This article originally ran on Den of Geek UK.
Plenty of words have been written over the years about Superman Lives, Jon Peters’ ill-fated attempt to re-start the moribund Superman franchise. I won’t try to go over old ground, but suffice it to say that it was going to be a bit… different. Even before the addition of Tim Burton as director, Peters had imposed a set of uh, parameters which pushed the project away from the familiar mythos.
According to Kevin Smith (quoted and re-told in various sources), Peters had three directives.
One, he didn’t want Superman in the traditional suit because it was too colourful. Two, he did not want to see Superman fly. Three, Superman had to fight a giant spider in the third act. These ideas have become infamous in the fan community as a prime example of Hollywood failing to treat its properties with respect. Despite the morbid interest of fans, this project died before production.
But who is to say that Superman Lives died? Maybe a little piece of its madness survived and found a new home in a slightly more mainstream framework.
First, a personal story.
Before watching Man Of Steel on its release, I expected a few things: Krypton exploding. Ma and Pa Kent. Explosions. Granted, I did not expect 40 minutes of explosions but I digress. A lot of people have talked about how ‘new’ and ‘gritty’ Man Of Steel feels. I feel like I am in the opposite camp. While watching the movie something kept bugging me. For some reason, the movie felt strangely familiar to me. For the majority of the run time, I was stuck with this strange sense of deja vu — right up until the point that Superman confronted Zod’s world engine.
That was the point where something clicked. Something about the way this machine looked — with its bulbous body and talon-like legs, it could easily be mistaken for a giant bug. When the machine sprouted liquid metal appendages to ward off Kal-El, there could be no denying what I was looking at: ‘It’s a spider… That looks like a giant spider!’ I started laughing — and did not stop until the movie ended.
For all of its faux-seriousness and Nolanesque ‘realism’, all I could see in Man Of Steel was the ghost of Jon Peters (or at least his career) throwing me a double thumbs-up as his vision finally ended up on the big screen.
Maybe I am reading too much into it, but, whether it is intentional or not, Man Of Steel replicates so many key aspects of Jon Peters’ Superman Lives project that I feel like it deserves to be brought out in the open — for the sake of my own sanity, if nothing else (well that, and getting to read the comments after this goes live).
The first thing I noticed was the costumes. Checking out the Superman outfit, with its desaturated colours and lack of outer-underwear (that’s what it’s called, right?), all I could hear was Peter’s mandate to Kevin Smith to rethink the costume into something more ‘badass’ and ‘street’. Furthermore, the Kryptonians’ battle armor worn by Zod and his cohorts feels a little too close to some of the more Borg-like designs for Superman’s costume from Burton’s project.
One of the key components of Superman Lives is ‘K’, a Kryptonian AI who becomes Superman’s mentor and sidekick for the duration of the film. A mix of Jor-El and the Eradicator (one of the Superman pretenders from the ‘death of Superman’ storyline the script was based on), K is a near-omnipotent ‘get out of jail free’ card that helps a struggling Superman to defeat his alien foe. In Man Of Steel, Superman is assisted by a hologram of his dead father, who downloaded his conscience into a computer (or something).
Granted, this is an idea lifted from the original comics and movies, but Russell Crowe’s interactive version of the character is far closer to the Peters-Smith-Burton character than any of the previous portrayals of Jor-El. This is especially true in the sequences where the hologram of Jor-El gives Superman and Lois Lane information and assistance – especially when she is trying to escape from Zod’s ship.
In the Kevin Smith draft, K is present a la Iron Man’s Jarvis as a voice in Superman’s suit – after he dies and is resurrected, Superman is de-powered and K has to equip him with technology that can approximate his powers. While Superman is rehabilitated, like Jor-El in Man Of Steel, K is able to fill him in on more of his origins, and later sacrifices itself to help him regain his powers.
Like K, hologram Jor-El is a far more active presence than the versions of the character seen previously, and does more to actively help Superman combat Zod. While different in certain respects, K and Jor-El effectively fulfill the same role in helping Superman learn how to be Superman.
The final example I will highlight is slightly more random, but comes with an interesting origin.
According to Kevin Smith’s re-telling of the story from the first An Evening With DVD he released, Peters was obsessed with having as many action beats as possible throughout the script. Peters combined this cart-before-the-horse approach to story structure with his interest in dangerous exotic animals (hence the giant spider). One of the more extraneous of these set pieces involved Brainiac engaging in combat with a pair of polar bears which act as guards for Superman’s Fortress of Solitude.
In Man Of Steel, Clark flies the Kryptonian scout ship he discovers north to the Arctic pole, and basically ends up turning into a more ‘realistic’ version of the Fortress of Solitude. As the ship comes down to rest, there are a pair of slightly agitated polar bears hanging around watching it land. According to Snyder’s interview on the Empire Podcast when the film came out, this was his way of tipping the hat to Peters.
As a postscript, there are also a few major similarities between Man Of Steel and the other major Superman project of the early ‘00s – Superman: Flyby. An ambitious epic written by a pre-Lost JJ Abrams, with, at various times, McG and Brett Ratner on board as director, Flybywas intended as the start of a series that would be far broader in scope than the Christopher Reeve version.
Featuring epic war scenes on Krypton (including, like Man Of Steel, a coup by a group of militaristic Kryptonian villains), the film would have also concluded with a massive final battle between Clark and an army of Kryptonians on Earth. Like Man Of Steel, Flyby was going to open up the franchise to become more of a space opera along the lines of Star Wars (the prequels were out at the time). In the end, this project was dropped when Bryan Singer jumped onboard to make Superman Returnsin 2004.
I have a theory on why so many aspects of dead projects turned up in Man Of Steel. The first major influence on the direction of this project was the (relative) failure of Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns in 2006. The film was criticised on a variety of levels, but the most obvious one was a lack of action.
Considering the movie came with a much ballyhooed $260 million price tag, and with the increasingly grand scope of the Spider-Man and other comic book movies of the same era, it is still mind boggling that not more of this budget went toward upping the action stakes (to be fair, about $50 million of that was the result of Superman Lives, Flyby and all the other Superman iterations which failed to launch).
While the pre-Returns versions were extremely action-oriented, the arrival of Bryan Singer as steward of franchise hit pause on this more crowd-pleasing approach. With the failure of Singer’s version, it is not difficult to imagine that the old mandate was restored, along with certain expectations in terms of scale and scope.
The other major influence on the way Man Of Steel turned out is legal.
What is often overlooked is that the film was rushed into production in 2009 after the family of co-creator Jerry Siegel won back the rights to Superman’s origin and Siegel’s copyright over the character and could sue for lost royalties if a new movie was not made. While the project came from a pitch from David S Goyer, it would not be a surprise if, in a few years, it comes out that specific elements of Man Of Steel were the result of the persistent demands of studio execs with previous involvement in the franchise’s long stay in pre-production hell.
This is all ultimately speculation, and it is most likely that the similarities between Man Of Steel these failed projects are just a coincidence. Even so, it is a fascinating look at the inner workings of a major studio’s handling of a flagship property, and how specific ideas of how that property should be portrayed are able to persist in pre-production while others do not.
With that, I will end my theorising and let you loose in the comments. Be nice to me.