The Big-Screen Superman Reboots That Almost Happened

Nic Cage, Kevin Smith and a Batman V Superman film from 14 years ago: here are the reboots that didn’t quite make it…

Superman has a bigger cinematic legacy than most comic book characters, having spawned four films with the legendary Christopher Reeve, one with Brandon Routh, and another with Henry Cavill (which will lead, somewhat inevitably, into a DC shared universe, with Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice in 2016, and multiple Justice League movies to follow), not to mention several TV, serial, and animated versions, too.

And while you’ve probably already heard the stories of abandoned further installments for Messrs Reeve and Routh, how much do you know about the Superman reboots and recastings that didn’t quite make it?

Here’s our run through of the Superman projects that couldn’t quite fly their way out of development hell…

Superman Reborn

In the early 1990s, talks were well underway for a fifth film in the Christopher Reeve Superman saga. It would have focused on the death and rebirth of Superman (before such a thing had become a major comic book arc), and featured Brainiac and the shrunken Kryptonian city of Kandor. The script by famed comic book scribe Cary Bates, was quite good, but sadly, Christopher Reeve never got a chance to reprise his iconic role, and The Quest For Peace would remain his final appearance as Superman.

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When the more action-heavy The Death Of Supermancomic became hugely popular in 1992, Warner Bros took notice. In early 1993, they bought the rights to Superman’s cinematic usage from the Salkinds, who had been the brains behind the first three films of Reeve’s tenure in the tights (Cannon Films made Superman IV: The Quest For Peace, and then their bankruptcy sent the rights back to the Salkinds, who then sold to Warner Bros).

Producer Jon Peters (who would eventually serve as a producer on Superman Returns and an executive producer on Man Of Steel) was given the reigns, with the stipulation being that the studio did not want Superman: The New Movie (the name given to the Reeve project that the Salkinds had been devising).

Instead, Peters brought in Jonathan Lemkin (the writer of Lethal Weapon 4, and episodes of the 21 Jump Street and Beverly Hills 90210 TV shows) to pull a new script together. As well as ignoring the groundwork of Superman: The New Movie, he was instructed to provide enough stylishness to appeal to “the MTV generation,” and to inject a hefty amount toy-selling appeal too. Before long, toy companies were insisting on seeing scripts before heading to big toy-based industry events.

Scriptwriting under such stipulations is surely never easy, but the resultant screenplay certainly sounds interesting. Superman’s battle with Doomsday (as seen in The Death Of Superman) would serve as a presumably huge opening sequence, before a dying Superman sent his ‘life force’ into Lois, leading to a Jesus-y virgin birth. The new Superman grows up very quickly, and on go the heroics.

This script – which was going under the title Superman Reborn – was shut down because of similarities seen between this idea and that of Batman Forever (which also loosely plays with ideas surrounding the obligation of heroism). It doesn’t sound too similar to us, but that’s how it went down.

Gregory Poirier (National Treasure: Book Of SecretsLion King 2The Spy Next Door) was hired to rewrite, adding in Brainiac, a robot suit, a Force-like mental discipline, and two further villains, Parasite and Silver Banshee. Warner Bros seemed set on this (very toy-friendly) idea until Kevin Smith waded in and offered an alternative. He later described Poirier’s draft as ‘like the Batman TV show version of a Superman movie; very campy.”

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Superman Lives

Superman Lives is the stuff of what-if cinematic legend. In fact, a documentary has even been made about the bafflingly bizarre brilliance of the story behind this non-existent movie. It’s out this July, folks. We’ve discussed Superman Lives in detail before, too.

The story begins with Kevin Smith, the indie cinema icon behind ClerksMallrats, and many other projects besides. That video we’ve embedded above is his version of events, which we can only dream of regaling in as humorous a manner. If you’re at work, or don’t fancy watching a video right now, here’s our summary.

Smith was in a meeting at Warner Bros. where they began talking about their Superman Reborn script. He read it, deemed it campy, and then had a succession of meetings where he explained the reasoning behind his dislike to several high up execs. Eventually, he landed the gig of writing a new Superman script.

Naturally, he was excited by this opportunity and accepted the offer despite a long list of stipulations that he had to meet. No flying, and no blue suit, were the first two. Peters – still in charge of the project – deemed that Superman would “look like an overgrown Boy Scout” if they stuck to classic conventions of the character. Also, Peters wanted a giant spider for the big action finale, telling Smith that they were the fiercest killers in the animal kingdom.

Smith tried his best to work with these ideas, writing Superman as “a red-and-blue blur in flight, creating a sonic boom every time he flew.” Later, more requests came in – a fight between Brainiac and some polar bears (also fierce killers, apparently), a space dog sidekick for Lex Luthor (inspired by Chewie, and the success of the Star Wars re-releases) and, rather amazingly, “a gay R2-D2 with attitude,” to be played by Dwight Ewell (previously seen in Smith’s Chasing Amy).

