Superman Lives: The Dan Gilroy Era

Dan Gilroy is earning plenty of critical acclaim with Nightcrawler Roman J. Israel, Esq. His Superman script was a little more difficult.

Dan Gilroy is in the midst of critical and commercial success after Nightcrawler and with the release of the Denzel Washington starring Roman J. Israel, Esq. Nightcrawler was even nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay in 2014. If Dan Gilroy’s name rings a bell to superhero fans, that’s no accident. Mr. Gilroy wrote one of the drafts for Superman Lives (starring Nic Cage) that was to be directed by Tim Burton, and made it well into production before things went awry.

Famously, Kevin Smith had turned in two drafts of a Superman Lives script beginning in 1997, followed by Wesley Strick (Arachnophobia). Warner Bros. was getting nervous about the budget (which, at the time, had ballooned to a then ostentatious $140 million), and Gilroy’s draft was reported to bring that back down to a more reasonable $100 million. Still, the basic premise of Dan Gilroy’s Superman Lives, that of a Luthor/Brainiac team-up that also sees Superman meet his death at the hands of Doomsday (before his speedy resurrection via Kryptonian technology), had been there from the Smith days, and several scenes from Wesley Strick’s attempt remain in both of the Dan Gilroy drafts I read, dated February and September of 1998.

It’s that second Gilroy draft that came the closest to production under Tim Burton’s tenure on the project. As a result, of all of the Superman Lives screenplays out there, Dan Gilroy’s is the one that feels the most tailored to Tim Burton’s unique (although probably not really appropriate for a Superman project) style and voice. While on the promotion circuit for Nightcrawler a few years ago, Dan Gilroy, who has come VERY far since his Superman Lives days it would seem, has spoken out about just how close to production this particular version of the project came:

“They pulled the plug right when we were doing camera tests,” Mr. Gilroy recalled in an interview with IndieWire, “it was very far along.” With that in mind, it looks like at least some of the footage glimpsed of Nic Cage in the Superman costume all come from around the time of this draft. You can learn much more about that from the excellent Death of Superman Lives documentary, which is full of all kinds of craziness you didn’t know existed.

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As Warner Bros. had been intent from the inception of the project to present a Superman who was a little darker than audiences were accustomed to, the Gilroy draft of Superman Lives amped up the neuroses. “Kal-El was not told by Jor-El, before he got put in the little spaceship, who he was or where he came from,” Mr. Gilroy said, “…when he winds up on earth, he has no freaking idea where he came from. His biggest fear is that he’s an alien.”

In theory, there’s nothing at all wrong with this concept. In fact, the concept of Superman not learning his alien heritage until well after he adopts his costumed identity was popularized by John Byrne in his Man of Steel mini-series as far back as 1986. It was all part of a new spin on the Superman/Clark dynamic, in which it was understood that since Clark was raised his entire life believing he was a human (albeit one with powers), therefore Clark Kent is his actual personality, while Superman is the “mask” he wears to do good in public. Of course, the comic book Clark Kent was a handsome, successful, reporter and novelist, quite at ease with himself and his dual identity. 

That’s not the case in Superman Lives, where the awkwardness of Clark Kent isn’t an act or a put-on, but rather, a result of his own fears about a potential alien heritage, his worries about hurting those he loves, and a general sense of detachment from the human race. You see, alienation was the name of the game in the ‘90s, and Warner Bros. were keen on making sure that their new Superman wouldn’t be the squeaky clean American icon of yore. He’s even in therapy, with a disbelieving therapist unprepared to take Clark’s confessions at face value. It’s easy to see why Nic Cage was cast for this version of the role.

Aside from Clark Kent’s issues there’s a bit of a shyness about showing Superman, cape and all, in action throughout the script. As in previous drafts, Superman is out of his traditional garb for the second half of the movie, in favor of a suit of high tech armor, powered by an artificial intelligence known as “K.” To make things easy for you, “K” is the, erm…spirit of Krypton, here to protect Krypton’s last son, even if it means morphing into a completely non-Superman like suit of armor. You’ll just have to trust me on this one.

But it’s tough to read these drafts and not picture Superman Lives falling somewhere on the spectrum between Joel Schumacher’s Batman and Robin and Burton’s own Mars Attacks (Luthor, at times, behaves quite a bit like Jack Nicholson’s President from the latter film). The odd tone of this one aside, I’d be willing to bet that more ink is spilled per year about Batman and Robin than on the generally more well-regarded Superman Returns, but that’s an argument for another time.

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But in case you were wondering why this movie didn’t get made, or, if it had, it would have fit right into the late ‘90s/early 2000s wave of blockbusters, I give you these moments:

– Lois has a precocious 10 year old niece who appears throughout the movie, but is somehow never named.

– Brainiac takes over Luthor’s body, resulting in a character known as “Lexiac,” which basically means, he looks like Lex, has Lex’s comical nervous tics, but acts like a robot. Oh, and Brainiac will emerge periodically by actually splitting out of Lex’s head. Also, Brainiac learned everything about humanity by watching commercials, so the “jokes” about this come fast and furious. 

– Lexiac tries to woo Lois Lane in a manner that makes the Joker’s advances on Vicki Vale in Burton’s Batman film seem subtle by comparison. 

– Lex Luthor, clad only in a red, white, and blue thong, is dejectedly bundled off into an ambulance, leaving Superman to romance Lois in the wake of the big battle. This is, in fact, the second to last scene of the film.

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– In one particularly insane sequence from the first draft (February of ‘98…mercifully excised by the September draft), Luthor takes Brainiac to an exclusive nightclub where, after saying hello to Shaquille O’Neal and making a Martha Stewart joke, Luthor leaves the crowd (populated by hitmen, of course) to try and eliminate Brainiac in a barrage of gunfire while Elton John belts out “Great Balls of Fire” on stage. That draft also featured “Father Dick Donner” presiding over Superman’s funeral. 

For all of the contrivances from this dark era of superhero moviemaking the script stuffs into its 112 pages, there are two refreshing things to consider: Superman’s origin story is handled quickly and efficiently thanks to establishing moments on Krypton (which also introduce Brainiac), and then a few flashbacks scattered throughout the film. It is also completely unconcerned with seeding sequels or wider Superman or DC Universe mythology. There isn’t even a Gotham City mention to be had, while DC superhero movie contemporaries like Batman Forever and Batman and Robin both had references to Metropolis and Superman, respectively. In an era where there are now four weekly TV series that squeeze in more DC Comics Easter Eggs per week than an entire year’s worth of Marvel Studios releases, this version of Superman Lives feels almost restrained.

Ultimately, though, as close as this one came to getting made (aside from Cage as Superman, Chris Rock was set to play Jimmy Olsen), it wasn’t to be. Tim Burton departed, and his next two directorial efforts were as far removed from Superman as you could imagine: Sleepy Hollow and Planet of the ApesTerminator writer William Wisher was brought in to pen a slightly more traditional take on the Man of Steel. I’ll have more on Wisher’s take on Superman soon.

Mr. Gilroy, on the other hand,really found his voice with the superb Nightcrawler. Roman J. Israel, Esq. is now in theaters as well.

Mike Cecchini spends far too much time reading unproduced Superman screenplays and writing about them. Yell at him on Twitter.