Tonight, The Man of Steel arrives in theaters across the country, and we’re excited as only nerds can be. But the history of Superman in the movies is almost as fascinating as the movie itself. This is the payoff to a long, torturous process that involved millions of dollars spent and dozens of scripts and hundreds of executives, and took nearly twenty years to pay off.
There Was Going To Be A Fifth Superman Movie, That Involved Him Dying
Before DC actually killed Superman off, the producer of the ’70s film series, Ilya Salkind, proposed a fifth movie. Based largely off the success of the Superboy syndicated series, it would again star Christopher Reeve, and would feature Superman buying the farm… only to be revived in the Bottle City of Kandor.
If that sounds bad, consider that the people responsible for the last two movies in the franchise, Cannon Films, wanted to do a fifth one too, only this one would be directed by the infamous Albert Pyun. That thankfully never came together, although Pyun did manage to direct a superhero movie eventually.
The Death Of Superman Revived The Franchise
The Death of Superman is, for better or for worse, one of the best selling comic books of all time. It sold enormous numbers, and had a string of effects on the comics industry. But that, combined with the ongoing success of Batman, convinced Warner Bros. that the Superman franchise had been lying fallow long enough to start making a Superman movie. After all, the comic boom was a big deal, and there’s no way that such an enormous franchise could be mishandled, right?
The First Revival Attempt, Superman Reborn, Was Meant Literally
As hard as it is to believe, Superman Lives, the notorious movie featuring Tim Burton directing Nicolas Cage as Superman, wasn’t the worst idea Warners had. That would be the first script commissioned.
It’s incredibly difficult to find, partially because Warner Bros. has spent a lot of money trying to make sure nobody reads it, but in the original draft by Jonathan Lemkin, Superman transfers his life force to Lois, she gives birth to a new Superman, and the franchise continues. No kidding. And this was written to be a family friendly movie, by the way.
Our only explanation is that it was the early ’90s and cocaine must have still been common. Thankfully, somebody somewhere realized that this was an absolutely insane idea and should not be done. So instead they did something even worse: Had another script written with Superman in a robot suit and a Doomsday with “Kryptonite blood”. And when that wasn’t awful enough, they decided to fire up Superman Lives.
The Notorious Superman Lives Nearly Got Made
What happened over the next few years is one of the single most notorious stories in Hollywood. Jon Peters, who is still involved enough in the franchise to be an executive producer on Man Of Steel, didn’t want Superman to wear his suit, was infamously concerned about the toy revenue, and essentially made Kevin Smith hand in a legendarily bad script just so he could get paid and wash his hands of the whole situation.
The script was promptly heavily rewritten by Wesley Strick, a talented screenwriter who’d never read a Superman comic in his life and in fact didn’t understand Smith’s script until after he’d handed in a rewrite and picked up a copy of Death of Superman. By then, Warner Bros. had cut the budget, even as concept art was being drawn up and soundstages booked in Pittsburgh.
Ultimately, the movie was put on hold, and $30 million had been spent. But that wasn’t the end of it; after all, they still had a potential hit on their hands.
J.J. Abrams And McG Nearly Made A Superman Movie, Where Krypton Doesn’t Blow Up, Starring Brendan Fraser
Yep, it nearly happened. Called Superman: Flyby, the only thing that kept the movie from happening was the infamous fan rage that went across the Internet when the… substantial liberties J.J. Abrams had taken with the mythology in his script turned up. Ironically, that attention was enough to drive Warners to consider just following up on the original franchise… which led directly to Superman Returns.
The funny thing is that if you know the behind-the-scenes story, you can see concepts from these previous drafts are actually in Man of Steel. Superman breaking the sound barrier? Kevin Smith wrote that. Krypton in the grip of civil war? It’s from the J.J. Abrams draft. Superman unsure of his place in the world? Strick’s version of the screenplay had that.
Of course, there’s also no virgin births, see-through suit, and thankfully no flying kung-fu. So, maybe the wait was a good thing.