Somehow, Smith persevered with this project as long as he was allowed to. His casting ideas included Ben Affleck for Superman, Jack Nicholson as Lex Luthor, Jason Lee as Brainiac and – yes! – Jason Mewes as Jimmy Olsen. Sadly, when Smith’s choice of director (Tim Burton, a few years after Batman) signed up, he ordered a new script from Wesley Strick (1991’s Cape FearDoomArachnophobia).

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Said Smith: “the studio was happy with what I was doing. Then Tim Burton got involved, and when he signed his pay-or-play deal [a hefty $5 million, at the time], he turned around and said he wanted to do his version of Superman. So who is Warner Bros going back to? The guy who made Clerks, or the guy who made them half a billion dollars on Batman?”

So, Superman Lives lived on, but with Kevin Smith sadly out of the picture. In one of the most incredible moments in casting history, Tim Burton signed up Nicolas Cage to play the dual roles of Superman and Clark Kent.

This would, according to Burton, “be the first time you would believe that nobody could recognise Clark Kent as Superman, he [Cage] could physically change his persona.” Producer Peters was in agreement, stating that Cage would “convince audiences that he came from space.” In Cage’s words, he was set to “re-conceive the character.” The $20 million on the table was probably quite alluring, too, even though Cage is a well-known comic book fan.

Who else would have been involved? Well, Kevin Spacey was approached to play Lex Luthor (which, of course, he later would in Superman Returns), Courtney Cox was a rumored Lois Lane and everyone from Tim Allen to Jim Carrey and even Gary Oldman were linked to the role of Brainiac. Chris Rock would have played Jimmy Olsen, and Michael Keaton was set to be involved in some capacity (reprising Batman? “Not exactly,” in his words).

The project entered pre-production in 1997, and Strick took to the task of rejigging the script. Smith’s inclusion of the Eradicator character was among the things Strick didn’t take well to, as well as his feelings that “Brainiac’s evil plot of launching a disk in space to block out the sun and make Superman powerless was reminiscent of an episode of The Simpsons, with Mr Burns doing the Brainiac role.”

Strick’s rewrite saw Supes reimagined as an existentialist, discussing his out-of-place positioning on Earth. Strick’s script also saw Brainiac and Lex Luthor combine into ‘a schizo/scary mega-villain’ called Lexiac. The spirit of ‘K’ (something about Kryptonian natural forces) resurrected Superman in this version, allowing him to beat Lexiac.

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Toys were again at the forefront of Peters’ thinking, with the rumour being that he would show children the concept art and ask for reactions. Similar stories surround Batman Forever and Batman & Robin, and that blended with Burton’s involvement would surely be a recipe for a very strange film indeed.

The budget for the film spiralled up to $190 million, with $30 million of that spent by the stage that sets were beginning to be built and Nicolas Cage went in for that legendary costume fitting. Scripts were rewritten to control the budget, the film was pushed back, and eventually Burton left to direct Sleepy Hollow instead.

“I basically wasted a year. A year is a long time to be working with somebody that you don’t really want to be working with,” said Burton, suggesting indeed that the collaboration between his vision and Warner Bros’ desire to produce an MTV-friendly toy-filled movie just couldn’t be made to work. As a final roll of the dice, Peters offered Will Smith the role of Superman, but he turned it down, saying “you can’t be messing with white people’s heroes in Hollywood!”

As Kevin Smith pointed out, Peters eventually got his giant spider versus Will Smith idea to fruition in Wild Wild West, which he also produced.

Batman/Superman: Asylum

Here’s one that came up in our article about the Batman reboots that nearly happened, so apologies if you’re experiencing a little déjà vu at the moment. We’ll keep this one brief, seeing as there’s a decent chance you know the story already.

This is, of course, the early 21st century idea to reboot Bats and Supes in one swoop. After the aforementioned string of failed Superman projects (not to mention the state that the Batman franchise had fallen into in the meantime), the idea of squeezing DC’s finest into one film and being done with it was as tempting to Warner Bros executives as you might have expected.

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The story goes that Se7enand Sleepy Hollow scribe Andrew Kevin Walker came up with the idea, but Akiva Goldsman of Batman Forever and Batman & Robin was soon taking the reigns. Later, Goldsman would plonk a potential logo for his film that never was into the background of Will Smith vehicle I Am Legend as an in-joke. Albeit one that set the internet aflutter as a result.

In Goldsman’s 2002 script draft (which is available online here), times were tough for both Batman and Superman. Clark Kent has divorced from Lois Lane, but bucks up the courage to serve as Bruce Wayne’s best man. After Bruce’s wife is killed shortly after the ceremony, Clark tries to convince a retired Bruce away from a vengeful vendetta.

This argument sparks them into a big ol’ fight, with the whole thing later being reveals as a ploy by Lex Luthor to get the two heroes to destroy one another. Naturally, they team up to stop Lex’s schemes instead.

Christian Bale was the hot tip for Batman (a while before he would eventually get the role in Batman Begins), and a new Superman was found in the shape of Josh Hartnett. An interesting choice for sure, but unlikely to be one who will ever get the chance again.

