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’S DIMINISHING RETURNS
- 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.
“Brainiac’s evil plan was to launch a disk into space that would blot out the sun,” he says, “a plot device I’d seen not long before on The Simpsons.” While Strick toiled on a new script, Warner gamely set a release date (June 1998, the 60th anniversary of Superman’s first appearance in Action Comics), and announced a casting coup: comic book aficionado and Superfan Nicolas Cage, who would one day name his son Kal-El. “Superman is an American myth,” the actor said. “Like the English have Shakespeare*, America has Batman, Superman and Mickey Mouse. With Tim Burton, hopefully we’re going to bring a lot to it and totally re-conceive the character.” Although, judging by recently-revealed photographs of costume tests, part of this ‘re-conception’ involved Superman/Cage with long black wavy hair, Burton did at least plan to retain the familiar red-and-blue suit, despite Peters’ objections.
According to many sources close to the production, Burton and his team clashed constantly with Peters, still attached as producer, representing not only the studio’s corporate interests, but his own creative ones. “Jon Peters was in constant contact with toy companies, whose deals would help offset the picture’s huge expense,” Strick reveals. “He would occasionally call me to demand that Superman use a certain sort of jet-pack — when he’d temporarily lost his flying ability — or that Brainiac float above the Earth in a ‘skull ship’.” Concept artist Sylvain Despretz, who worked alongside production designer Rick Heinrichs (The Big Lebowski), goes further. “It was basically a toy show. Sheer, humiliating madness. I found out later that Tim Burton was in Hell,” he adds. “He mentioned several times that it was the worst time of his life.”
As Burton and Peters argued, the budget ballooned alarmingly, ranging between $140 and $190M, including more than $30M spent on scripts, pay-or-play deals (Cage received $20M, Burton $5M, without a single frame of film being shot), and with the collapse of two of Warner’s would-be tentpoles, Sphere and The Postman, and the failure of Batman & Robin, the studio exiled Superman Lives to the Phantom Zone. “I ‘made’ the movie, only I didn’t film it,” Burton said later. “It was going to be expensive, and they were a little sensitive that they had screwed up the Batman franchise. Corporate decisions are all fear-based decisions,” he added. “They were afraid.” Cage, for one, remains philosophical. “I know that with Tim [on board] and where I was going to go, we would have done something really special,” he said in March. “At least it’s out there in the ether that it could have happened, but we don’t have to make the movie. It’s still interesting to people. I had the win-win situation,” he added, perhaps referring to the $20M he pocketed for not making the film, “because that character is such a bullseye that you have to hit. He’s one of the most precious icons of our country.”
Untitled Superman Projects (1999-2001)
Despite the closure of the Superman Lives production offices, development continued, with screenwriter Dan Gilroy (who recently wrote The Bourne Legacy) and William Wisher (Terminator 2) each working on separate drafts, the latter described by Cage as having “a darker, more Matrix feel to it” – possibly because it has Superman dressed in black (an armoured suit), and taking on a cadre of Lex Luthor’s identical-looking drones, defeating them with a crystal sword (!), before killing Brainiac (!!) and destroying his skull ship (!!!). Then, in April 2001, Paul Attanasio (Quiz Show, Donnie Brasco) was paid $1.7M to come up with his own reworking of the death-and-rebirth idea, to which McG was reportedly attached. By February of the following year, however, Hollywood’s newest wunderkind, J.J. Abrams, had been hired to scratch-build a new script, essentially a reboot of the origin story. Given the fifteen year gap since the last Superman film, Warner evidently thought it was time to reintroduce the Man of Steel to the movie-going public.
Batman vs Superman (2001-2002) vs Superman: Flyby (2001-2006)
Simultaneously, the studio began to develop a crossover movie, Batman vs Superman, in which the titular heroes would begin as allies — albeit with radically different worldviews — but face each other in a climactic showdown concerning Batman’s desire for vengeance on Lex Luthor, who conspires with The Joker to murder Bruce Wayne’s new bride, Elizabeth. Scripted by Andrew Kevin Walker (who had just scripted Sleepy Hollow, the film Tim Burton quit Superman Lives to direct) and subsequently polished by Akiva Goldsman (A Beautiful Mind), the film was fast-tracked for a summer 2004 release, with The Perfect Storm director Wolfgang Petersen pencilled in. “It is the clash of the titans,” he enthused. “Superman is clear, bright, all that is noble and good, and Batman represents the dark, obsessive and vengeful side. They play off each other so perfectly.”
Then, on 26 July 2002, J.J. Abrams turned in his first draft, codenamed Flyby, which retold the origin story, taking liberties with the mythology (Krypton, for example, is destroyed by gigantic three-legged war machines unleashed by Superman’s evil uncle), climaxing with an epic battle (with Kryptonian warriors) in which Superman is defeated and killed. Lex Luthor, meanwhile, is a CIA agent later declared president (!), Superman’s father, Jor-El, commits suicide (!!), and Superman comes back to life – just in time to learn that Luthor is from Krypton as well (!!!), and is therefore more than a match for Kal-El in a final showdown/punchup.
Although Ain’t It Cool described the script as “a disaster of nearly epic proportions,” deriding the decision to make Lex Luthor “a superpowered 50-year-old who knows better kung fu than Superman,” Jon Peters thought it was “amazing. In a world of chaos,” he added, referring to the recent 9/11 attacks, “it’s about hope and light.” With Spider-Man cleaning up at the box office, however, many Warner executives preferred the two-superheroes-for-the-price-of-one approach of Batman vs Superman – which Abrams famously likened to “releasing When Harry Divorced Sally before When Harry Met Sally.” Warner president Alan Horn, who had the casting vote, agreed: Batman vs Superman was grounded, while Abrams’ Flyby was cleared for takeoff.
By this time, Warner’s cost-cutting decision to move production from Pittsburgh (the steel town where Burton’s film would have been shot) to Sydney, Australia, led McG to quit the project (ironically, due to a fear of flying), and in September 2002, Rush Hour director Brett Ratner stepped in, with his Red Dragon stars Anthony Hopkins and Ralph Fiennes lined up to play Jor-El and Lex Luthor respectively – but no clear choice to play the title role. By the following March, Ratner had quit too, stating simply: “The difficulty of casting the role of Superman has contributed to my decision.” Suddenly, Abrams’ take on Superman was off the table too.
“It was a disappointment,” he recently told Empire magazine, “because I thought that where it was going was pretty cool and there were some themes in it that I really loved,” he added, referring to the reluctant messiah aspect of his script, in which Clark Kent hides his superpowers – themes which may appear in Man of Steel. “I don’t know if that’s what Zack and Chris are doing, but it looks like that’s part of the idea. I could not be more thrilled to see that movie.”
Six months later, Bryan Singer got talking with X-Men and Superman producers Richard and Laurel Shuler Donner while on a press tour for X-Men 2. Superman Returns was born. Says Singer: “Warner Bros said they were willing to wipe away ten years of development costs and fifty minutes of pre-visualization, art direction, drawings and designs and models and costume tests — an extraordinary amount of development work. It takes courage to do that.”
*Shakespeare is not a myth
Editor’s Note: For Superman’s full cinematic story, check out David’s blog or just go out and buy his superb book, “The Greatest Sci-Fi Movies Never Made.”
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 The Horror Show.