Sunday, January 10, 2016
Superman Watch: The Death of "Superman Lives" - What Happened? (2015)
Of course in Superman nerd circles there was a lot of noise about the documentary The Death of "Superman Lives" (2015) when it was going around on Kickstarter and other fundraising sites. It's a film about the failed 1990's Jon Peters produced Superman movie, a flick that never quite made it into production and has, in recent years, achieved a sort of legendary status among nerds as "wouldn't that have been awesome?" sort of project. Most of this opinion is garnered from 20 and 30 somethings who only know Nic Cage from the post Con Air era, and think of him as the "not the bees!" guy who makes shitty action movies and has a seemingly absurd personal life. They do not know the Leaving Las Vegas Nic Cage or the Adaptation Nic Cage or even the Wild at Heart Nic Cage. It seems impossible most have seen Moonstruck.
Way, way back in the mid-90's when the project was in pre-production, I was of the solid opinion that: No. This is not going to be awesome. And, in 2016, I stand by that same notion. Much better to look at the art produced and hear people talking about what could have been than get dragged through a movie that could have accelerated Superman's loss of cachet in the pop-consciousness and, who knows? Could have prevented the entire cycle of superhero movies we've enjoyed since X-Men and Spider-Man back 15 years ago.
Hats off to this very small production for landing interviews with big names associated with the project, from legendary producer Jon Peters to Tim Burton to Kevin Smith and a host of crew members (who are still passionate about the work they did), and a few comics luminaries including an intro with Grant Morrison summing up Superman in a few sentences.
Up front: I find Kevin Smith's movies not to my liking (at all), and I find the man callow and somewhat annoying. For a guy who toured the US talking about his "Superman" experience and how Jon Peters is a weirdo, he certainly wrote a terrible script for the movie in question. Which, to his credit, he seems to admit in this documentary. But I'd also argue - Smith seemed and seems to have almost zero knowledge of Superman outside of hazy memories of seeing the Richard Donner films when he was a kid, and him posing as "the guy who gets this against the guys who don't" seems a little... eh.
It's important to note (and the doc really does not) that the thinking about superhero movies in the 1980's and 1990's bears no resemblance to what we get today. I mean, if you go back and watch Tm Burton's Batman, it's about as absurd a take on Batman as the old Adam West show, which isn't a knock, but it's a pretty far @#$%ing cry from Dark Knight. Nothing about the Batman of the Burton movies isn't just as ridiculous as Adam West, but nobody seems to really realize that, even today.
The idea back in this era was: comics are interesting to mine for characters and ideas, but those guys are amateurs, we're pros, and trying to emulate the comics is ridiculous, because we can do it better. And trying to understand them is, frankly, beneath us.*
Basically - there's no reason to believe this movie would have been either recognizably Superman, or that it would have been a success at the time. At least not a success big enough to justify the budget, and that - paired with the Joel Schumacher Batman debacle - could have brought DC Comics down altogether.
So, what do we get?
Firstly, the production value on this doc is all over the place. The interviews were clearly difficult to get, and some were just questions fired at a comics person in the hall at a Con (I now know what Dan Jurgens looks like). There are actual re-enactments of scenes to give you an idea of how the movie might look on a shoestring budget and to remind everyone that long-hair Superman was a bad idea then, and it has aged even more poorly.
Still, I feel like the director was able to use the timeline of the production to pull together something of a compelling story. The excitement of various parties associated with the picture as they came on, the weird days working the movie that seemed to be a bit of churn (and dealing with the insanity of Jon Peters), and the sudden and very final realization it was over, leaving practically no aftermath, just a smoking crater.
The film's production history is told through cross-cutting of interviews with the main players. Writers, Burton, designers. Sprinkled throughout, like footage of a confused badger, we get producer Jon Peters, who still seems to have very little idea of who Superman is (but it may never have been as bad as Kevin Smith sold it as during the talk he gave in a national tour). You get the feeling Peters saw the Chris Reeve Superman movie once, had made money with Batman, and sort of snuck the rights away from WB so they had to work with him. But other than that, his interest in the character is about the same level as that of probably 90-98% of the populace who don't think about Superman at all, but will insist they know all about Superman and are ready to fix him for you.
Partway through, you also realize the director of the film must have decided he really - like everyone else in this doc - did not care for Peters. Some of this he handles via others' comments regarding the infamous producer, sometimes he lets Peters dig his own hole, and sometimes you get the feeling he's just being dickish, but it's also hard to shake the feeling Peters has earned whatever reputation he's got.
