Development Hell: Why We Didn’t Get a Superman Movie From 1988 to 2006


Few franchises have crashed and burned as spectacularly as the Superman films, which reached their nadir with 1987’s fourth installment, The Quest for Peace, which grossed barely a tenth the box office of Richard Donner’s classic origin story a decade earlier.


  • Superman (1978) $134M
  • Superman II (1980) $108M
  • Superman III (1983) $60M
  • Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987) $15M

With Tim Burton’s dark, gritty Batman demolishing box office records in 1989, Warner Bros. had no reason to think audiences would respond to the brighter, more colorful Man of Steel mythos – at least, not until 1992, when DC Comics’ bestselling “The Death and Return of Superman” cycle put The Daily Planet’s most famous reporter back on the front page. In the comics (later turned into a 2007 animated film, Superman: Doomsday), Superman is killed by a creature called Doomsday, before being resurrected after a three-month publishing hiatus which became a publicity magnet. Deciding that the death-and-rebirth story merited a movie, Warner placed a full-page ad in the trade press announcing a working-titled Superman: The New Movie, with Batman producer Jon Peters at the wheel, and screenwriter Jonathan Lemkin (Lethal Weapon 4, Devil’s Advocate, Demolition Man), at the typewriter.

Superman Reborn (1994-95)

“Superman demands fantasy elements that Batman doesn’t,” Lemkin said. “You’ve got to have villains whose powers and abilities demand that Superman — and only Superman — can be the one who stops them. The fate of the whole planet should be at stake.” Putting his own spin on the death-and-return concept, Lemkin’s script opened with a defeated Superman in his death throes, telling the story of his successor, who is born after Lois Lane is impregnated with his spirit. “Superman literally dies as he professes his love to Lois, and his life force jumps between them,” the writer explained. “Lois later finds out that she’s pregnant — immaculately. She gives birth to a child who grows twenty-one years in three weeks, and is, essentially, the resurrected Superman.”

Gregory Poirier, who had written the acclaimed dram Rosewood for Peters, delivered a rewrite in late December 1995, adding Kal-El’s existential woes about being an outsider alienated on Earth, and introducing a popular comic book villain, the energy-sucking extraterrestrial Brainiac, as Doomsday’s creator. Although Jon Peters, no fan of Superman’s trademark blue-and-red caped costume, would have been delighted by Poirier’s introduction of Superman’s sleek new bat-style black ensemble, the costume change may have caused die-hard Superman fans to get their tights in a twist.

Poirier’s script received a warm welcome from Warner executives, but their opinion changed in late 1996, following a meeting with indie movie icon Kevin Smith, whose buzzed-about third film, Chasing Amy, dealt with two comic book creators. “I said I thought it was terrible,” Smith said of the latest draft. “Poirier didn’t get the Superman mythos.” Fearing that Smith — who co-owns a New Jersey comic book store — spoke for millions of Superman fans, Warner president of production Lorenzo di Bonaventura encouraged him to start over, on the proviso that he retain the death-and-return storyline, and Brianiac as the villain.

Peters, meanwhile, had his own ideas, as Smith recalled. “He had all sorts of weird parameters. Like, ‘I don’t wanna see him in the suit and I don’t want to see him fly, and I want him to fight a giant spider in the third act.’ I’m like, ‘What?! A giant spider? Are you crazy?!’” Nevertheless, Smith accepted the assignment, turning in an outline which, at 80 pages, was 76 pages longer than Peters expected.

Superman Lives (1996-1998)

In Smith’s story, entitled Superman Lives, energy-sucking extraterrestrial Brainiac works with Superman’s arch-nemesis Lex Luthor on a plot to block the source Man of Steel’s solar-powered superpowers and allowing Doomsday to defeat him. Littering the script with playful or ironic references to the superhero’s past, Smith further displays his fan credentials by incorporating fellow DC Comics characters Deadshot and Batman in cameo roles (the latter giving a moving eulogy at his fallen friend’s funeral), as well as such Superman staples as Planet photographer Jimmy Olsen and his venerable boss Perry White.

Although details of Superman’s new look are sketchy — Smith admitted “Superman, um, ’90s style” is as far as he got — the script ingeniously depicts Superman in flight as a red-and-blue blur accompanied by a sonic boom. Peters liked Smith’s script-length outline, although he felt it needed more guards at the Fortress of Solitude (!), Superman in a robot suit (!!), and more polar bears (!!!). Smith duly delivered a second draft on 27 March 1997 – just as Warner’s Mars Attacks! crash-landed at the box office, suddenly making Batman director Tim Burton not only available, but hungry for a sure thing. Burton’s first move was to ditch Smith’s script and start over with Batman Returns co-writer Wesley Strick. “Who is Warner Bros. going to back,” Smith said pragmatically, “the guy who made Clerks, or the guy who made them half a billion dollars on Batman?”

Strick recalls reading Smith’s draft in awe – and not the good kind.

A film critic for Empire (since issue 2) and widely published magazine and newspaper journalist, David Hughes is also the author of six non-fiction books, including The Greatest Sci-Fi Movies Never Made, Tales from Development Hell and critically-acclaimed works about filmmakers Stanley Kubrick and David Lynch. As a screenwriter, he has scripted a dozen feature films and several prize-winning shorts, including the upcoming T.J Hooker movie, and by day he runs film marketing agency Synchronicity and co-founded VOD platform http://www.TheHorrorShow.TV

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