Kevin Smith's Superman movie that never was: Filmmaker revisits bonkers '90s project that nearly starred Sean Penn
Kevin Smith’s fanboy bona fides were evident from the moment his minimum-wage alter egos Dante and Randal began debating the merits of The Empire Strikes Back and The Return of the Jedi and bemoaning the murders of innocent Death Star contractors in the filmmaker’s shoestring-budgeted indie 1994 breakout Clerks. He followed that up with the comic book-steeped Mallrats (1995) — and then he eventually bought his own comic shop in New Jersey, which became the setting of his reality show, Comic Book Men.
Smith’s skyrocketing career coincided with Hollywood’s rekindled love affair with superheroes. Warner Bros. and Tim Burton had blockbuster success with the Batman franchise and the studio was ready to reboot another marquee character, Superman, following the the disastrous 1987 outing, Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. Once Smith got wind of the project, he naturally wanted a crack at the Man of Steel.
We’ll let Smith, one of favorite raconteurs, take it from there for the our inaugural installment of The Never-Weres (watch above), Yahoo Entertainment’s new series about the most legendary Hollywood projects that never happened.
With the script for his third movie, Chasing Amy, attracting a lot of industry attention, Warners approached Smith about a project called The Architects of Fear, based on an episode of the ’60s Twilight Zone-adjacent sci-fi series The Outer Limits. During those conversations, producer Basil Iwanyk casually mentioned the studio was developing a new Superman project, which immediately piqued Smith’s interest. Iwanyk gave Smith a copy of the development script, then called Superman Reborn, to take home.
At their next meeting (intended to be about The Architects of Fear), Smith made his feelings known about the Superman Reborn script. “[I said,] ‘Oh my god, it’s terrible. The whole script, [it’s like] the people who wrote it don’t understand Superman at all. It’s kind of winking and stuff. There’s a way, a faithful telling of this. … Audiences appreciate it being treated seriously.’”
Smith’s unfiltered critique and suggestions for for a different direction ultimately landed him an audience with then-studio boss Lorenzo di Bonaventura, who in turn hired Smith to write a new screenplay. Based on DC’s 1992-93 crossover comic event The Death of Superman, the film would be revamped with the title Superman Lives.
But Smith would have to collaborate on the project with producer Jon Peters — and that’s where things got really interesting. Peters had quite a Hollywood trajectory, starting as Barbra Streisand’s hairdresser then becoming her lover and then producing her films, eventually becoming a veritable power player (he’s currently portrayed by Bradley Cooper via a madcap performance in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza, to give you one perspective on him). In the early ’90s, Peters acquired the film rights to Superman from Warner Bros. and he would have the final say on the new movie.
Smith recalled various visits to Peters’s “gigantic f**king house” where the eccentric producer told Smith they’d make a great Superman movie together because they were “from the streets” (as Smith points out, neither Superman nor Peters nor Smith was from the streets) and insisted Smith read aloud his entire script drafts to Peters while the producer parked himself on a nearby couch.
Smith found some of Peters’s creative feedback baffling. The producer didn’t want Superman in his traditional red and blue supersuit because Peters found it “too pink.” He didn’t want Superman to fly, either, because “that flying s**t looks cheap to me.” Peters also had a very specific desire for there to be a gigantic spider fighting Superman in the film’s third act. (Peters denies some of these claims in the 2015 documentary The Death of “Superman Lives”: What Happened?, which digs into the evolution of the project at length.)
“So there were weird parameters,” Smith said. “But for me, it was like, ‘OK, I’m going to make it work. Because I always had the ability to walk away from it at the end of the day. … So whatever they threw at me, I was like, ‘Great.’ As long as I could make it work in my head and heart as a comic book fan, I could kind of go with it.”
There was also a divide over casting. Smith penned Superman Lives with his Mallrats lead and burgeoning star Ben Affleck in mind for the hero. (His ideal Lex Luthor was Michael Rooker, who co-starred in Mallrats.)
“I was writing it for Affleck,” Smith said. “Ben was heating up. Like he was there. I think he’d been hired for Armageddon. … Affleck, he’s a f**king giant, like he's built like a superhero, built like a giant action figure, particularly with the height. And then he puts on the muscles there too. So in my head and heart, it was always Ben and Michael Rooker, which was a weird Mallrats reunion.”
Peters, however, wanted Sean Penn, coming off his first Oscar nomination for playing a convicted killer on death row in 1995’s Dead Man Walking. “He goes, ‘Look in his eyes in that movie, he’s [got] haunted eyes, the eyes of a killer,’” Smith recalled Peters saying. “And I was like, ‘Dude, it's Superman. You know, that's not how most people think of Superman.” Penn was never formally offered the role, and Smith thinks Warner Bros. would have pushed back on such a casting choice.
“But he wanted to reinvent it,” Smith says. “He wanted something gritty, graphic and grownup. He essentially wanted like what Zack Snyder eventually did [in Man of Steel, Batman v Superman and Justice League, which coincidentally featured Affleck as Batman opposite Henry Cavill's Superman].”
Superman Lives eventually died, but not before famously winding up in the hands of Tim Burton, who had so marvelously brought the Caped Crusader to the big screen for Warner Bros. in Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992), and Nicolas Cage, a die-hard Superman fan who considered the Kryptonian his dream role.
Cage previously told Yahoo Entertainment that their version of the film “would have been beautiful. ... Tim and I were about to get up to something really relevant.” The Oscar winner also commented on his supersuit, which was revealed in the documentary The Death of “Superman Lives.”
“The Internet got some stupid pictures from the wardrobe — I don’t know how that got out. But you’ve seen the footage, so you know what I’m talking about. Tim’s Krypton was brilliant and genius. They missed out.”
Watch the 1997 costume test with Cage from The Death of “Superman Lives”:
As for Smith, he was never officially told he was being removed from the project — that’s not how it usually works in Hollywood, especially when you’re a hired-gun screenwriter.
“You go from being the most important person in the world to, you know, just out of the loop, just like that,” Smith said. “Because I guess once they brought Tim in, Tim’s like, ‘I’m going to bring my own guy.’ And they’re like, ‘All right.’ And so I remember I was in Connecticut, I was doing a press tour, Chasing Amy. … My agent called me. … And I was like, ‘When do I have to submit another Superman draft? And he goes, ‘You're done.’ You did your two drafts and they’re not bringing you back. Tim’s bringing on somebody else. I was like, ‘All right.’ And you know, I wasn’t sad.
“They spent so much money; they honestly spent between $25 million and $50 million developing a movie that never happened.”
-Video produced by Anne Lilburn and edited by John Santo