Aside from Peters, Kevin Smith is first to talk, and it's pretty clear the writer/ director of the doc is likely a Kevin Smith fanboy. After all, without Smith's talks, it's likely no one would know, nor care about, Superman Lives after 1999 or 2000. Here the greatest discrepancies in the story exist as Smith has his well-honed version of events and Peters seems like an unreliable narrator, at best.
From here, we get a pretty good picture of what folks who follow the movie biz will recognize as "development hell". Scripts were still getting kicked around when they were shut down, what Peters states was three weeks before they intended to shoot.** All in all, more than $10 million was spent on pre-production, and that doesn't include fees for Burton, Peters and Cage. So, really, who knows? It could be as much as $50 million on a movie that never shot a frame of film.
Nobody onboard seems to want to say it, but it feels like there was no clear idea what movie they were trying to make. Sticking concept artists in a room for months to design monsters for a background scene or two seems just ridiculous. Building a couple of suits that are really special FX. But that's a symptom of a Peters' approach to just keep putting money into the thing, assuming it would happen. He's got the rights and seems to want to make a Superman movie, if only he knew what one looked like (opening a comic book never seems to be an option), and Tim Burton seems intent on making a Superman movie that - if you'll forgive me as I stray a bit from the story the doc adheres to - is aggressively and pathologically not-Superman. I agree, it would have been an all-new take on The Man of Steel, but I'm not sure, in 1998 or 99, that would have gone over the way everyone seemed to have talked themselves into.
And, frankly, this still feels like the problem with Superman at the movies two additional movies later and another one imminent.
There's no interview with Cage, but I can hardly blame him. He's aware of the very strange relationship he now has with the movie audience, and if I were him, I'd just be taking my checks and keeping a low profile, too.
What is not discussed is how the movie industry is incredibly different in 2016. The 1990's were the heyday of the "Star System", which believed people went to movies to see specific actors and the movie around them was semi-irrelevant (this was less-so in the Weinstein-driven indie scene, and the two were at tremendous philosophical odds during that time). This is how we wound up with endless forgettable Julia Roberts movies and Jim Carrey getting $20 million for The Cable Guy. Nic Cage was a hot commodity during this period, and his participation in the Star System is how we wound up with Con Air and The Rock. These days the studios are all about the franchises as the attraction, and we can debate the issues with that set-up some other time. Cage was a star, but I recall a lot of chatter when word leaked he might star - people were not particularly jazzed (and, yes, there are a lot of Michael Keaton comparisons, but there's no guarantee we'd have wound up with the same success here).
Superhero movies of the era were all trying to recreate the pizzazz and energy of the Burton Batman films, but most just went over like a lead balloon. Marvel's various efforts from the era are maddening, from 1990 Captain America and 1989 Punisher to the Roger Corman FF. We also got The Shadow (1994), The Phantom (1996) and likely others. It's also important to remember how WB has struggled with their superhero movies since Burton left Batman. The two Schumacher movies, Catwoman, Green Lantern, Steel, Jonah Hex, a shelved JLA pilot. The success of Smallville was always relative.
What is heartening is the lengthy discussion of the production's infamous Superman costume development, and you do feel that this wasn't the mess leaked photos with no context have led many (myself included) to believe. It seems they were getting toyetic, sure, but we were narrowing down to some okay stuff.
I didn't Kickstart this doc and, so, I did not see my name in 3 point font scroll by on the screen - but it's currently showing on Showtime Beyond. I do think it's essential viewing for comic nerds, but go into the doc with a critical eye. The director has a version of events that hinge on some preconceived notions and not wanting to talk too much context - except, critically and rightfully - about the very bad year WB had that meant a rethinking of where money was going. What is not mentioned is that Burton's own Mars Attacks! and Ed Wood had not exactly inspired studio confidence in a guarantee.
Anyway, interesting movie for a lot of reasons, and, for Superman dorks, definitely worth checking out, but aside from seeing footage of costume fittings and hearing what happened straight from the horses' mouths, its hard to say what entirely new information is here. Still, the completionist of the curious lookie-loo will find plenty worth checking out.
*It really took the guys who actually did grow up around comics in the post Frank Miller era, who didn't see them as junk reading for emotionally stunted kids, who remembered the characters from a period in their lives beyond age 10 or so, to start making the incremental change to the characters we see in superhero movies now.
**supposedly the McG directed/ JJ Abrams written movie that preceded Superman Returns was having sets built when the plug got pulled on that production circa 2003. And, if Jon Peters doesn't entirely get Superman, that script just flat out seemed to have never heard of the character.