Though they may have different opinions about the superhero movies that rule over the box office, movie buffs and comic book fans can agree on one thing: they are fascinated by what Nicolas Cage's Superman could have been. In the late '90s, fans were left wondering what happened to Superman Lives, a production that came so close to filming with Tim Burton behind the camera and Nicolas Cage signed on to play the Man of Steel. The movie became one of the most discussed and interesting superhero what-ifs of all time, with stories of the film’s writing and pre-production going down in Hollywood infamy.
How does a movie featuring one of the biggest actors of the '90s and the director of Batman not get made? According to those who worked on the film, there were too many cooks in the kitchen, including an executive producer who not only misunderstood who Superman was, but who didn’t seem all that interested in making a Superman movie in the first place.
Separate from Nicolas Cage as Superman, the cast surrounding the Man of Steel was going to overflowing with A-list talent. Along with Tim Burton at the helm, Kevin Spacey was set to appear as Lex Luthor with Christopher Walken playing Brainiac. The rogue's gallery was certainly made up of major players, and Clark's co-workers at The Daily Planet were no less illustrious. Sandra Bullock was on track to play Lois Lane and Chris Rock would have played photographer Jimmy Olsen.
It's normal for a major movie script to go through multiple drafts, often handled by different screenwriters as well. That process generally helps trim scripts down to a tight run time and make narratives more coherent. That didn't happen on Superman Lives. The script didn't just have four different drafts of the same script. It had four drafts by four different writers, each making a wildly different film.
Producer Jon Peters wanted a movie to play off of the successful "Death and Return of Superman" comic storyline, and if the script reminded him of the Batman movies (which Peters also produced), that would be a plus, too. The first draft of the script began with Superman dying and the spirit of Superman leaving his body, jumping into Lois Lane, and impregnating her via immaculate conception. Screenwriter Jonathan Lemkin (Demolition Man) explained, "[Lois] gives birth to a child who grows 21 years in three weeks, and is, essentially, the resurrected Superman.” Gregory Poirier (Tomcats) took a pass at the script adding details like a sleek, black outfit reminiscent of the Caped Crusader.
Kevin Smith (Clerks, Dogma) was asked to consult on the project, and he absolutely buried script he read, contending that the first two screenwriters "didn’t get the Superman mythos.” After convincing studio executives and Peters that the original script wouldn't work, Smith was given the job with the instructions to keep the death and rebirth storyline and Brainiac as the film's antagonist. Smith turned in a version, but the script got yet another rewrite, this time from Wesley Strick (Batman Returns) at Tim Burton's request after the director signed on. When they finally were on the verge of filming, the script was a mess—an exquisite corpse that had gone through too many hands.
Since he owned the film rights to Superman, producer Jon Peters had a lot of control over how the hero would be depicted in the movie. And he had some truly radical ideas. Kevin Smith, who took most of his script notes directly from Peters, has said on multiple occasions that the producer didn't want to see anything in Superman Lives that had been a part of the mythos since the character's inception. Smith said:
He had all sorts of weird parameters. Like, "I don’t wanna see him in the suit and I don’t want to see him fly, and I want him to fight a giant spider in the third act." I’m like, "What?! A giant spider? Are you crazy?!”
When asked why a spider needed to appear in the movie, Peters allegedly said that "spiders are the fiercest killers in the insect kingdom."
The earliest pictures to leak out from Superman Lives were a shock to fans: Nicolas Cage as Superman with long hair to his shoulders and a cheap looking suit that resembled blue and red cellophane. Other images revealed translucent, neon armor that baffled anyone who had seen or heard of Superman before. Fans took those costumes as proof that the production was doomed from the beginning.
It turns out that those versions of the Super-suit were either meant to make a brief appearance in one scene of the film or from very early screen tests. The suit that would have actually appeared in the film is much closer to the suit that Superman fans know and love.