I read about this documentary on The AV Club back in 2014, and I was interested on multiple levels. First, I love to peek behind the scenes (hence my love of /Film and How Did This Get Made’s oral histories and shows like Project Greenlight). But I also feel that – as I stated in my review of Deadpool – so few superhero movies are actually ABOUT something, and that the right Superman movie has real potential to be about more than just fight scenes and special effects.
And I am fascinated by what Superman Lives could have been. Tim Burton’s take on Superman, as an outsider hiding his “otherness” and desperately trying to be normal in order to belong, is a profound new direction for the character. It also looks ahead to Tarantino’s pointed monologue on Superman in Kill Bill 2, which emphasizes that – unlike other superheroes – Superman is pretending to be Clark Kent, not the other way around. This is a far cry from the ersatz Christopher Nolan vibe Zack Snyder delivered in Man of Steel and looks likely to re-deliver in Batman V Superman. (An interesting piece by Jackson Eyres in the LA Review of Books examines the “grim and gritty” trend and all of its pomposity.) It’s also important to remember that 1997 Nicolas Cage was not 2016 Nicolas Cage: he was fresh off an Oscar win for Leaving Las Vegas and had yet to tarnish his brand with The Rock, Con Air, et al. I really think this could have been something, probably a better movie (although maybe not a more commercial one) than Burton’s Batman.
But as interesting a premise as this is, the accompanying documentary is amateur at best. First of all, The Death of Superman Lives is a good title. The doc’s actual title, The Death of Superman Lives: What Happened? is incredibly dumb – clearly ANY movie is about what happened. Writer/director/producer/editor Jon Schnepp makes the odd decision to shoot his interview subjects as two shots rather than the more traditional talking heads, so every interview features Schnepp and his subject sprawled awkwardly in the same frame. The film was largely crowdfunded, but it appears a lot of money was wasted. Several scenes from the script are reenacted, either using sub-par computer graphics or what appears to be Nicolas Cage’s Mexican non-union equivalent.
And they’re completely unnecessary. Schnepp’s access is incredible: he interviews the film’s writers, producers, costume designers, concept artists, special effects technicians, Warner Bros. executives, even Burton himself – Cage is literally the only person missing. In addition, he has access to ALL of their pre-production work, including art, pre-vis from ILM, costumes, even test footage with Cage and Burton. In retrospect, the crowdfunding – if it wasn’t used specifically for this access – would have been better spent on technical improvements and post-production than on community theater superhero scenes.
In the end, I wish The Death of Superman Lives were as interesting as its subject.