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Why Superman Lives Was Never Made

Superman Lives was the Tim Burton-directed reinvigoration of the Man of Steel that came so close to being filmed, it was reportedly three weeks away from shooting before the plug was pulled. With Nicolas Cage cast as Superman, and a script originally penned by Kevin Smith that was based on the popular comic book series, The Death of Superman, this superhero film had some rather unexpected names attached to it. But as it sometimes goes in Hollywood, creative differences can forge a chasm so wide, not even the powerful allure of working on a Superman movie can bridge it. Here's why Superman Lives actually died, and it wasn't due to Kryptonite.

Nicolas Cage was a strange choice to play Superman

Even though Nicolas Cage was on a streak of box office gold with Leaving Las Vegas, The Rock, and Con Air, almost nobody wanted to see him in those famous red shorts. Keep in mind, this was before he did National Treasure, when a switch in his head flipped from "do good movies" to "get money." The test footage of Cage as Supes that leaked years later didn't do him any favors either, as all anybody could think was "Wait, why is Superman balding?" In defense of the rest of the casting, there were inspired choices like Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor and Christopher Walken as Brainiac, as well as rumors that Michael Keaton would return to play Batman. All of that would have been great, but could they overcome the spectacle of Castor Troy as Superman? Not likely.

Warner Bros. was reeling from several box office bombs

According to The Hollywood Reporter, Warner Bros. suffered a series of big budget flops in the '90s with Batman and Robin, The Postman, and Sphere, so the idea of misfiring on the relaunch of the Superman franchise probably had them pretty spooked. And while it's safe to say that any Superman property—no matter how poorly reviewed—would still rake in the cash, as was the case with 2006's critically dejected Superman Returns (earning over $350 million), it's understandable that Warner Bros. wanted to get this right. So when the creative differences widened, and the project started coming apart before it even began, it's no wonder Warner Bros. got cold feet.

The script was quite different from other Superman movies

All of Superman Lives' script drafts (there were three in total) had Clark Kent in the dark about his true identity, feeling isolated on Earth, and trying to understand his powers. After learning he's an alien, he really loses it, leaving himself open to attack from a powerful enemy created by the unholy union of Lex Luthor and Brainiac, known as Luthiac. If that's not enough, there's the now infamous giant mechanical spider and polar bear bodyguards at the Fortress of Solitude that are not only legendary rumors of possible huge mistakes about to be made, but also indications of just how outside the box this movie was going to get. Warner Bros. executives would later say they never got a script they felt completely comfortable producing, but hey, at least nobody was talking about Superman reversing the Earth's rotation, right?

A clash of egos

Having produced both of Burton's Batman movies, Jon Peters was a longtime collaborator with the visionary director, if not a Hollywood legend in his own right in terms of quirkiness and strong-willed studio interference in the creative process. Almost all of the more questionable aspects of Superman Lives—the polar bear guards, the giant spider, Brainiac's skull ship—were all blamed on Peters. He allegedly didn't want to show Superman flying at all, which along with his other wacky suggestions, was enough to trigger years of resentful rants by Kevin Smith, who believes Peters was the sole reason the project tanked. Although, there's no love lost between Smith and Burton, since Burton basically shunned Smith from the whole process as soon as he came on board. It was a clash of egos epic enough for its own comic book, with Peters decidedly getting painted as the arch-nemesis.

The movie was bleeding money before production even started

Remember how Warner Bros. was worried about losing money? Well, depending on different accounts, Superman Lives accumulated an upwards of $30 million in pre-production costs alone. By the time shooting was set to start, the estimated $100 million budget was already being projected to double. That includes $20 million for Nicolas Cage and $5 million for Tim Burton who secured pay-or-play contracts, which guaranteed their salaries, should the production not move forward through no fault of their own. That sounds like a recipe for unrestricted spending as well as an unwillingness to collaborate with Warner Bros., since the studio left themselves in a position of zero leverage. Just imagine how much money was leaking throughout the rest of the project.

Superman's bizarre, new costumes

There is test footage of several possible Superman suits that range from comically ridiculous to actually kind of close to the suit Henry Cavill wears in Man of Steel. But the supposed "final suit," the one that was going to be used, looks like a cross between an anatomy class muscular system dummy and a pre-lit LED Christmas tree. Granted, it's just some grainy test footage, so who knows how it would have looked with finalized effects and in the context of the movie, but it certainly was a dramatic departure from anything audiences would previously recognize from the Superman story. All you have to do is look at what a disaster the addition of two tiny nipples on the Batman suit was to know exactly how this crazy vision of Superman's costume would have gone over.

Tim Burton views the experience as a huge regret in his life

With a now highly publicized feud between himself and Kevin Smith coupled with his revealing interview in the documentary The Death of "Superman Lives": What Happened?, it's clear that Tim Burton's heart was probably no longer in it when the studio pulled the plug on the project. The increasingly absurd interference from Peters, which was allegedly all centered around his collaboration with merchandisers, couldn't have helped either. Ultimately, the studio made a financial decision based on creative cold feet, the failure of some other Superman projects like TV's Lois & Clark, and a general shift away from high-priced superhero projects. Superman Lives was undoubtedly a dream project for Burton and he spent the better part of a year passionately creating what he thought was a unique and original take on the beloved character. It's a shame that his takeaway from it will always be a feeling of regret.

Thankfully, we did get to see Cage as Superman in 2023's The Flash where the actor made an all-star cameo as the hero. Sure, it was only for a few seconds but things went one step further thanks to DC Comics. Cage also landed a variant comic book cover from DC and it's as amazing as you'd expect it to be.