Imagine if you will, a briskly paced superhero movie. One with a sense of humor tempering its nine-figure action sequences. One that is faithful to the spirit (if not the letter) of the character’s comic book and multimedia legacy and peppered with lively dialogue. It features plenty of Easter eggs from elsewhere in its fictional universe, and cameos from other heroes and villains to keep astute comic book fans happy.
Sounds a lot like the Marvel Studios or DC superhero TV formula, doesn’t it?
It also applies to Kevin Smith’s unproduced Superman Lives screenplay. While Smith’s two drafts will forever be associated with the excesses of the aborted Tim Burton era of the project, the reality is, Burton didn’t come on the project until after Smith’s second draft had been turned in.
While the legendary interference of Jon Peters is still inescapable (and you can see his fingerprints on the process, particularly as we transition from Smith’s first draft to the second), there’s something about Smith’s attempts that not only come off as utterly sincere in their love for the Man of Steel, but here in the Marvel Studios/Legends of Tomorrow era, suddenly feel familiar in their earnest enthusiasm for the source material. Hell, Smith even describes his script as “fan fiction” in The Death of Superman Lives documentary.
Smith’s early frustrations and ongoing clashes with Warner Bros., and specifically, producer Jon Peters, are well documented. Hell, you can let him tell you all about it himself in this video…
Here’s what you need to know about Warner Bros. and Superman at this point, though. In 1997, Warner Bros. had been trying for at least five years to bring Superman back to the screen after the creative and commercial disaster that was 1987’s Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. Nearly every attempt to do this contained the following elements: a Brainiac/Luthor team-up (the better to sell more toys with), the death of Superman (same reason), a Superman who wore multiple costumes (guess why?), and a darker, more cynical take on the character (because it was the ‘90s).
Kevin Smith, on the other hand, was a 26 year old indie filmmaker, who had three comedies to his name: the cult classic Clerks, the underrated Mallrats, and the critically acclaimed Chasing Amy. While Chasing Amy was a more “mature” work than his previous movies, and Smith was a lifelong comic book fan who managed to get plenty of fanboy humor into his projects, he was still an offbeat choice for the stalled Superman movie.
Smith’s Superman Lives is in many respects the movie that Warner Bros. had already been trying to make for over five years. It’s got the Brainiac/Luthor stuff, the “toyetic” approach, and it’s a “Death of Superman” movie that also does its very best to establish Supes as an edgy, alien loner. Well, that’s what the studio wanted at least. But for all its flaws, Kevin Smith’s Superman Lives feels almost like a blueprint for the fan-centric shared universe set-ups that are now standard issue in superhero movies (don’t forget, that’s a feature that’s less than a decade old), and its tone and pacing wouldn’t be entirely out of place in a Marvel Studios production.
In Smith’s screenplay, Superman and his supporting cast read very much like classic depictions of these characters, and it’s easy to hear Tim Daly and Dana Delaney, Dean Cain and Teri Hatcher, or even Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder reciting a lot of the Clark/Lois dialogue. Smith’s Luthor has more than a little Gene Hackman in his DNA, too.
But this is indeed a “Death of Superman” movie, and Supes is fighting Doomsday to the death well before the halfway point of the film. Killing and resurrecting Superman also fulfills one of the infamous Jon Peters requirements that Superman remain mostly bereft of powers and without the traditional red and blue costume for a significant chunk of the movie, while the studio gets their wish for more toys via a transforming/sentient suit of armor that he wears for the second half of the flick. It’s not ideal, and what begins as a briskly paced, even traditional Superman yarn goes off the rails a little, but it never becomes as mean-spirited or bleak as Batman v Superman.
Smith wrote two drafts (dated Jan. 31, 1997 and March 27, 1997). Notable differences include the first draft opening on Krypton with a more traditional Superman origin sequence while the second opens on Brainiac in space before cutting to Superman being well established in Metropolis (the second draft establishes the Jor-El/Brainiac connection via flashback later in the movie). The two passes are nearly identical, although you can see Peters’ (and the studio’s) increasing influence in the second draft. That’s where the infamous giant polar bears appear, and L-Ron, Brainiac’s “cute/snarky robot sidekick” (a re-purposed Justice League character, I might add), sees his role amped up a bit. Also, the Eradicator becomes a little more versatile, offering more opportunities to sell transforming toys and weapons.
In order to placate Peters’ demand that Superman fight a giant spider at some point in the film, Smith gave the seemingly incongruous idea a comic fan-friendly name: the Thanagarian Snare Beast. Imagine, for a moment, that this movie had been made, that name alone would have made this the first film to tease a DC Cinematic Universe that extends beyond the worlds of Superman and Batman, since Thanagar is known as Hawkman’s home world.
The nerdy stuff doesn’t end there. One of Luthor’s hapless employees is a Dr. Shuster, a reference to Superman’s co-creator Joe Shuster. Metropolis landmarks like Hob’s Bay (and it’s colloquial name of “Suicide Slum”) are mentioned by name, and the second draft includes an appearance by Cat Grant, working as a TV reporter for WGBS, the station that employed Clark Kent in the ‘70s, and which is owned by Morgan Edge, a man with ties to Darkseid, the warlord of the planet Apokolips (granted, Edge isn’t named in Smith’s scripts, and we did finally see GBS pop up in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, a movie that also teases the introduction of Darkseid). Smith even gets in on the action with his own creations, naming Kryptonian elders Dan-Te and Ran-Dal after View Askewniverse regulars.
Both drafts feature Suicide Squad’s Deadshot in the first action sequence to introduce Superman. It’s a good device that I’m surprised isn’t utilized more often in superhero movies. Why not start your hero off taking out some secondary costumed villains? Think of it like the James Bond tradition of a pre-credits action sequence to get the audience’s blood pumping before the credits and the main course of the movie itself.
