Nicolas Cage Claims He Personally Chose Tim Burton To Direct The Failed DC Film Superman Lives

I've never been much of a superhero movie fan, but one I'd have gladly queued up for back in the 1990s would have been Tim Burton directing Nicolas Cage in "Superman Lives." Along with Alejandro Jodorowsky's wildly ambitious non-starter "Dune," it must go down as one of the greatest what-ifs in cinema history, especially during that period of their respective careers.

"Mars Attacks!" aside (yes, it has its fans), Burton was still regularly making great movies back then, with his unmistakable visual style and penchant for weirdos and outsiders like himself. Cage, on the other hand, was the maverick who made good with his Oscar-winning performance in "Leaving Las Vegas" before transforming himself into one of the decade's biggest action stars.

As for Superman, the time was right for a reinvention after the huge success of Burton's two "Batman" movies. The original "Superman" franchise, which had made audiences believe a man could fly since Richard Donner's first outing for Christopher Reeve in 1978, crashed and burned with the woeful Cold War-themed "Superman IV: The Quest for Peace" just nine years later. The fans' appetite for Big Blue's comic book adventures had also started waning in the early '90s, resulting in DC Comics killing him off in "The Death of Superman" before resurrecting him again, along with their sales figures. 

A fresh approach was needed to reimagine the Man of Steel for a new generation. With "Batman" producer Jon Peters guiding the project, a very different kind of leading man was chosen to don the famous cape; if ever there was an antithesis of Reeve's clean-cut do-gooder it was Cage, the mercurial talent who munched a live cockroach in "Vampire's Kiss." By the time "Superman Lives" came along, he was such a hot ticket that he even claimed to have picked Burton to direct the movie himself.

Kevin Smith got his shot at writing a Superman movie

A screenplay entitled "Superman Reborn" by Gregory Poirier was already complete by the time Kevin Smith got his chance to put a fresh spin on it. The avowed comic book nerd, who had sold off a chunk of his collection to fund "Clerks," was in talks regarding "Beetlejuice Goes Hawaiian" when the subject of a new Superman movie came up. Smith's passionate take on the project earned him a sit down with producer Jon Peters, who had recently bought the rights from Warner Bros (as detailed in Jon Schnepp's documentary "The Death of Superman Lives: What Happened?").

Peters offered Smith a crack at rewriting the script in 1996 under the new title "Superman Lives," provided he stuck to Peters' eccentric vision for the movie: He didn't want to see Superman flying or wearing his famous caped outfit, and he really, really wanted the film to climax with a fight between the Man of Steel and a giant spider.

Smith wasn't about to turn down these strange requests with the chance to write a "Superman" movie on the table. He got to work and, by his own admission, his screenplay was like "fan fiction." Loosely basing his screenplay on "The Death of Superman," he threw together the combined forces of Lex Luthor, Brainiac, and Doomsday against Superman, plus a cameo from Batman for good measure.

Smith's wish list of casting choices was very Kevin Smith-like: Ben Affleck as Superman, Linda Fiorentino as Lois Lane, Jason Lee as Brainiac, and Jason Mewes as Jimmy Olsen, with the star power of Jack Nicholson as Lex Luthor (via The Nerds Uncanny). But Peters had a bigger name in mind to play Superman: Nicolas Cage.

Nicolas Cage claims he cast Tim Burton

Nicolas Cage has often spoken about the failed "Superman Lives" movie, but one of his boldest claims came during an interview with Rolling Stone in April 2022 when he claimed that he had chosen Tim Burton to direct. He stated:

"What I want to go on record with is: Tim Burton did not cast me. I cast Tim Burton. They wanted Renny Harlin, and he's a nice guy and perfectly capable. But for me, the vision I had for Kal-El was more of a Tim Burton-style presentation universe."

