Movie Review: ‘The Death of Superman Lives: What Happened?’

Director: Jon Schnepp

Plot: A group of film-makers and fans investigate the instigation and downfall of Tim Burton’s film Superman Lives, put into development following the directors success with Batman in 1989.

Review: In recent years the internet has had a fascination with Nicolas Cage. It’s not hard to see why. He’s got a deranged approach to acting that has served him well in many roles, and tends to pick some awful projects. We don’t need to talk about the bees, we all know it. Something people like to pull out for shock value and comedic purposes is this:

nicolas cage superman

Yikes. This is not a good look. Cage looks like he’s taken something the DEA is yet to classify as a controlled substance and the suit appears to be taken from a cheap action figure. One thing these film-makers does effectively is highlight this photo being a tiny glimpse into a much larger project, with many people involved and different agendas at work. Up until this documentary the most public account of the production is Kevin Smith airing his professional grievances about his script being canned. This film gives everyone involved the chance to give their version of events and it’s pretty interesting viewing.

The most we’ve heard about this film is form Smith, claiming that producer Jon Peters didn’t want Superman to fly, didn’t want to classic suit (because it’s ‘faggy’) and it had to have a giant spider. Peters denies the first two charges, commenting that they’re essential to the character, but is all about the giant spider. It’s interesting to hear a genuinely human reason behind these seemingly nutty concepts – the producer wanted to create a cinematic moment on par with King Kong‘s big reveal. I don’t think it would have been a good idea – it wasn’t in Wild, Wild West – but it’s cool getting a look at the reasoning behind it.


Tim Burton is undoubtably one of the biggest names involved in the project, and it’s been said that he’s not much of a comics person (both by Burton and, surprise, Kevin Smith). Burton expands on this saying that he found making the Batman films challenging and going through ‘living hell’, but also why he wanted to keep making superhero films. His ideas for the Superman mythos were very different to what’s been seen in the comics, but they are interesting interpretations that come from a very creative mind and if fans could put aside their expectations they may have found this an enjoyable take on the established franchise.

The best thing this documentary does is give the audience access to the creative process. We are privileged to see raw footage of designers at work, and Cage and Burton shooting ideas around during costume tests. We have all the people who worked on scripts taking us through their take on the material, how the art designers shaped their ideas and the process it all goes through it meeting the expectations of the director and producer. The weird, light up black Superman suit is revealed as being only a small part of the film, a sequence in which Superman is regenerated. When in context all these strange, off-putting bits of art and rumours start to look pretty cool – especially the spider-like design of Brainiac.

superman lives regeneration suit

One angle the doco seems to be selling us on, and one that many internet outlets have been quick to jump on board with, is that Superman Lives is potentially a lost masterpiece. I’m not convinced that it’s a film I would have enjoyed seeing it in cinemas without being privy to the production process, but it sure would’ve been interesting and worth the time to watch.


At times this documentary feels a bit amateurish. There’s some unnecessary editing choices, like captioning every single person in a Superman shirt outside of Comic-Con as a ‘Superman Fan’, likewise the subtitle of ‘What Happened’ at the end of the title. It’s like it’s filling in gaps we can manage by ourselves. Also odd is when an interviewee has to take a call during the interview and they not only filmed it, but left it in the film. A quick dissolve could’ve gone a long way to making it feel less awkward. In spite of these minor flaws, it’s an ambitious project that shows a lot of research and passion has been done, especially for a crowd funded film.

In the current boom of superhero films, internet fascination with Nic Cage and the judgemental nature of internet commentators, this is good viewing for any and all. At the very least you’ll get a better idea of how films are made, and when they go south it’s not usually because of one person, or studio interference, but a range of options.

Rating: EIGHT out of TEN