Monday, April 11, 2016

The Death of "Superman Lives": What Happened?

Year 8, Day 102 - 4/11/16 - Movie #2,302

BEFORE: Some time in the late 90's, there used to be guys selling screenplays on the street - most were for popular films that were in wide release, but sometimes, if I dug through the stacks, I could find a screenplay for a film that never got made, for $5.  Best of all, there were two guys selling these things, and I guess they weren't working together, because they had different stuff.  So for $10 total I bought two screenplays from one guy and traded for three more with the other guy.  I got a copy of James Cameron's unfilmed "Spider-Man" (this was before the Tobey Maguire films), "Roger Rabbit 2: The Toon Platoon", and an alleged draft of "Indiana Jones and the Sons of Darkness", and an early draft of "Watchmen", back when Terry Gilliam was thinking of directing it.  

And as part of the deal, I got a copy of the Kevin Smith screenplay for "Superman Lives" - now, this was before you could find such things on the internet, because we didn't have much of an internet back then.  I think we had e-mail, but the web was still in its infant stages.  So these were paper transactions, but I'm sure you can find all of these screenplays on-line now, if you're so inclined.  

Linking from "Starring Adam West" seems difficult - but not impossible.  Ralph Garman was also in "Jay and Silent Bob's Super Groovy Cartoon Movie", which sounds like something I need to check out at some point, with Kevin Smith.  Or "Yoga Hosers", they both appeared in that as well.

THE PLOT:  A documentary about the proposed 1998 "Superman Lives" feature film that would have starred Nicolas Cage.

AFTER:  I'm really kind of split on this one.  Generally, I'm against all attempts to show how movies get made, because in my mind, movies are like laws and sausages in that famous quote.  Many films can't resist tooting their own horn about how their great special effects were achieved, but that also destroys a lot of the mystery and magic.  I try not to watch many "behind-the-scenes" extras.  Plus, we shouldn't go digging around in the trash of Dickens or Shakespeare or Stephen King and try to figure out what stories they DIDN'T write.  If any of those writers didn't release something, it's fair to assume that there was a reason for keeping that project from publication.  

However, this is a geek film about a super-hero movie that seems to have gone wrong, so I have to admit that I'm curious.  And I own a copy of the "Superman Lives" screenplay, so it could be noteworthy to find out why it never got off the ground.  And it's extremely topical, considering the release of the recent Superman film, 17 years after this project was abandoned, which contains some of the same story elements.  What would the franchise have been like if this film had been released, and would be still be living now in the rich comic-book movie culture that we're currently enjoying?  

This doc examines what could have been the next film in the Superman franchise after "Superman IV: The Quest for Peace", and how a series of seemingly sensible (at the time) decisions added up to the equivalent of a pop-culture abortion.  I apologize for that imagery, but what else would you call a project that was conceived, but not brought to full term?  And as we've seen in the media last week, the issue of abortion is a complex one, no one's really sure who to blame for it.  (Couldn't be men who don't wear condoms, now could it?  Nah, that's crazy talk.)  

A lot of heavy hitters got involved with this euthanized (is that any better?) project - Kevin Smith wrote the first two screenplay drafts, producer Jon Peters (who worked on the 1989 "Batman" film) got involved, and he wanted to hire Tim Burton, who had revived the Batman franchise after a long, fallow period in film/TV.  And this was just a few years after DC Comics had run the "Death of Superman" storyline, which had pumped up sales, even though it was through a very obvious ploy to do so.  Superman #75, the death issue, was one of the highest selling comics of the 1990's, I still have one copy sealed inside the black bag with the bloody "S" logo.  There were four impostor Supermans running in the books for about a year before they devised a storyline that would bring the real one back - turns out he was only "mostly" dead.  

From the writers to the directors to the studio executives, and on down to the concept artists, the art directors and the wardrobe department, the blame for failure goes around and around like a big circle-jerk, with everyone pointing the finger at someone else.  Kevin Smith blames Jon Peters, Jon Peters blames Tim Burton, Tim Burton blames budget constraints, but no one's willing to admit that the final film could have sucked, big time.  Meanwhile, the director/interviewer just keeps nodding his head.  

Oh, a few come close, some of the lower echelon crew members say, "I spent six months trying to polish that turd."  And if you read between the lines, "trying" means that they didn't succeed, so at the end of whatever time period was involved, it was still a turd.  And this supports my theory that when it comes to movie franchises, the directors are currently given too much power.  A top director like Tim Burton, or Zack Snyder, can change the story around however he wants in the name of making it hip and fresh, throwing out all the continuity that has come before.  

The only people who could possibly be in charge of a director would be the studio executives, but even with these franchise films, it seems like most of them are willing to throw a bunch of crap against the wall, so to speak, to see if anything sticks.  They'll only shut a director down if he's WAY out of control, but someone with Tim Burton's reputation is usually given free rein.  Which to me seems like quite a problem, if no one is able to say "No" to a director about what he can and can't do.  There was just an article in Variety about how Kevin Feige, as president of Marvel Studios, fulfills this role on the Avengers films, but there's no one at Warner Brothers doing this for DC-based films.  This is why there's no consistency between the Christopher Nolan "Batman" films and the recent Zack Snyder film - there truly is no one minding the store.   

So, I ask only one thing of people out in the blogosphere - if you disagree with my rating on "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice", take a look at this documentary, or at least take a moment to consider that a Superman film could easily have been much, much worse. We could have seen Nic Cage as a long-haired, introspective Superman, fighting a Thanagarian Snare-Beast (giant spider) in the first act, and Lex Luthor physically merging with Brainiac in the 2nd act to release Doomsday from Brainiac's alien menagerie on his flying skull ship.  

Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on who you work for, I guess), Warner Brothers had a string of flops that year, and they couldn't take a gamble on a superhero film with a budget over $200 million, so the whole project got scrapped.  Who knows, maybe Tim Burton could have made something worthwhile with the pieces we get glimpses of here, but my gut says this was a bad idea from start to finish.  But I guess we'll never know for sure.

NITPICK POINT: There's been much talk over the years about changing the Superman costume so the "red underwear" isn't part of the mix.  They finally succeeded in both the recent movies and the comic books, by going with an outfit that's solid blue between belt and boots.  (Great, now it looks like he's wearing footy pajamas...)  Actually right after the last comic reboot, Superman wore regular pants, like jeans, and they slowly transitioned him to the full blue unitard.  But I have to take issue with the "underwear" definition.  OK, so there was a different color on his briefs than his legs, but by definition, "underwear" is on the inside of clothing - if you wear it over something else, it becomes "outerwear", so the verbal argument against it is invalid.  If anything, it used to look more like a red Speedo bathing suit than underwear - but his legs weren't bare, so that's not really accurate, either.  

Also starring Nicolas Cage (in archive footage) (last seen in "City of Angels"), Kevin Smith, Tim Burton

RATING: 4 out of 10 polar bears

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