Superhero movies are some of the biggest blockbusters to hit theaters today whenever one comes out. With major genre successes like Sam Raimi’s original Spider-Man, Bryan Singer’s X-Men, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, and Joss Whedon’s The Avengers, it’s very clear to see that modern superhero films are very big business.
This isn’t new, though, as superhero movies have proven to be big business ever since the release of Richard Donner’s original 1978 masterpiece Superman: The Movie. Before the big box office hit of X-Men in 2000, though, there seemed to be a very different philosophy behind the creation of a superhero movie, and a new documentary explores just how true that is by examining one massive project that failed to take flight. That documentary is The Death of “Superman Lives:” What Happened?, written and directed by filmmaker Jon Schnepp. His film explores the efforts by Warner Bros. to create a new Superman film in the mid-1990’s in order to refresh the character and re-energize the franchise, since it had been nearly 10 years by that point since the last time the Man of Steel had flown across the silver screen.
Although the entire film is utterly fascinating — especially if you ever found yourself curious about what a Tim Burton-directed Superman film could’ve been — it becomes pretty clear why, in all likelihood, it would’ve been a very polarizing movie at best, and a box office bomb at worst. Superhero films today, especially those created by the current kings of the genre in Marvel Studios, largely maintain an attention to detail and a clear vision of who the characters are based on the decades of source material available to them. The superhero films of yesterday, though? They had no such concerns.
Early on, Kevin Smith details a conversation he had with a Warner Bros. executive about who would have the right take for the character, and he named several writers at DC Comics. You know, the people who are the shepherds of the character every month. Makes sense, right? Smith’s suggestion was dismissed out of hand because, as Smith puts it, the executive stated that “comic book people” and “movie people” were on entirely different levels. Throughout the rest of the film, very talented people — from screenwriters, to concept artists, to set designers, costume designers, and a whole lot more — seemed to be dripping with enthusiasm on how they “didn’t want to make it like a comic book.” The prevailing attitude was one that looked down on comics as an inferior storytelling medium to that of film, and that the movie could somehow improve on who the character was based on the way he was created, and has been used successfully in — up to that point — sixty years of continuous publication. Even Nicolas Cage, who is an admitted fan of comics, seemed excited about the possibility of discarding much of what was established in the source material in his portrayal of Superman.
Of course, now we know better. Sam Raimi had a giant mural of Spider-Man painted on his wall when he was a kid. Bryan Singer learned that it was best to get to the roots of characters from inside the material. Christopher Nolan had the foresight of hiring someone who knew Batman inside and out in order to tell a resonant and effective story that was true to the characters as they have evolved over 70 years. The president of Marvel Studios is almost like a walking encyclopedia for Marvel Comics storytelling. What’s the ultimate result of this? By-and-large, the result is both critical and commercial success.
In a 2005 documentary about Batman, writer/artist Frank Miller stated that the most successful comic book films of recent years are the ones that are “truest to the old comic books.” Even when adapting a novel into film, you cannot discard the source material, because by that point, you’re making something that’s entirely different. What’s the point of naming a movie after Superman if the character himself is nearly unrecognizable? Superman Lives would’ve been an intersting experiment, but it takes a lot of imagination on my end to see that it would be a knockout success. See what you think by watching the documentary, which you can buy through its official website now.
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