV: Quest for Peace. It was the final film in the Christopher Reeve Superman era, a sad ending to a promising start.
Kevin Smith has always been a Superman honk. Wanting to be part of the rebirth, he successfully pitched producer Jon Peters and was responsible for the title, Superman Lives, which at first had been Superman Reborn. Although Peters liked Smith’s pitch and eventual script, Peters, for reasons no one–not even he himsel–ever explained, had specific ideas he needed to see in a new Superman film. You may even call them crazier than the thought of Burton and Nicolas Cage making a movie together.
Here is what Peters informed Smith he needed to see in his script: no Superman costume, no flying, and (the best of all), Superman was to face off against a giant robotic spider at the end of the film.
Jon Peters also felt Kevin Smith’s Fortress of Solitude scene lacked a certain pizazz, so he told Smith to add polar bear guards that the villain would have to deal with. All of this was requested and written into the script before Peters found the director who wanted to take on the task of bringing life to Superman – Tim Burton.
Tim Burton immediately tossed Kevin Smith’s script. Burton liked the title, so he kept it, but he had his own take on the Superman rebirth that he wanted to tell, and Smith’s vision was nothing even close to Burton’s.
With Tim Burton and Nicolas Cage on board, the task was to find Lois Lane and also decide on which villains Superman would tangle with. While no actress was ever selected, word on the street was that Courtney Cox and Sandra Bullock were in the running to portray Lois Lane and Bullock has the inside track.
As for the villains, you can’t have a Superman without his number one foe, Lex Luthor. Gene Hackman had previously played Luthor in the Reeve films, but no actor had been chosen for Burton’s, though the character was said to play a big part in the film.
Another villain to go against Nicolas Cage’s Superman was to be Brainiac, one of Superman’s greatest enemies. Together, Luthor and Brainiac would merge to become Luthiac, the supervillain who would create Doomsday, another villain that would make its way into the Nicolas Cage Superman film.
Concept artist Rolf Mohr claims while working on the Brainiac design, he was basically working in the dark as he had never seen a script and was only given vague descriptions of what producers were looking for. In fact, he was so in the dark that he had no idea that Tim Burton was on board as the director.
“At the time I had no idea who had written it or that Tim Burton was on board to direct…” says Mohr via Movieweb, who then drops a couple of names as to who the producers were looking at to play Brainiac, “…but they told me Jim Carrey and Gary Oldman were being considered for Brainiac.”
You can see Mohr’s concept art for the Nicolas Cage Superman Lives movie below.
While Burton didn’t care for Smith’s script, Mohr actually praised Smith and his attempt to include all that Peters had requested for Nicolas Cage’s Superman Lives. “It was interesting to read the script years later and see that Kevin Smith had actually done a pretty impressive job by introducing the Eradicator as a transforming suit in order to weave together all the requirements the producer wanted: “No Superman suit, no flying… and a giant spider in the third act.” He even managed to include two polar bears.”
It should be noted that Peters infatuation with a giant robotic spider would eventually be satiated as he was also the producer on the ill-timed, ill-conceived, and in each and every way “ill” Will Smith feature Wild Wild West, which showcased Peters’ giant spider at the end of the film. If you’re curious as to what Peters wanted for Superman, you can see it here as it was introduced in Wild Wild West:
What direction did Tim Burton want to take the film that Kevin Smith didn’t? Scribe Dan Gilroy was hired to take one last pass on the script for Nicolas Cage’s Superman Lives, giving his thoughts on what could have been. Gilroy loved Burton’s vision, one that included Kal-El never being told by his father, Jor-El, before being put into the spaceship who he was or where he was from.
Gilroy goes on to explain that the Nicolas Cage version of Clark Kent we were going to see was in therapy at the beginning of the film. He was in love with Lois Lane, but he couldn’t commit. It is Luthor who helps Clark realize just who and what he is.
“It becomes very apparent, though, early in the script, when Lex Luthor uncovers the remnants of the spacecraft, he suddenly realizes, “Oh my god, I’m an alien.” It was all about the psychological trauma of it. I loved it,” says Gilroy.
Nicolas Cage, in Burton’s story, would be seen throughout the film in a few different costumes. There would be the original look, the Eradicator costume, and finally the black costume that has become popular amongst Superman fans.
You can see a wonderful short video of Nicolas Cage costume testing for Tim Burton as both Superman with his various costumes and Clark Kent.
So, why did a film that had so much going for it fall apart? Poor decisions. As in, Warner Bros. making bad calls in terms of the movies they were making. Gilroy lays it out perfectly via Movieweb stating, “Unfortunately, while we were working on the script, Warner Bros was hemorrhaging. Every big movie that was coming out was bombing and failing and when it came time to step up and bankroll our script, they didn’t have the financial wherewithal or desire. Which is a shame because Tim would have knocked it out of the park. And Nicolas Cage, oh my god! I was so ready for that. … They pulled the plug right when we were doing camera tests. We were doing camera tests. It was very far along.”
Eventually, cuts to the script were asked to be made to bring the production cost down. This led to further delays which eventually caused Tim Burton to leave the project.
Superman Lives, the Nicolas Cage/Tim Burton pairing, and its ultimate failure to be made eventually took on a life of its own. So much so that a documentary was made detailing everything that went into it and its ultimate derailing. Jon Schnepp wrote and directed The Death of “Superman Lives”: What Happened?. The 104-minute piece includes interviews with all the main principles of the canceled film.
Nicolas Cage eventually weighed in on Superman Lives and in typical Cage fashion, his thoughts on the failed project were, well, out there. “I would offer that the movie that Tim and I would have made, in your imagination, is more powerful than any of the Superman movies,” Cage said to Entertainment Weekly. “I didn’t even have to make the movie and we all know what that movie would have been in your imagination. That is the Superman. That is the movie. Even though you never saw it, it is the Superman.” Okay, then.
Just think. Seriously, sit back and just think what we could have gotten, if only.