The Death Of Superman Lives: What Happened? review

The Death Of Superman Lives: What Happened? – the story of Kevin Smith and Tim Burton’s botched Superman film – is pure nerdy joy…

If you’re a regular visitor of this site (or other nerdy corners of the web), you might think you already know everything there is to know about the abandoned 1990s comic book movie Superman Lives. Indeed, the story of Kevin Smith, Tim Burton, Nicolas Cage and Jon Peters’ super-sized sparring is the stuff of geek legend.

As someone who has read and written many words about the film, I was in that camp, too. I’m happy to report, though: no matter how off-the-chart your geek cred levels are, you’ll want to check out The Death Of Superman Lives: What Happened?

To put it bluntly – this documentary by Jon Schnepp (which seeks to chronicle how this pre-Superman Returns reboot ballooned its budget and ended up binned by Warner Bros) is pure nerdy wish fulfilment, offering as complete a coverage of the doomed production as you will surely ever see. If the enigma of this cursed Superman project has ever piqued your interest, this film will extend your intrigue into a hugely entertaining – and educational – 90 minutes.

This joyous exploration of Superman’s greatest cinematic ‘what if?’ is enabled marvellously by Schnepp, who took writing, directing, presenting, co-producing and co-editing duties himself. If you hadn’t guessed, the film is a passion project of mammoth proportions.

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Winningly, though, Schnepp stays detached enough to avoid a full-scale geek meltdown when faced with interviewing the likes of Tim Burton, Kevin Smith and producer Jon Peters. Schnepp – a newcomer to documentary-making, but by no means inexperienced as a writer or director – brings a sort of geeky Louis Theroux approach, goading crewmembers into dishing their secrets by playing it cool and acting innocent throughout.

Of course, he’s really playing devil’s advocate all along, poking old wounds to uncover new facts, but he treads the line between fanatic and professional very well, earning candid and insightful interviews from folk you’d never expect to give them. Indeed, whatever he does next, we will watch Schnepp’s career with great interest. And we haven’t even mentioned the live-action sequences from the script that he’s shot himself (they’re very good, but we won’t spoil their content here).

As you might not expect from an hour-and-a-half discussion of a film that ultimately crashed and burned taking plenty of jobs with it, The Death Of Superman Lives: What Happened? is actually completely hilarious. It kicks off with Kevin Smith comically riffing about his early meetings with producer Jon Peters (‘no flying, no suit, one giant spider’ were his infamous demands), and involves several other belly laughs along the way (see: a concept artist struggling to remember why the film had ninjas).

The unexpected comedy MVP, though, is Jon Peters himself, the hairdresser-turned-blockbuster-producer with a penchant for martial arts and a habit of bringing his four children along to check on production. The number of ludicrous anecdotes about him (putting a production designer in a chokehold, for one) is genuinely uncountable. There’s an argument to be made that Peters isn’t actually the villain of the piece, but we’ll let you decide that for yourself.

As for weaknesses, this documentary has about as few as Supes himself. The relentless cutaways to footage from other films get a bit tiring, but they never detract from the experience. Also, at times, the film gets a tad confusing, but that’s only because the story itself is. At least four versions of the script are being discussed in quick succession, after all.

On the whole, though, this film is ideal viewing for anyone whose cup of tea it is to pick apart the bizarreness of Hollywood. From reams of gorgeous concept art to ever-engaging interviews, via script enactments and a holy grail of behind-the-scenes footage, Schnepp and co. have put a fantastic amount of effort into this labour of love. As their reward, they’ve ended up with a film that deserves to go down in geek legend as much as its subject matter.

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Oh, and also – The Death Of Superman Lives will probably change your mind about Nic Cage’s infamous Supes costume, too.

The Death Of Superman Lives is released on July 9th at

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4 out of 5