A closer look at the Superman Lives script

As Wesley Stick's script from Tim Burton's ill-fated Superman Lives appears online, Seb finds out what the movie might have looked like...

As we gear up for the release of Zack Snyder’s Superman reboot-slash-revamp Man Of Steel later this year, it’s interesting to note that an earlier, aborted cinematic take on the Man of Tomorrow – the late 90s Superman Lives project – seems to be rearing its head online once more.

First came the news that one enterprising fan is looking to make a feature-length documentary about the whole sorry saga – seeking funding on Kickstarter – and now, all of a sudden, the fabled script draft that would have most likely been filmed by director Tim Burton has finally emerged, courtesy of The Superman Homepage.

Some history, then. In the mid 1990s, Warner Bros were frantically trying to capitalise on the success of their new series of Batman films by putting a companion Superman film into production. Seeking to reboot the series – following the catastrophe that was 1987’s Superman IV: The Quest For Peace – they turned directly to the recent comics for their source material, deciding to make an adaptation of the notorious, and hugely-selling, Death and Return of Superman storyline.

Early drafts by Jonathan Lemkin and Gregory Poirier of a script titled Superman Reborn were considered unimpressive – at which point, to the surprise of many, writer/director Kevin Smith joined the project. Smith had been called in by Warner Bros execs, impressed by his success with Clerks (and apparently glossing over the commercial and initial critical failure of Mallrats), to discuss various potential rewrite projects – one of which was Superman. Smith was eventually allowed to look over the script – which he hated. Following multiple meetings, he was allowed a crack at rewriting.

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Smith tells the story of his time on the project in fantastically entertaining fashion on his Evening With Kevin Smith DVD, so we won’t repeat the ins and outs of it here. But the upshot is that even after some ridiculous demands from producer Jon Peters – no flying, no red-and-blue costume, and a “giant spider” in the third act – the script that Smith turned in, now titled Superman Lives, was terrific.

While it does shed the continuity of the Reeve films, Lives version 1.0 doesn’t get bogged down in retelling the origin – at the start of the film, Superman/Clark is in a popularly recognisable status quo (albeit with the detail, drawn from the then-current comics, of being in a relationship with Lois – although Smith plays beautifully with viewer expectations when revealing this for the first time), and the story is able to quickly spin out of that. It’s fast, it’s funny, it deals with the studio-enforced compromises as well as you’d expect, and it’s unmistakeably a ‘proper’ Superman story.

Smith’s draft is dated March 1997, but by July of that same year, a lot had changed. Tim Burton had arrived as director in a wave of publicity – and by now, Nicolas Cage had signed on to play the Man of Steel. But although Burton had actually been suggested by Smith himself as potential candidate to direct, he didn’t reciprocate that regard, and elected to bring in favoured collaborator Wesley Strick to perform a page one rewrite.

It’s Strick’s July 97 draft which has now made it online – and, as the version on which the majority of the pre-production and concept work was based, it’s the script that perhaps offers the clearest glimpse of how Burton’s film might have turned out. So it’s fascinating – and actually not in the least bit surprising – that it turns out to be such a massive misfire.

The first thing that strikes anyone who’s familiar with Smith’s script is just how similar the story is. While Strick’s Superman starts the film in an odd place – aged 30, he’s apparently semi-retired, yet still unaware of his Kryptonian heritage – beyond that detail the major plot beats play out the same way. The Kryptonian intelligence and would-be conqueror Brainiac arrives on Earth, and teams up with Luthor as he attempts to retrieve a piece of technology created by Kal-El’s father, known only as ‘K’. In order to defeat Superman, the pair artificially block out the sun and unleash a beast named Doomsday, whom the Man of Steel fights to the death in Metropolis.

However, it transpires that the sentient ‘K’ technology, created for the purpose of protecting Kal-El, is able both to bring him back to life, and also to serve as a protective suit that mimics the hero’s now-missing powers. Ultimately he returns to full power and, unsurprisingly, saves the day – Brainiac and Luthor, who have merged into one (apparently) terrifying entity, are defeated, while “K” is heroically destroyed in the process.

