The Big Picture
- In the 1990s, Warner Bros. attempted to revive the Superman franchise with a movie called Superman Lives, but the project ultimately fell through.
- Kevin Smith was chosen to write the screenplay, which included unconventional elements such as Superman losing his powers and fighting an enormous spider.
- Despite the effort put into the film, Warner Bros. pulled the plug due to concerns about the script’s quality and budget. Nicolas Cage, who was set to play Superman, later had a brief cameo as the character in The Flash.
After Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, it was more apparent than ever that Superman needed a refresh on the big screen. The incredible success of the 1989 movie Batman at the box office just seemed to reaffirm that there was untapped potential for Warner Bros. in launching a new Superman movie that resonated with moviegoers. However, throughout the 1990s, there were belabored attempts to get the Superman franchise back off the ground that included the tormented Superman Lives. This unrealized motion picture was set to unite director Tim Burton and Nicolas Cage, the latter set to play Kal-El/Superman. All that enticing star power wasn’t enough to get this unique-sounding take on the Superman mythos off the ground.
Superman IV: The Quest for Peace
The Man of Steel crusades for nuclear disarmament and meets Lex Luthor’s latest creation, Nuclear Man.
- Release Date
- July 24, 1987
- Sidney J. Furie
- Christopher Reeve, Gene Hackman, Jackie Cooper, Marc McClure, Jon Cryer, Margot Kidder
Kevin Smith Was Asked To Write ‘Superman Lives’
The saga of Superman Lives begins in May 1996 with none other than Kevin Smith. The man who became an indie darling with Clerks a few years earlier was now being eyeballed as the guy to write the script for the new Superman movie. As recounted on his podcast Fatman Beyond, Smith was contacted by Warner Bros. in May 1996 to pen a script for what they hoped would be an epic relaunch of an American icon. In their first correspondence with Smith, Warner Bros. executives already outlined key elements of the eventual blockbuster that they wanted to see in the script, including Brainiac being the main villain and the concept of Superman losing his superpowers. Being a lifelong comic book geek, Smith couldn’t turn down the opportunity. The guy who’d made Clerks on a bunch of credit cards was now set to write a massively expensive Superman movie.
It’s a good thing Smith was the one that was tasked with shepherding the screenplay for Superman Lives since, if nothing else, this filmmaker’s love for telling stories about his time in Hollywood means that the general public has gotten a deep look into this unmade blockbuster’s production. During their first conversation, Peters, per Smith’s recounting, established a trio of key elements the screenplay had to abide by, which included Superman not wearing his normal superhero costume, he couldn’t fly, and Superman having to fight an enormous spider in the movie’s climax. It was an incredibly strange exchange that set restrictive creative guardrails around this incarnation of Superman. However, Smith was still interested in writing a Superman movie, so he got to work.
Ben Affleck Was Going To Be in the DC World Before Playing Batman
Eventually, Smith would get a screenplay together and even revealed in issue #92 of Wizard: The Comics Magazine which actors he wanted to play specific characters in the movie. While some of his choices (such as Meryl Streep and Renee Zellweger as two adversarial polar bears) were in jest, others, like Ben Affleck as Kal-El/Superman, David Hyde Pierce as The Eradicator, and Jason Mewes as Jimmy Olsen, were 100% serious. Of course, though he’d been the writer of the script, Smith would not be the director of Superman Lives. That honor would go to Tim Burton.
Burton was picked out by the film’s eventual leading man, Nicolas Cage. Hot off hits like Con Air and winning his first Oscar for Leaving Las Vegas, Cage was a buzzy pick for the role, though, per an April 2022 interview with Rolling Stone, the actor wasn’t crazy about the studio’s first pick to helm Superman Lives, Renny Harlin. Per his comments here, this is where Cage suggested that Burton be instead conscripted to direct the blockbuster. Given that Burton had turned Batman into a license to print money on two separate occasions, Warner Bros. needed no convincing. Burton was signed on to helm this feature and audiences were looking down the barrel of a mega-budget tentpole with the combined creative visions of Kevin Smith and Tim Burton.
As this version of Superman Lives began to gain steam, other key cast members began to fall into place, though they were radically different than the actors Smith envisioned earlier in production. Per the documentary, The Death of Superman Lives: What Happened?, Burton was angling to get Christopher Walken to play the nefarious Brainiac while Chris Rock had been secured for the part of Jimmy Olsen. The idea of Walken going toe-to-toe with Cage could’ve been a treat for the ages. There was also an opportunity for Michael Keaton’s Batman to cameo in the screenplay, which would’ve been an especially interesting turn of events since it would’ve reunited Keaton with Batman director Burton.
After Kevin Smith, Dan Gilroy Stepped Up for ‘Superman Lives’
Kevin Smith’s participation in Superman Lives ground to a halt in 1997 when Wesley Strick was brought in to write up a new screenplay for the movie. The screenwriter of Batman Returns, Strick had a close relationship with Burton, which no doubt helped make him seem like an ideal fit for the project. The David Hughes text The Greatest Sci-Fi Movies Never Made lends some fascinating insight into this section of the production of Superman Lives, as, per this book, this is also when the demands of Jon Peters became more and more eccentric and insistent, particularly on the film’s design team.
