MOVIES THAT COULD’VE BEEN: Tim Burton’s Superman Lives

The road through “Development Hell” is littered with the carcasses of movies that might have or should’ve been; dynamite pairings of material, director, and maybe a few choice actors, that for whatever reason (budget, timing, creative differences) just couldn’t get their shit together and just make the damn thing! It’s time for another instalment of Movies That Could’ve Been, a feature where we pour one out for the lost masterpieces that just may have made their way to the silver screen… if only the movie gods had been nicer that day.

Superman has had a rocky road on the big screen. After appearing in animated shorts and movie serials in the 1940’s and 50’s, he hit the big screen in a big way with 1978’s Superman, directed by Richard Donner. Donner delivered a critical and commercial hit, and the film made Christopher Reeve a star. Three more sequels followed, all with Reeve, but the last, 1987’s Superman IV: The Quest For Peace, was so poorly received that it banished the Man Of Steel to the Fortress Of Solitude for almost 20 years, until the property was resurrected with 2006’s Superman Returns, and later 2013’s Man Of Steel.

In that time between 1987 and 2006 there were numerous talks of rebooting Superman but unfortunately, it was all just talks. So, what happened to all of those ideas? Did any of those in development movies make it past the drawing board stage? Yes, a few did and one even came close to being the new version of Superman. Let’s look at what could have been and how Tim Burton almost directed a Superman movie.

Superman V

Before the failure of The Quest for Peace, a fifth film was considered with Albert Pyun as director and Christopher Reeve set to reprise the title role. The bankruptcy of the production company resulted in the film rights reverting to Ilya and Alexander Salkind, the original movie producers. Ilya wrote a story for the proposed Superman V (also known as Superman: The New Movie) in the early-1990s, which had Superman dying and resurrecting in the shrunken, bottled Krypton city of Kandor. Funnily enough this premise actually predated the hugely popular “Death of Superman” story line in the comic books. Two drafts of the script were done, but a movie never eventuated. superman quest for peace art

A Hero Reborn

With the success of DC’s “Death” story line, Warner Bros bought the movie rights to the character from the Salkind’s and put a new film into development with producer Jon Peters. Peters, in turn, hired Jonathan Lemkin to write a new script titled Superman Reborn, which featured relationship troubles between Lois Lane and Clark Kent. Superman’s life force jumps into Lois as he dies in his battle with Doomsday, giving Lois a virgin birth. Their child, who grows 21-years-old in three weeks, becomes the resurrected Superman (after Lois is killed, also by Doomsday) and saves the world.

“In any good Superman movie, the fate of the whole planet should be at stake. You’ve got to have villains whose powers and abilities demand that Superman (and only Superman) can be the one who stops them. That’s the only way to make the movie exciting and a dramatic challenge.”
—Writer Jonathan Lemkin on writing Superman Reborn

Warner Bros. didn’t really gel with the script finding it too similar to the underlying themes of Batman Forever and Bruce Wayne’s obligations to heroism. Writer Gregory Poirier was brought in to do another rewrite, and still using the “Death” story as its base, makes Superman’s comic book nemesis Brainiac the primary villain.

Concept art for Brainiac

In the script, Brainiac was responsible for the destruction of Krypton. He is now on his way to Earth to destroy the last Kryptonian once and for all. On Earth, Clark Kent is on the verge of a nervous breakdown as he is unable to cope with his dual identity. Brainiac makes his way to Metropolis and unleashes his genetic creation, Doomsday (who has kryptonite-laced blood) upon the public. This naturally draws out Superman and the two battle to Superman’s death. Brainiac has won and the last Kryptonian is dead.After Superman’s funeral, rogue government agency Project Cadmus take the body first in hopes of either reviving it or cloning it. During this time, Superman’s spirit is shown taking a spiritual journey through the afterlife. At the end of his journey, he concludes his work on Earth that had not yet been done and the spirit returns to its body.

Resurrected but powerless, the Man Of Steel travels to Metropolis to fight Brainiac with the aid of Cadmus. Through the sheer force of his own will, Superman regains his powers and defeats Brainiac giving him a sense of closure and security. At Peter’s request, Poirier had Superman wear an all-black suit at the end of the script.

Warner Bros by all accounts seemed to like this version of the story, but yet again another screenwriter was brought in to do a rewrite. Enter writer/director Kevin Smith.

Superman Lives

A lifelong Superman and comic book fan, Smith seemed like a natural to take on the Kryptonian hero. Smith didn’t agree with Poirier’s take, thinking that he didn’t keep with the mythology of the character. He pitched his take on the material, but Peters required some pretty crazy conditions like a giant spider fight, Brainiac fighting a polar bear in the Fortress Of Solitude, and a “space dog” sidekick that was purely introduced for merchandising purposes. Needless to say this grab-bag of inclusions made for an interesting tale. Smith’s script, titled Superman Lives, had Brainiac sending Doomsday to kill Superman, blocking out the sun to make Superman powerless (his powers are fueled by sunlight). Brainiac teams up with Lex Luthor, but Superman is resurrected by a Kryptonian robot, the Eradicator, to defeat the villain.kevin smith superman

Read Kevin Smith’s Superman Lives script in its entirety here!

