December 20, 2015


To be completely honest, I'm not quite sure how to feel about The Death of Superman Lives: What Happened?, the documentary which focuses on the unmade Tim Burton/Nicholas Cage 1990s Superman film.

On the one hand, it does a good job as a documentary focusing on the effort and thought behind the development of the film. The Death of Superman Lives shows great insight into the development well as the reason why the film may not have been made. (SPOILER - Warner Brothers had a series of big-budget flops, making them very uneasy about the film's potential). It also helps that Tim Burton provides some insight into his own process....and there's plenty of great (and rarely seen) behind-the-scenes footage that makes this a really strong piece of history....

....and yet, there's much about the film that is a bit off-putting, and that really made it a bit difficult to watch.

Much of it is the way that director Jon Schnepp inserts himself into the film - yes, he's doing all of the interviews, but it feels distracting and unnecessary. (And did we have to watch Jon Peters take a phone call while Schnepp watches, sipping from a bottle of water) Some documentary directors insert themselves as a way of providing an object viewpoint (like Morgan Spurlock) or because they were already part of the story (like Alex Gibney in The Armstrong Lie). Granted, this is a subject Schnepp feels worthy of exploration, but the movie felt at times awkward to watch...

...but the greatest issue I have with The Death of Superman Lives is that many of the participants reflect an attitude that's all too prevalent in fan culture: the attitude of Wouldn't this have been cool?

To be fair, part of the attraction of this documentary is that, like the documentary about Richard Stanley's attempts to adapt Island of Dr. Moreau), The Death of Superman Lives shows how people working on making a film engage with their work with great passion. However, despite the obvious feeling of loss, there is a sense that those involved felt more about the "coolness" of what they were doing that they lost sight of any themes, story, etc. In short, it was the 1990s equivalent of current fan engagement (just pop into Facebook and read any review of Star Wars: The Force Awakens if you think I'm wrong).

As far as whether a Nicholas Cage-led, Tim Burton-directed Superman movie would have led to a series of films....unlike many other reviews, I don't automatically believe that would be the case. Given much of Burton's post-Batman approach to film making (take a beloved franchise, make it about a quirky outsider, and throw in tons of art direction), I think his Superman Lives would be seen in the same light as his "re-imagining"of  Planet of the Apes.

Despite its flaws, though, The Death of Superman Lives provides greater insights into the mechanics of big budget movie making - as well as overeager ambition - than it disappoints. Definitely worth seeing.

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