Superman: Flyby

Here’s one that was actually floating around before Asylum (until that idea grabbed Warner Bros’ attention). At the helm was JJ Abrams, whose new script draft was one of the nails in the coffin on the Batman Vs. Superman project. Are you starting to get the impression that Warners weren’t sure what they wanted at this stage?

Well, for a time, Abrams’ script was top of their priorities, with an interesting plot in development. Slightly changed origin beats would play out. There was still a Kryptonian civil war, and Kal-El would still be sent to Earth, but Krypton would survive.

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Lois was obsessed with stopping Lex Luthor, here a government agent obsessed with UFOs. When Superman reveals himself to the world, a bunch of evil Kryptonians head to Earth and kill him. After a quick chat with his dead dad (he killed himself in prison in this version) in heaven, Superman returns to Earth and stops the baddies. At the end, he would have flown off to Krypton in a spaceship.

Brett Ratner soon signed on to direct, with Christopher Reeve joining the project as a consultant and lobbying for Smallville’s Tom Welling to take the role. Somewhat contrastingly, Reeve and Ratner agreed that it shouldn’t be a major Hollywood star in the part, but an unknown.

Another change of plans occurred when Ratner approached Josh Hartnett, Jude Law, the late Paul Walker and Brendan Fraser. Hardly unknowns, even if they’re not the biggest stars in showbiz. The problem, apparently, was a contract that involved a lot of sequel stipulations.

Said Ratner: “No star wants to sign that, but as much as I’ve told Jude and Josh my vision for the movie, I’ve warned them of the consequences of being Superman. They’ll live this character for 10 years because I’m telling one story over three movies and plan to direct all three if the first is as successful as everyone suspects.”

Pride before a fall there, anyone? Ultimately, none of the big stars wanted to sign (“I could have made a gazillion dollars on that franchise. I could probably have bought my own fleet of jets or my own island. You know what? I don’t need it,” Walker famously said). Ashton Kutcher and David Boreanaz couldn’t be tempted either. At some point, Brandon Routh auditioned for this project too (see above). Similarly interestingly, Amy Adams auditioned for the Lois Lane part in Flyby, about a decade before actually landing the part.

Matt Bomer (seen since in everything from Chuck to American Horror Story) purportedly became Ratner’s favorite for the role, and the director also planned to bring in Anthony Hopkins as Jor-El and Ralph Fiennes as Lex Luthor. Interesting choices, both.

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Ultimately, it seems like no-one could agree. Ratner eventually walked away from the project in 2003, blaming – you guessed it – casting delays, as well as ‘violent feuds with producer Jon Peters,’ who was still in the picture as a creative force. McG (who had previously been attached to the project pre-Batman Vs. Superman) re-joined proceedings with plans to cast Shia LaBeouf as Jimmy Olsen, Robert Downey Jr. as Lex Luthor, Scarlett Johansson as Lois Lane, and a complete unknown as Superman.

Location then became an issue, as McG wasn’t willing to relocate the production to Australia (a combination of Supes’ inherent Americanism and his own fear of flying). By this point, he had shot test footage with several leading men contenders, including Henry Cavill (who of course, later won the role). McG quit, and Warner Bros refused Abrams’ suggestion of returning and directing his own script. They brought in Bryan Singer instead, leading directly to Superman Returns.

We wrote in much more detail about Superman: Flyby right here.

Justice League: Mortal

And finally, here’s another that you will have seen if you read our Batman article. After Superman Returnshad failed to reach Warner Bros’ expectations (despite being, to many, an enjoyable Superman film), the studio again toyed with the idea of a team-up film as a way of re-launching Supes and Bats (even though Bale had already starred in Batman Begins by this stage) simultaneously. This time they had a few other heroes in mind, too.

The Justice League: Mortal project began in 2007, with Michele and Kieran Mulroney – who would go on to write Sherlock Holmes: A Game Of Shadows – attached to write a script. The intention was to launch a young team of actors to super-stardom, and let them grow into their superhero roles in a follow-up series of films.

The Lone Ranger’s Armie Hammer was attached to play Batman, while the mantle of Superman was handed to D.J. Cotrona, known best these days as Flint from G.I. Joe: Retaliation. George Miller of Mad Max fame was set to direct.

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Why didn’t Cotrona get the chance to play Superman in the end? That’d be because of two things: the Writers Guild Of America strike, which slowed proceedings down, and the Australian Film Commission’s decision to deny Warners a tax break, as they were dissatisfied with the number of Australians in the cast. By the time all this was sorted and production had been moved to Vancouver, The Dark Knight had reached cinemas and Warner Bros were suddenly happier with idea of making another Nolan Batman film before a Justice League outing.

So, the next time someone near you is hating on Man Of Steel, just be glad that Superman movies are actually being made at the moment, because it’s rarely been that simple in recent years.

If you’re after some further reading, incidentally, do dig out the book Superman Vs Hollywood. It’s a fascinating read, that charts the development of Superman on the big screen over many decades.