Robert Rodriguez was offered the chance to direct, but turned it down due to his commitment to The Faculty, despite liking Smith’s take on the material. Smith then suggested Tim Burton direct, and Burton signed on with a pay-or-play contract of $5 million, meaning he got that money regardless of whether the movie was actually made… a pretty sweet deal. Warner Bros, obviously thrilled to have their Batman director back in the fold, planned on a release date for summer 1998, and Nicolas Cage, also a huge comic book fan, signed on as Superman in a massive $20 million deal. Peters felt Cage could “convince audiences he [Superman] came from outer space”m while Burton believed that Cage’s casting would be “the first time you would believe that nobody could recognize Clark Kent as Superman, he [Cage] could physically change his persona.” Uh, right…

For his part, Cage thought that he could say something important with the role:

‘The death of Superman and his resurrection will be a part of the story, but I have other points that I want to address in the Superman character that hasn’t really been examined before. Superman is a great story. It’s one of those phenomena that operates on so many different levels that still haven’t been explored. One of the things I like about Superman is the notion of nurture versus nature. Is he more Kryptonian, or is he more the Kents, his adopted parents? These are big issues that we’re thinking about, like genetics and scientific things of that nature. So there’s something there, and I saw it for me as an opportunity to reach a lot of kids around the world and say something positive.”

Production Begins… Sort Of

In the summer of 1997, Superman Lives started pre-production, and Burton hired Wesley Strick to rewrite Smith’s script, kicking him off the project. Smith was no doubt disappointed saying:

“The studio was happy with what I was doing. Then Tim Burton got involved, and when he signed his pay-or-play deal, he turned around and said he wanted to do his version of Superman. So who is Warner Bros. going back to? The guy who made Clerks, or the guy who made them half a billion dollars on Batman?”
Superman Lives concept art Brainiac's ship
Concept Art of Brainiac’s ship

Strick was annoyed with the fact that “Brainiac’s evil plot of launching a disk in space to block out the sun and make Superman powerless was reminiscent of an episode of The Simpsons, with Mr Burns doing the Brainiac role.” Strick’s rewrite featured an existential Superman, thinking of himself as the ultimate outsider. Superman comes up against Brainiac and Lex Luthor, who later merge into mega-villain “Lexiac”. After dying, Superman is resurrected by the power of ‘K’, the spirit of Krypton, as he defeats Lexiac.

“We got the Kevin Smith script, but we were told not to read it because they knew he wasn’t going to stay on the movie. So we used Kevin Smith’s script as a guide to the sets we might be doing, and we waited and waited for the new script to come in, but it never did.”
—Art designer Sylvain Despretz on designing Superman Lives
Rolf Mohr’s concept for the Eradicator ship

Art designer Sylvain Despretz has claimed that the art department on the film was tasked with creating something that had little to do with the Superman mythology, and also explained that Peters “would bring kids in, who would rate the drawings on the wall as if they were evaluating the toy possibilities. It was basically a toy show.” Peters’ crazy ideas knew no bounds, like the time he saw a cover of National Geographic containing a picture of a skull and went to the to art department demanding the design for Brainiac’s space ship have the same image. Concept artist Rolf Mohr designed a suit for the Eradicator for a planned scene in which it transforms into a flying vehicle:

Burton chose Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania as his primary filming location for Metropolis, but start dates on the film were continually pushed back as pre-production stalled. Pieces of the Krypton set were constructed but then destroyed, and Cage had even attended a costume fitting, leading to a leaked photo that had fanboys up in arms:nicolas cage as superman

The Death Of Superman Lives

With the budget blowing out on Strick’s version, Warner Bros. enlisted Dan Gilroy (Nightcrawler, The Bourne Legacy) to rewrite it into something that wouldn’t be so prohibitively expensive. Gilroy managed the towering feat of lowering the $190 million budget down to $100 million, however, the studio was still gun shy on going into production. Ultimately, Warner Bros put the film on hold in April 1998, and Burton left the project to direct Sleepy Hollow. At this point, Warner Bros had sunk $30 million into developing another Superman feature with nothing to show for it and Burton, citing differences with Peters and the studio, said:

“I basically wasted a year. A year is a long time to be working with somebody that you don’t really want to be working with.”

As a last ditch effort to resurrect their Kryptonian hero, Warner Bros bought a whole new take by aspiring writer Alex Ford (titled Superman: The Man of Steel) in September 1998. Ford pitched a series consisting of seven films, and his approach impressed the studios and Peters, although he too was later given the boot due to creative differences. While they halfheartedly tried to find new directors for the project including Brett Ratner and Oliver Stone, Warner Bros eventually moved on. Of the experience Ford said:

“I can tell you they don’t know much about comics. Their audience isn’t you and me who pay $7.00. It’s for the parents who spend $60 on toys and lunchboxes. It is a business, and what’s more important, the $150 million at the box office or the $600 million in merchandising?”


The Death of “Superman Lives”: What Happened?, a 2015 documentary written and directed by Jon Schnepp chronicles the behind the scenes turmoil surrounding Superman Lives, and is definitely worth a watch for those interested in this engrossing saga. Schnepp interviews all the main players involved with the development of the project, and tries to figure out just what went wrong.

Death Is Not The End

In the end, instead of Tim Burton’s take on Superman, Bryan Singer eventually took over the property and directed Superman Returns. Since then we’ve had another change of the guard and seen the release of Man Of SteelBatman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and the upcoming Justice League under the DC Extended Universe banner.

Though Tim Burton’s Superman Lives never made it to the final stages, you have to admit that would have been an interesting film to watch. And like Kevin Smith says in the documentary, if somebody said to you now “Do you want to see Nicolas Cage in a Superman movie?”, I’d be like “Fuck yes! I want to see what that’d look like”.

Well, that’s it for another edition of Movies That Could’ve Been. What are your thoughts? Sound off in the comments below or on our Facebook page.

If there are any “lost” movies you’d like to know more about, drop us a line and it could show up in a future instalment!