HISTORY OF THE COMIC BOOK FILM: Superman Vs. Development Hell

In a multi-part series, Comic Book Film Editor William Gatevackes will be tracing the history of comic book movies from the earliest days of the film serials to today’s big blockbusters and beyond. Along with the history lesson, Bill will be covering some of the most prominent comic book films over the years and why they were so special. This time, we discuss how a comic book storyline renewed interest in a Man of Steel film and the torturous process that bringing the next Superman film to life really was.

When Cannon Films went bankrupt, the rights to the Superman franchise went back to the Salkinds. Thus began the process of bringing Superman V to the screen, this time tapping Superman comic book writer Cary Bates to work on the script. The plot of this aborted attempt involved Superman dying and being reborn in the city of Kandor, which was miniaturized and placed into a bottle. This film never came to pass as another story involving the death of Superman caused Warners to take a more active role in the film franchise.

The 1990s in the world of comic books was one of a speculator boom. Encouraged by tales of Golden Age comics being sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars, speculators started buying comics in the hopes of getting in on the ground floor of the next big thing. Comic companies helped the speculation frenzy along by starting new series with new number ones, promoting hot and popular artists, creating variant covers for their titles, marketing gimmicks and controversial or provocative storylines to lure this new breed of collector in.

DC Comics had the perfect idea for such a storyline for the Superman books, one that would bring people in—the marrying of Superman/Clark Kent to Lois Lane. But there was a problem. Corporate parent was building to a similar event in their Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman TV series and wanted the comics to coincide with that. But that plot point was a ways off in the TV series, and DC had to pick another shocking event to bring speculators to Superman. They did the most logical alternative—they decided to kill him.

The story involved an unstoppable beast called Doomsday that creates a path of death and destruction on his way to Metropolis. When other heroes such as the Justice League fell in their efforts to stop the beast, Superman took up the grim responsibility to stop the creature himself. He did, but in doing so suffered fatal injuries. He died in the arms of Lois Lane right in front of the Daily Planet building.

Savvy comic book readers knew that Superman wouldn’t stay dead. There have been hundreds of characters that were far less important to their company than Superman that had supposedly died for good only to come back later. Nobody expected Superman’s death to last forever.

That is, nobody except the members of the non-comic savvy general public. The death of Superman received national attention from the mainstream media. Millions of people, many who probably didn’t pick up a comic book since they were kids, lined up at comic shops to get the historic issue. Again, it was the speculator craze at work. Superman was dead. This was his last issue alive. It will be worth something someday.

The issue Superman died in, Superman #75, sold out of almost 3 million copies of its first printing (by comparison, a title is considered a smash success if 100,000 copies are ordered). Of course, since it printed in such high numbers, there are a lot of copies around. Today, almost 20 years after it came out, your copy of Superman #75 won’t buy you a fancy house. It won’t even buy you a compact disc at manufacturer’s suggested retail price. You’d get maybe $15 for it in mint condition.

But this doesn’t belie the fact that the death of Superman was a wide reaching pop culture phenomenon. The time was right to restart the Superman film franchise. Warner Brothers bought the rights back from the Salkinds to control the franchise in house and appointed producer Jon Peters to shepherd the project along. On paper, this seems like a good decision from a comic fan’s perspective. After all, he, with producing partner Peter Guber, produced 1989s Batman, one of the best comic book adaptations of all time. However, either Guber was the creative force of the tandem or acted to keep Peters impulses in check, because, under Peters, the development of the next Superman film became a costly and infuriatingly non-productive journey.

Jon Peters

The project was titled Superman Lives. Lethal Weapon 4 screenwriter Jonathan Lemkin was tasked with writing the first script, with the most unctuous plot point being Superman’s “life force” entering into Lois Lane and impregnating her so the hero can be reborn at a later date. Man, I’m almost sorry that this film wasn’t made. Having to fight your way through a picket line of religious zealots protesting the virgin birth of Superman 2.0 to see the movie would have been fun.

Lemkin’s script was rewritten by Gregory Poirier before Kevin Smith was called in for a rewrite. Smith found this version of the script to be “too campy” and was tapped to start over from scratch. Smith discusses his involvement with the Superman franchise during his documentary, An Evening With Kevin Smith. Warning! Contains salty language! And Spanish subtitles! And is a bit long!

Smith describes many of the problems of Peters’ approach to the Superman franchise: one, Peters’ and the studio’s dedication to using the film to sell as many toys as possible, two, Peters’ lack of knowledge and/or respect for what made the character great in the first place, and three, Peters being influenced by other films, most notably the Star Wars franchise, instead of the two he should have been influenced by—Superman and Superman II.

Robert Rodriguez was approached to direct but was busy with The Faculty at the time. Then Warners went to Batman director Tim Burton, a director Smith suggested early in the process. Burton agreed to do the film and was granted a $5 million pay or play contract, meaning that even though he obviously did not become the director of Superman Lives, as it was then known, he would still get paid.


Burton threw out Smith’s script and turned to Wesley Strick to write a new version. Burton chose Nicolas Cage to star as Superman and Warners hired him with yet another pay or play contract, this time for $20 million. In his book Burton on Burton he gives accolade to Cage this way:

“I was excited about working with Nic because the way we were thinking about it, it would have been the first time you would believe that nobody could recognize Clark Kent as Superman—that he could physically change his persona, so it wouldn’t be as simplistic as taking off a pair of glasses. Without doing make-up or anything, Nic is the kind of actor who can pull something like that off.”

I don’t know what is more egregious about this statement—the insult is gives to Christopher Reeve and his performance earlier in the franchise or the gross overestimation of Nic Cage’s acting ability.

Pre-production began on the film as sets were built, Pittsburgh was chosen as a shooting location and Cage went through some costume tests:

What Tim Burton's Superman would have looked like, courtesy TimBurton.jp

But the studio had issues with the cost of Strick’s script and brought in Dan Gilroy to write a cheaper version of it. During the rewriting process, Burton left the film to handle Sleepy Hollow, never to return.

The studio then tried to shop Gilroy’s script around to directors to have one sign on with no luck. The studio then hired William Wisher Jr. and Paul Attanasio to do their takes on the script before deciding to go in a completely different direction.

Next time! J.J. Abrams! McG! Brett Ratner! Bryan Singer! More disappointment!

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About William Gatevackes 1985 Articles
William is cursed with the shared love of comic books and of films. Luckily, this is a great time for him to be alive. His writing has been featured on Broken Frontier.com, PopMatters.com and in Comics Foundry magazine.
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