As the Superman Lives endeavor was getting rockier and rockier, screenwriter Dan Gilroy was brought in to further punch up the script. Reflecting on Superman Lives in 2014, Gilroy noted that Tim Burton’s vision for Superman Lives was going to be rooted in this Kryptonian superhero being unsure of his identity and how he fit in on Earth. This would’ve ensured that Superman could fit into the well-worn tradition of outsider protagonists in Burton’s filmography. Unfortunately, despite all the effort and thought that had gone into this feature, Warner Bros. would eventually pull the plug on Superman Lives.
In April 1998, Warner Bros. announced that it was concerned over the quality of the script for Superman Lives, not to mention its budget, and was putting the project on hold for the time being. In this announcement, it was noted that Nicolas Cage was still set to play Superman and that the blockbuster could, in a best-case scenario, restart production by that autumn. Gilroy’s recollection of this news, though, was that Warner Bros. was much more definitive in saying the film was dead. According to Gilroy, the recent box office woes of Warner Bros. led the studio to axe a costly new take on the Superman mythos. This was despite millions of dollars already having been poured into elaborate sets and the whole film was just weeks away from beginning principal photography. All that money and effort would never be realized in a finished film.
Nicolas Cage’s Career Wasn’t Really Impacted
In the aftermath of all this, Nicolas Cage just kept on being Nicolas Cage and found other big-budget movies to anchor, such as National Treasure. Tim Burton, for his part, went on over to Sleepy Hollow and would even find his way to directing a big-budget blockbuster reboot in the misguided 2001 feature Planet of the Apes. Producer Jon Peters would eventually get his giant spider in Wild Wild West while he would return to the headlines in the 2010s by being at the center of a sexual harassment lawsuit. As for Smith, he would try his hand occasionally in the years afterward on blockbuster movies, namely an unrealized take on The Green Hornet, but none of them ever took.
As for Superman, well, Superman Lives was an unfortunate harbinger of the character’s difficulties in getting any kind of new movie off the ground. Various other attempts to rejigger this superhero, like an early take on Batman vs. Superman or Superman: Flyby, all went unrealized. The problems, both creatively and financially, that hampered Superman Lives kept coming back to haunt this franchise. It wouldn’t be until the 2006 movie Superman Returns that one of the most iconic superheroes of all time could soar across the silver screen again. To reach that point, though, Superman Returns had to fly above the corpses of movies like Superman Lives.
As for the idea of Nicolas Cage playing Superman, that concept never really died off. Cage always brings something so idiosyncratic to his parts, whether it’s in Renfield, Knowing or Pig, that the concept of what he’d get to bring to the table as Superman never left the minds of geeks all over the world. Unsurprisingly, as the decades went by, Cage would eventually get to actually take on the Superman role, albeit in a radically different capacity than the original Superman Lives project. First, Cage got to portray Superman in voice-over form in the kid’s movie Teen Titans Go! To The Movies. An incredibly small role (and one of two superheroes Cage would voice in animated kid’s movies in 2018 alongside Spider-Man Noir in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse), the casting allowed Cage to finally inhabit the part in extremely absurdist confines. Given that Teen Titans Go! is all about throwing everything at the wall, it’s no surprise that the feature film adaptation of this program opted to embrace the idea that Cage could finally take on the part of Superman.
We Finally Saw Nicolas Cage in the Superman Suit in ‘The Flash’
Then there’s the 2023 feature The Flash, which used its multiversal/time-bending shenanigans to finally realize Nicolas Cage as Superman in live-action, albeit for a super brief cameo. A piece of casting meant to elicit cheers from audiences across the nation, the surprise appearance was bizarrely spoiled by The Flash director Andy Muschietti a few weeks before this blockbuster made its proper theatrical debut. Presumably done to help bolster anticipation for The Flash, revealing this cameo so far in advance underscored how much pull the idea of Nicolas Cage as Superman still has for the general public decades after Superman Lives crashed and burned.
Unfortunately, though Nicolas Cage technically got to finally inhabit the role of Superman in a big theatrical movie, the experience of finally inhabiting the role was far from a picnic for the actor. In a November 2023 interview, Cage revealed that his few hours of shooting for the role entailed him just standing around and acting like he was watching the universe collapsing, as per the script’s instructions. When he saw the finished film, he was shocked to discover that the fully digital Nicolas Cage Superman was now duking it out with a gigantic spider. Cage was utterly baffled by what his role in The Flash evolved into and how little control he had over his performance in the final feature. It was a crushing end to a lengthy pop culture saga that one would hope could end on a happy, even soaring note. Rather than Cage getting to live out his Superman dreams once and for all, though, his connection to this role simply reinforced the challenges ingrained into blockbuster cinema filmmaking. The unfulfilled creative promise of this enticing casting that’s cropped up even in the modern world in projects like The Flash will undoubtedly keep the casting of Nicolas Cage as Superman on people’s radars for years yet to come.
The Flash is streaming on Max in the U.S.