Before it died an ignoble death, Tim Burton‘s never-made ’90s blockbuster Superman Lives was poised to take the Man of Steel where no comic book movie had gone before. Burton freely adapted the film from the famous “Death of Superman” storyline, which saw the Kryptonian (played by longtime Superman fan, Nicolas Cage, who proved his devotion to the DC Comics icon by naming his son Kal-El) killed at the hands of the monstrous Doomsday followed by his eventual resurrection. But the filmmaker’s take on the Superman mythos proudly ignored comic book canon in both its narrative structure and visual style. “It would have been beautiful,” Cage tells Yahoo Movies at the Toronto International Film Festival, where the prolific actor’s latest film, the ultra-dark comedy Mom and Dad, premiered to rapturous applause amongst the midnight movie crowd. “Tim and I were about to get up to something really relevant.”
For years following the project’s demise, fans only had select glimpses of what the dynamic duo of Burton and Cage had in mind for Superman, which included a combined version of regular antagonists Lex Luthor and Braniac known as “Lexiac” and Kal-El drawing on Kryptonian life essence to restore his lost powers. But the floodgates opened with the arrival of Jon Schnepp’s 2015 documentary, The Death of ‘Superman Lives’: What Happened. Filled with never-before-seen concept art and behind-the-scenes footage and on-camera interviews with Burton, producer Jon Peters, and screenwriter Kevin Smith (who penned an earlier version of the script that Burton discarded), Schnepp’s film offers the most complete account of this uncompleted film, which ranks up there with Justice League: Mortal as one of the great “What if?” projects in the history of comic book cinema.
One notable voice that isn’t featured in the documentary, though, is Cage’s. The actor declined to specify why he didn’t participate in The Death of “Superman Lives,” but did share some memories about the film’s origins. “They wanted Renny Harlin,” Cage reveals about the studio’s first choice of director. “Renny’s cool, I like Renny. But I said, ‘No, I need Tim Burton.’ Because Tim can make worlds. I wanted to see his Krypton.” And the images of Superman’s homeworld that Burton and his team of concept artists dreamed up delighted Cage to no end. “I saw what he was about to get up to. We were laughing looking at the drawings and the costumes.” Unfortunately, the imagery unnerved the executives at Warner Bros., whose confidence was further shaken by Burton’s high-profile 1996 sci-fi comedy flop, Mars Attacks! “They got scared,” Cage says. “They misunderstood Mars Attacks!, which is a great f–king movie, and got worried about Tim.”
Although Superman Lives never took flight, Cage is glad that fans are now able to see what might have been beyond the grainy images from an early costume test that leaked several years ago. “The Internet got some stupid pictures from the wardrobe — I don’t know how that got out. But you’ve seen the footage, so you know what I’m talking about. Tim’s Krypton was brilliant and genius. They missed out.”
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