It’s the first draft version of that opening Deadshot scene which is a little more fun, though. In a sequence taking place in the fictional country of Corto Maltese (you may know it from the pages of Frank Miller and Klaus Janson’s The Dark Knight Returns, and used to great effect on Arrow), Deadshot is joined by Aquaman villain Black Manta and they namecheck Challenge of the Super Friends villain team the Legion of Doom.
That was toned down a little for the second draft, eliminating Black Manta, his aquatic craft, and the Legion of Doom reference, in favor of some action in Metropolis. You can sense a hint of Smith’s frustration creeping into the description of Superman’s first appearance on screen, too, as he rescues a small boy from Deadshot and his crew…
A SONIC BOOM fills the air. Deadshot looks to THUG #1.
Tell me that was your stomach.
High above, a streak of RED descends at a rapid rate, rocketing
into the pavement, leaving a hole in the ground.
The street beneath their feet explodes, and the same red streak
flashes past Deadshot, taking with it the Boy in the blink of an
eye. All immediately mobilize.
GRAB THE BROAD AND LET’S GET OUT OF
The thugs grab the Governor as a VAN screeches up.
EXT. TOP OF BUILDING – DAY
The Boy is set down lightly on the roof. He opens his eyes, which
then go wide. Before him stands SUPERMAN (um… 90’s style)
Most famously, both drafts of Smith’s script contained an appearance from Batman himself, appearing on the screens of Metropolis’ equivalent of Times Square to deliver a brief eulogy at Superman’s funeral. While the two heroes never actually interact, let alone exchange pleasantries about each other’s mothers (what with Superman being “dead” and all), this would have been the first official crossover between the two franchises, even though Metropolis had previously been name-checked in Batman Forever, and Bats makes a crack about Superman in Batman & Robin. What’s remarkable about all of these nods to DC Comics is how they feel celebratory and not obligatory set-ups for future franchises and team up films.
Smith told Wizard magazine in 1999 that had his film been made, he had a cast in mind. For the most part, it’s pretty darn good.
His dream cast included (wait for it) Ben Affleck (then 25 years old and enjoying some acclaim for his performance in Smith’s Chasing Amy, before his work on Good Will Hunting would launch his career even higher) for Clark/Superman. Affleck, of course, later achieved internet infamy as Daredevil and, despite those films’ other problems, did a fine job as Batman in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Justice League. Affleck also cut an appropriately square-jawed and handsome figure as Superman actor George Reeves in Hollywoodland, and the young actor would have been a good fit for Superman as written here.
For the rest of the Daily Planet staff, Smith wanted Linda Fiorentino (who he later used to great effect in Dogma) as Lois Lane, who would have been 36 at the time. Smith felt that Lois should come off as a little older and more experienced than Clark Kent, which is perfectly in keeping with how she was being portrayed in contemporary Superman comics, Superman: The Animated Series, and on Lois & Clark.
Frasier’s John Mahoney would have been Smith’s pick or Perry White, and that might have been a marriage of actor and character as on the money as J.K. Simmons and J. Jonah Jameson in the Spider-Man films. Mahoney’s Frasier co-star David Hyde Pierce would have provided the voice of the cybernetic Eradicator, and reading the script, it’s easy to hear his voice delivering those lines.
Not all of Smith’s dream cast seem quite as well-suited, however. We were spared Jason Mewes as Jimmy Olsen, for one thing. Smith also envisioned Jack Nicholson as Lex Luthor. The Lex of these drafts is quite a funny and energetic character, and it’s easy to see Nicholson delivering some of his sarcastic barbs, but he might have brought too much baggage to the role so soon after delivering an unforgettable performance as the Joker in another notable superhero movie (especially when you consider that the dream was to get Michael Keaton to cameo as Batman). Smith also envisioned Mallrats and Chasing Amy star Jason Lee as Brainiac, which doesn’t seem like the strongest choice until you consider that under Burton, Tim Allen was considered for the part, so really, no good was likely to come of any version of Brainiac destined for the screen during this era.
Once Tim Burton was brought on as director, though, that was the end of Smith’s time with the Man of Steel. There would be no third draft. I’m not here to go into too much detail about something that has been dragged around the internet practically since the internet as we know it was a thing. Anyway, you’ve got Jon Schnepp’s exhaustive and fun The Death of Superman Lives documentary for that. Smith’s screenplay was quickly jettisoned by Burton in favor of a stranger one by Wesley Strick, and culminated in an even weirder one by future Nightcrawler scribe Dan Gilroy, who turned in a screaming bonkers Batman and Robin-esque draft, before everything fell completely apart and JJ Abrams was brought in to give things a fresh start.
By comparison, Kevin Smith’s Superman Lives attempts are fairly tame, and with the right director and cast, it might have been embraced by audiences. Studios weren’t quite ready in 1997 to let a fan of the material run as wild with a comic book property as Smith did on these pages. Things have certainly changed.
Smith did get to guide the destinies of some notable superheroes in the aftermath, including some well-received work as a comics writer on titles like Daredevil and Green Arrow. He finally get his shot at live action superheroics as the director of several episodes of The Flash and Supergirl (one of which was appropriately titled “Supergirl Lives”). Maybe he’s due another shot at writing Superman. Even accounting for Superman Lives‘ raw imperfections, it’s clear he understands the character better than some of Supes’ recent big screen stewards.
Warner Bros, of course, finally got their wish to kill Superman almost 20 years later in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.
Mike Cecchini has read virtually every draft of every unproduced Superman screenplay of the last 40 years. For real. Pity him on Twitter.
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