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While not at its root a bad story, there are glaring flaws in Strick’s script – and most of them become apparent when set alongside the Smith script, against which it can’t help but be compared. While retaining the same basic story, Strick jettisoned the entirety of Smith’s dialogue – and in the process, managed to lose all of the film’s wit, charm and heart. What remains is a script that’s entirely po-faced, and especially lacking in character.

In Smith’s script, for example, there are clear voices to both Luthor and Brainiac. The former, while re-cast from known criminal mastermind to the popular businessman the comics version had become, retains a Gene Hackman-esque fast-talking arrogance. Smith’s Brainiac, meanwhile, has all the dramatic flourish of a would-be alien conqueror. Yet Strick’s version of Luthor seems to have little to no personality – simply serving the plot as Brainiac’s sidekick – while the Kryptonian villain drifts alternately between ‘alien’ and surprisingly contemporary-Earth speech patterns.

Smith had also taken care to give a personality to Superman’s protective Kryptonian technology – in his draft named ‘the Eradicator’ after its original comics inspiration – turning a good chunk of the film into something of a buddy-movie and lending a classically “what-is-this-human-emotion-called-friendship” kind of tone to the eventual sacrifice. In Strick’s script, this personality is gone – yet oddly, he attempts to make his version of their parting feel similarly tragic.

Perhaps the script’s biggest failing, however, is in its decision to play up the ‘alien’ aspects of Superman. Throughout, it shows clear signs of fundamentally misunderstanding the character – this version of Kal-El opens the film in a detached, isolated and brooding state, and is only distanced further from humanity when the links back to Krypton are established. Even more bizarrely, at the film’s end, while Superman has returned, Clark is still presumed dead – in other words, Superman has chosen to let his human identity “die”, retaining only the “alien visitor” side. This is entirely at odds with how he’s been presented for some thirty years or more – as far as most Superman fans are concerned, it’s Clark, the humanist farm boy raised by loving parents, who is the ‘true’ aspect of the character.

And yet, at the end of the script, Superman is suddenly in a relationship with Lois that didn’t exist at the beginning of it. Even despite this link to humanity, his alien-ness is emphasised further by more than one reference to their inability to have children together. It’s hard not to see the irony in this conversation appearing in Strick’s script, given that it sounds like a near-verbatim quote of a joke from Kevin Smith’s Mallrats.

(This ‘man of steel coital debate’ would be Smith’s only apparent dialogue legacy to Strick’s version, were it not for it also deploying the infamous “Thanagarian Snare Beast”. Indeed, that throwaway term that Smith had come up with to explain away Jon Peters’ request for a “giant spider” evidently tickled Strick so much that he also works in a ‘Plutonian Claw Beast’ – as if he seems to think that that terminology is the standard Superman way of referring to alien monsters.)

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For all of this, judged on its own merits Strick’s script doesn’t feel like a terrible superhero action film. It just seems to miss so spectacularly the point of any Superman story – the character himself barely appears as Superman for most of its running time – and sorely wants for decent character voice or any level of humour or charisma. It’s clear from the script, the concept material and even the casting of Cage that Burton’s vision for Superman involved heavily playing up his alien side – and that vision just feels terribly at odds with everything that’s supposed to make Superman, the ultimate immigrant, the man who comes from the stars and shows humanity the best of themselves, great.

Of course, we’ll never know exactly how the film would have turned out, as by early 1998 – and in the wake of the catastrophic Batman And Robin basically killing the superhero genre – the script was subject to heavy, budget-cutting rewrites that altered the story and led to Burton departing the project altogether. Warners muddled on with various subsequent attempted projects – including Wolfgang Petersen’s Batman Vs Superman and JJ Abrams’ even-more-point-missing Superman: Flyby – before Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns in 2006 finally brought the character back to the screen with a far more traditional and reverent take.

In the end, Superman Lives never really stood a hope of doing so – but the missteps taken along the way to its eventual failure remain intriguing to comic book fans everywhere, and we can’t wait to see how much more of the story might be revealed should this documentary get made…

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