The Death of “Superman Lives”: What Happened? is best described as a fever dream, as if documentary director Jon Schnepp crossed over into a parallel universe, caught a flick at a local theater, and came back to tell us all about this bizarre movie he witnessed in Earth-2. It’s the chronicling of a “what if” scenario, one that zeroes in on two main objectives. First, it hunts down the answers to strange photos of a long-haired Nicolas Cage that have propagated the Internet for years, laying to rest where those photos originated from and what they were. Second, it’s an exploration of the Hollywood studio system. As moviegoers, we often see the development behind widely successful films, but we seldom glimpse into the void of Hollywood’s failures.
And then this documentary comes along, digging up the ghosts of Hollywood’s past, asking us to view a failure with a renewed sense of curiosity and hope. What if we could save this movie? What if, like the Superman arc this film was originally based on, we could resurrect our hero? This documentary is a reckoning, a yearning to the days when a filmmaker, Tim Burton in this case, could come in and pitch his vision for a movie. Burton and Schnepp convalesce in this yearning at one point, piggy-backing off of each other’s comments on the current Internet culture and the power comic book fans wield to sink or alter a film’s course in the comments box.
The irony is that even though quite a few minutes of precious screen time are devoted to lecturing viewers on the woes of whiny Internet commentators, “Superman Lives” was scrapped for different reasons. It was a kooky film to begin with, one that saw a script packed with writer Kevin Smith’s ultimate Superman manifesto alongside strange demands from eccentric producer Jon Peters (Superman fighting a giant spider, anyone?). As Burton and his team were brought on, the film took on a much different form, morphing into the death and rebirth tale of an alienated savior.
Schnepp painstakingly organizes and shows us the evolution of this project. We see old footage, concept art, models, and the origins of those infamous Nicolas Cage photos. We’re told a story of a hero who gives his all to save a planet not his own against an alien machine known as Braniac, and with it, we see a director (Burton) looking to outdo himself, to make his own personal statement with the material.
The Death of “Superman Lives” is like lost poetry. You can hear the passion in the voices of the creative team as members talk about their aspirations. Through them, we’re given the gift of a story behind those Internet jokes. The Death of “Superman Lives” humanizes those goofy pictures in a way that makes us view them very differently. What once could be seen as “good riddance” to a potentially awful movie becomes the few remaining memories of someone’s imagination. It’s a toy box we would never have been able to uncover, were it not for this documentary.
And that’s the beauty of The Death of “Superman Lives”. Schnepp took the time to collect these forgotten memories for us. He found value in them, saw the ambition they held, and gave them to us, lovingly so, from one movie fanatic to another.
I should mention that The Death of “Superman Lives”: What Happened? is the product of a successful Kickstarter campaign. This is significant when discussing the documentary, because from the start of production, this project was more than one man’s quest to uncover a fabled treasure. Schnepp is the director, but this treasure hunt is the shared dream of many campaign backers. It’s the combined curiosity of all of us who adore the silver screen, who stare beyond the flickering lights dancing before us and wonder about never was. For fans of cinema, this is our unearthing of an Egyptian tomb.
Enjoy it, film fans, and hope Schnepp seeks out another lost gem in the near future.