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Hypotheticals: Kevin Smith and/or Tim Burton’s ‘Superman Lives’

Here at Flavorwire, we love to engage in what Marcellus Wallace called “contemplating the ifs” — imagining a pop culture landscape filled with movies that never happened, adaptations that never came to pass, and performances that were not to be. In “Hypotheticals,” we hone in on a single project that never was (a film, a television show, an album, a book, anything really) and explain why it went away, and what we might’ve missed. Today: the ill-fated Kevin Smith/Tim Burton attempt to reboot the Superman cinematic franchise.

In 2005, Warner Brothers re-launched the Batman franchise with Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, after eight years of false starts and scrapped ideas following the critical and (comparative) financial failure of the reviled Batman and Robin. (We detailed some of those here.) But the studio’s return to the other iconic DC comics hero, the following year’s Superman Returns, had even longer and more tortuous path to the screen — dating clear back to the early 1990s. The series had been dormant since the twin belly-flops of the 1984 spinoff movie Supergirl and the much-loathed 1987 installment Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (that series’ Batman and Robin, really). Independent producers Ilya and Alexander Salkind, who had made the original pictures (excepting Superman IV, which was made by Cannon Films), ended up selling the film rights for the character to Warner Brothers, who had distributed the earlier installments. This transaction took place in 1993, and the studio turned development of a new Superman movie over to super-producer Jon Peters (one of the producers of the studio’s smash 1989 film version of Batman).

Shortly before Warner Brothers got back in the Superman business, flagging sales of the comic book had been revitalized by the acclaimed (and somewhat controversial) “Death of Superman” story arc. Peters hired Jonathan Lemkin, a TV writer and frequent Warner Brothers re-write man, to take a crack at the project. His story used some elements of the “Death of Superman” series and attempted to make a script that would appeal to the studio — primarily its marketing department, which was so set on making the picture friendly to toy companies that they gave the writer a deadline timed to the American International Toy Fair. But they were unsatisfied with his draft of what had been dubbed Superman Reborn. For a rewrite, Peters looked to Gregory Poirier, with whom he was working on the John Singleton film Rosewood — a fine film, though not exactly a go-to precursor to rebooting a superhero franchise. This was the draft that was floating around when Kevin Smith came on board.

Smith, the low-budget auteur of Clerks, Mallrats, and the then-forthcoming Chasing Amy, didn’t exactly seem like an obvious choice either, but his films were steeped in comic book references, and studio execs were impressed by his detailed analyses of what, exactly, was wrong with the script in its current form. So they hired him to take a fresh stab at it, while keeping certain elements from the “Death of Superman” comics and incorporating the increasingly insane ideas of Peters:

Smith’s screenplay, titled Superman Lives, was reportedly met with enthusiasm by the studio, though they seemed less interested with his View Askew-skewing suggestions for the cast (Ben Affleck as Superman, Jason Lee as Braniac, Jason Mewes as Jimmy Olsen, and Linda Fiorentino as Lois Lane). Ultimately, the studio decided that Nicolas Cage, not only a comic book fanatic but now a bankable action hero after the triple-play of The Rock, Con Air, and Face/Off, was the man for the job. His paycheck: a cool $20 million, on a “pay or play” contract — meaning that he would get paid whether the picture got made or not. Other actors were being interviewed and cast — including Chris Rock, who was set to play Jimmy Olsen; Courtney Cox, who was considered for Lois Lane; and (one of the few decisions that stuck) Kevin Spacey in the role of Lex Luthor. Directors were bandied about, including Robert Rodriguez, but according to Smith, it was he who originally suggested Tim Burton for the job. Burton’s Mars Attacks! had just lost a pretty penny for Warners, so he was looking for a hit, and suddenly Burton was in for Superman Lives.

And Smith was out. Though the film was fast-tracked for a summer 1998 release to tie in with the character’s 60th anniversary, and though pre-production had begun in earnest in June 1997, Burton decided he disliked Smith’s script and hired Wesley Strick (whose credits included Arachnophobia, The Saint, and Scorsese’s Cape Fear remake) to do a complete rewrite while sets were being built.

Burton clashed with Warner Brothers and with Peters over the Strick script, which would have been too expensive even for the big budget the studio had set aside. Additional writers were brought in to scale down and revise; the start date was pushed back, and it became clear that they weren’t going to hit that summer 1998 target. Finally, in April 1998, Warners put the picture on hold, and Burton walked. “I think,” the filmmaker later said, “and this is only my opinion of course, that it wasn’t filmed because it was going to be an expensive movie, and they were a little sensitive because they were getting a lot of bad press that they had screwed up the Batman franchise. Because of the corporate environment, all of the decisions are basically fear-based. So I think one of the aspects that lead to their decision was that somehow they were going to fuck up another franchise.” When the Burton-helmed Superman Lives was shelved, the studio had spent $30 million on the project, with not a frame of film to show for it.

The film went through numerous iterations in the years that followed: Cage dropped out because of the endless delays, McG (yikes) and Brett Ratner (double yikes) came and went as directors, Paul Attanasio (Donnie Brasco) and William Wisher (Terminator 2) did screenplays, J.J. Abrams wrote a much-derided script for a new origin story, the whole damn thing was nearly torpedoed for a Wolfgang Petersen-helmed Batman vs. Superman movie, and everyone from Josh Hartnett to Paul Walker to David Boreanaz to Ashton Kutcher was floated for the leading role. (That’s right, we almost live in a world where Ashton Kutcher played Superman for Brett Ratner, so stop complaining about Superman Returns.)

Finally, in 2004, Bryan Singer’s ace work on the first two X-Men movies got him the gig (while, ironically, Ratner took over — and nearly sank — the X-Men franchise), and at long last, there was a new Superman movie: 2006’s Superman Returns. Though it didn’t match the heat or domestic box office of Batman Begins, it received good reviews and solid returns, and is a picture that holds up quite well. But we still wonder what a film version of Smith’s Superman script (which has appeared online, and is pretty good) would’ve looked like, or if Burton could have brought his Batman game to either Smith’s or a subsequent take on the Man of Steel. It’s just one of those things we’ll never know…

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