There seems to be some doubt about this claim, however. In the documentary "The Death of Superman Lives: What Happened?" Kevin Smith and Jon Peters say they originally suggested Burton. Smith ruefully joked that throwing Burton's name into the mix eventually signed his death warrant on the project; when the "Batman" director signed on, he disliked Smith's screenplay and brought in Wesley Strick ("Batman Returns") to rewrite. Peters also stated:

"Tim Burton was my number one choice. And obviously, I didn't want to make a 'Superman' that anybody else had made, and I really wanted to run 'Superman' through his brain."

Burton was a great choice at that stage of his career. Not only had he successfully rebooted "Batman" to massive box office success (via Box Office Mojo), he had a real affinity for outsiders. And Superman, after all, was the ultimate comic book outsider, an alien from a distant planet disguising himself as reporter Clark Kent to keep a low profile.

The ambitious storyline of Superman Lives

Having ditched Kevin Smith's "Superman Lives" screenplay, Tim Burton had Wesley Strick working on the project before Dan Gilroy came in to develop it further. What we know about the story is this: Clark Kent is worried that Lex Luthor has discovered his true identity and considers telling Lois Lane before his arch-enemy reveals it to the world. Meanwhile, Brainiac, who was responsible for destroying Kal-El's home planet, arrives on Earth to hunt down and kill the last remaining Kryptonian.

Brainiac teams up with Luthor and to take Superman down, merging into a single being (the "Lexiac") and creating a monster called Doomsday. A ferocious battle ensues and Superman dies protecting Metropolis from the creature. As the world mourns, Superman's body is taken to the Fortress of Solitude where a mysterious Kryptonian force known as "K" revives him. Alive but lacking his powers, he and "K" head back to the city, arriving just in time to stop the Lexiac from destroying Earth with that classic supervillain standby: a s*** load of nukes.

Casting began in earnest once Tim Burton was on board. With Nicolas Cage in the lead role, Kevin Spacey was lined up to play Lex Luthor while the director favored Christopher Walken for Brainiac. Courtney Cox, Julianne Moore, and Sandra Bullock were all considered for Lois Lane, while Chris Rock landed the part of Jimmy Olsen (via "The Death of Superman Lives: What Happened?").

"Superman Lives" was just weeks away from filming when Warner Bros. shelved the project in April 1998. Extensive work was already done on creating a new Superman suit, tons of concept art visualized its world, and millions of dollars were already spent building the sets. But that's as far as the movie got, leaving fans to wonder what might have been.

Would Superman Lives have been any good?

Warner Bros. reportedly pumped around $30 million into "Superman Lives" before pulling the plug (via New York Post). The studio was on a bad run of box office bombs and they were wary of another car wreck like "Batman & Robin," not to mention Tim Burton's own recent flop, "Mars Attacks!" Screenwriter Wesley Stricker remembers (via "The Death of Superman Lives: What Happened?"):

"Tim has always been upset about the fact that the 'Superman' project was doomed by Joel Schumacher, who f***** up his own franchise [with 'Batman and Robin'] and then f***** up his 'Superman' movie."

As enticing as the prospect of a Tim Burton and Nicolas Cage "Superman Lives" might sound, I see the studio's point. "Mars Attacks!" was a mess and the combo of Lex Luthor, Brainiac, and Doomsday sounds a lot like the overstuffed super-villainy of "Batman Forever" and "Batman & Robin." 

Then there is the question of whether audiences would have bought Nicolas Cage as Superman; in the more recent past, certain sections of the internet went wild when fuzzy photos of the actor wearing his prototype suit emerged. A lot of the problems people have with the idea probably come from the modern perception of the actor as the silly guy who inspired those "Nic Cage losing his s***" videos. There was always that loose cannon side to his acting but, as his recent Re-Cage-Issance has demonstrated further, he is also capable of some really soulful performances

In the hands of Henry Cavill, Brandon Routh, and even Christopher Reeve, I've always found Superman a rather inscrutable character. Whatever Cage might have put up there on the screen, it almost certainly would have been a different take. Who knows? He may have even changed the way superheroes are portrayed to this day.