The Death of “Superman Lives”: What Happened? Review

“… does have a few glaring issues, but overall I think it was well made and a must-see for anybody interested in the topic.”

So if you’ve been on the internet for a while, chances are you’ve seen the photo of Nicolas Cage dressed as Superman. You know the one: It’s a shitty polaroid photo of Nicolas Cage with long greasy hair and a Superman outfit that makes him look like a Hot Topic employee. That photo is pretty much all that anyone knows of the scrapped “Superman Lives” project from the 90’s, but it turns out that so much more is available. ‘The Death of “Superman Lives”: What Happened?’ is a documentary by Jon Schnepp about the scrapped “Superman Lives” project that people usually associate as that one terrible picture of Nicolas Cage. The film goes into detail about the conception of the idea, the realization of a lot of crazy thoughts from the mind of Tim Burton, and most importantly it does so with first-hand interviews with people who worked on the film.

Reviewing documentaries is always difficult because they’re so different form movies. I can’t really criticize the story or the acting, so the reviews that I write always seem to be lacking in the documentary department. That being said I absolutely love documentaries because they’re like visual textbooks. You get to learn about a topic without having to read like a loser. With all of that being said, I really liked The Death of “Superman Lives”: What Happened? because I felt that it did a good job of compiling information to give us a complete story. It would have been just as easy for Schnepp to do a documentary on the leaked scripts or the concept art found on the internet, but he went further with it by getting interviews and access to footage and other materials that would have otherwise stayed away from the public eye. What we get with The Death of “Superman Lives”: What Happened? is a complete story; from start to finish Schnepp takes us on the journey of the doomed Superman adventure. The thing that most surprised me about the film is just how far production got on “Superman Lives” before they were essentially fired. Sure I’ve heard Kevin Smith’s famous retelling of his interactions with producer Jon Peters and his “Three Rules”, but I never really stopped to wonder how far the production was able to get before it was taken out back and shot in the head. I assumed (which is a bad habit of mine) that the Nicolas Cage photo was the end of it; they got Cage to try on the suit and then shortly after that the project was canned. I definitely didn’t expect that production on the film was just about to begin before it was stopped. I didn’t expect that teams of people spent large chunks of their time creating and retooling ideas to make this film as good as it could be. I just didn’t think, and that is something that The Death of “Superman Lives”: What Happened? tries to rectify. Schnepp wants to make sure that we get the whole story, because the Nicolas Cage image doesn’t even give you half of it. Before I went into this film I was ready to laugh a lot because I, much like everyone else, was amused at the idea of Nicolas Cage as Superman. When I left the film I certainly felt amused, but there was also this undeniable sadness that plagued me. I couldn’t help but wonder what could have been. Because, much like a great lawyer, Schnepp doesn’t try to convince you that “Superman Lives” would have been a great movie, but he plants the seed of reasonable doubt. There were many aspects of “Superman Lives’ talked about in the film that I found laughable, but as a whole there was so much compelling information given that I have to admit that I’m sad we’ll never get to see Tim Burton’s interpretation of the Man of Steel.

Moving on to the technical aspects of the film, there are a few things I want to discuss. First of all I want to say that the interviews conducted in The Death of “Superman Lives”: What Happened? were great. The questions asked and the information that was given were fucking awesome; but that doesn’t mean they were flawless. What I’m trying to say is: did Jon Schnepp need to put himself in every interview? I understand that it’s his movie and everything, and I would probably do the same thing if I’m being honest, but with Schnepp in frame he added literally nothing to the movie. Like a good interviewer he threw a topic on the table and let the guest speak for as long as they wanted, which means a lot of the shots in the film are of a person talking from the heart, and Jon Schnepp sitting next to them twiddling his thumbs. Once again I don’t necessarily blame Schnepp for this, but it did impact the film and made it feel less professional. Speaking of unprofessional, let’s discuss the “fan made” segments in the film. During many speaking parts, there were visuals shown on screen to essentially strengthen a point. If someone was talking about costume design, a picture of the costume prototype would be on screen, etc. What I found weird was when the story was discussed, it was decided to use look-alike actors on a green screen to essentially re-create the movie as it was being told to Schnepp. At first I thought this was funny, but then these scenes kept popping up; each time looking worse than the last. So I once again have to wonder: was that necessary? I understand that a good documentary has engaging visuals but couldn’t you have just used storyboards or something? Even better, why didn’t you have someone animate those segments? I understand that this film was made by a fan (Schnepp), but when making a movie don’t you want things to look professional? Instead what we got was a weird hodgepodge of clips that looked like they were filmed in someone’s basement for a high school project. It’s just that the content of the documentary was so good that it pains me to see these really amateur aspects of it. And I do want to point out that all other visuals in the movie were great, it was just those weird acted scenes that stuck out. Other than that I found that the documentary was well done except for a few audio issues, specifically during the Tim Burton interview. Listen, I know shit happens and you can’t really go back to Tim Burton and say “hey, do you know that long interview we did a few days ago? Ya, the audio fucked up so can we, like, do it again?”; and this goes double if you are an independent movie. And it’s not like it was unlistenable or anything, it was just noticeable. The last issue I had with The Death of “Superman Lives”: What Happened?, other than the ridiculously long title that I’ve had to type more than a few times now, was the fact that the film seemed to kind of drag it’s feet in the middle. Everything was great, they were talking about the story and scripts and stuff, and then they started talking about the costume design of the film. Now I’m a fan of all aspects of film, but the problem I had with the costume design segment in particular was the fact that the information being shared seemed to be the same, but from different people. We get it, this was a different version of Superman. We get it, Superman’s suit is hard to make. We get it, Superman’s underwear looks dumb (you’re wrong about that, but it’s fine). We didn’t need to hear every costume designer say the same things repeatedly. This issue gets repeated a few times throughout the film, but overall the information given was very concise and interesting.

Ultimately The Death of “Superman Lives”: What Happened? is a very interesting documentary that collects everything we know about the abandoned Tim Burton project and gives it to us in one neat, little package. The film does have a few glaring issues, but overall I think it was well made and a must-see for anybody interested in the topic.

I give The Death of “Superman Lives”: What Happened? a B

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