If there ever was a quintessential example of a Hollywood blunder, it is without a doubt the story of the most expensive film that never was: Superman Lives.
From the beginning of its production by Warner Brothers in 1993, up until its final shelving in 2002, the project was pinballed between a cavalcade of writers and cost the studio an estimated $30 million (£18.1 million).
People were paid, costumes and props were made, and even a poster promising a 1998 release was revealed, yet not a single minute of footage was ever put to film.
The movie started its life as ‘Superman V: Reborn,’ a continuation from the original Richard Donner series and an adaptation of 1992’s ‘The Death of Superman’ comic book.
Fans were excited, Superman had been on the shelf since 1987’s disastrous ‘Super Man IV: The Quest for Peace’ and Tim Burton’s ‘Batman’ had breathed new life into the superhero genre.
Little did fans know that instead of flying high, the man of steel would instead be grounded.
Jonathan Lemkin (21 Jump Street) was the first of the long the list of writers who ended up working on the film. Not many details are known about Lemkin’s initial script, but it is reported it featured Superman’s death and subsequent resurrection by virgin birth courtesy of Lois Lane.
Unhappy with Lemkin’s draft, Warner Brothers instead handed the reins to Gregory Poirier (National Treasure), who produced the first of many revisions, thankfully scrapping the virgin birth idea outright.
The Smith Draft
However, Warner Brothers still were not satisfied and instead Kevin Smith (Clerks) was approached to try his hand at a third rewrite.
Smith said in his 2002 Q&A show ‘An Evening with Kevin Smith’: “I read the script and I was just like, this is fucking terrible, this is a horrible script. It was kind of like the Batman TV show version of a Superman movie, very campy.”
Smith binned Poirier’s draft and instead decided to work from the ground-up on his own original story, renaming the film ‘Superman Lives.’
Smith’s story featured Superman being killed by the super-villain Doomsday, before being resurrected by The Eradicator, a Kryptonian robot, so he could do battle with the interstellar supercomputer Brainac and Lex Luthor.
While working on his screenplay, Smith was placed under the wing of producer Jon Peters (Batman).
Peters demanded that Smith’s script have Superman in an all black costume, that Superman never be seen to fly, that Brainiac have a jive talking robot sidekick and that in the final act, Superman must fight with a giant spider.
Peters’ involvement in the film was heavily driven by merchandising, with art designer Sylvain Despretz saying Peters “would bring kids in, who would rate the drawings on the wall as if they were evaluating the toy possibilities. It was basically a toy show.”
After failing to attach director Robert Rodriguez to the project, Warner Brothers signed on Tim Burton (Edward Scissorhands), with a $5 million (£3.1 million) guarantee that he would be paid even if the film never saw the light of day.
The Cage Casting
The role of the man of steel was also cast and given to Nicolas Cage on a guaranteed contract of $20 million (£12.1 million).
Peters said that Cage would be the first actor to “convince audiences he [Superman] came from outer space.”
Cage believed that he could reconceive the character, and Burton said that Cage would be the first actor to make it believable that no one could recognise that Clark Kent was Superman.
Production began to pick up steam, with a supporting cast being gradually assembled.
Kevin Spacey was approached for the role of Lex Luthor, a part he would eventually play in 2005’s Superman Returns. Tim Allen was in talks to play Brainac, a role which Smith claims was later considered for Jim Carrey, and Chris Rock was signed on to play Jimmy Olsen.
With the stars aligning, Smith was eventually kicked off the project due to creative differences with Burton, an act that would spark a number of short verbal spats between the two in the Hollywood press.
As a replacement, Burton brought in Wesley Strick (Cape Fear).
Strick’s story revised the movie’s villains, opting that instead of having Brainiac and Lex Luthor, the two should fuse early in the story into the super-being Lexiac in order to fight Superman.
Filming dates were pencilled in and sets constructed, but after delay upon delay and spiralling costs, Warner Brothers put the film on hold.
Strick was promptly fired, with the studio saying his script was too expensive. Dan Gilroy (Two For the Money) was the brought in under the pretence that he write a script with the half that budget Strick had.
After yet more delays, Burton quit in 1998, saying: “I basically wasted a year. A year is a long time to be working with somebody that you don’t really want to be working with.”
Following Burton’s exit, the already floundering project slowly began to sink.
Sheparded by the Superhero genre crash of the late nineties, Superman Lives went through another four screenwriters before its eventual death.
Nicolas Cage eventually bowed out, never having got to don Superman’s cape apart from in a single costume test, photos of which emerged online in 2009.
After a last gasp push by Peters to get the movie made, during which he even approached Will Smith for the lead role, the film was finally canned. The studio instead opted for a series reboot, a project that eventually morphed into ‘Superman Returns.’
The story of Superman Lives, the most expensive movie never made, is a cautionary tale from the weird and wonderful world of Hollywood.
The majority involved emerged unscathed, and some quite a bit richer, but the project has since become infamous and is shameful insight into what goes on behind closed doors in the world of big budget motion pictures.
With typical Hollywood problems such as bloating budgets, producers and writers at loggerheads and a blockbuster being made to sell toys rather than to tell a good story, Superman Lives ticks all the boxes of true cinematic failure.
But whatever the reason for the projects ultimate downfall, it shows that Superman’s greatest enemy is not Lex Luthor, but instead Hollywood incompetence.
What do you think? Had this film been made, would you go see it? How has the influence of Hollywood executives affected films from the US? Have your say in the comments section below.