When "Man of Steel" hits theaters this week (read our review here) it will become the sixth major motion picture based on the DC Comics superhero Superman. But while most film fans are familiar with the four entries starring Christopher Reeve that came out between 1978 and 1987, as well as Brandon Routh's 2006 relaunch "Superman Returns," you may be surprised to learn that there have also been no fewer than six proposed Superman films that failed to make it to the big screen.
And the stories behind those forgotten epics are as crazy and diabolical as any fiendish plot Lex Luthor could come up with.
So with that in mind, and to celebrate the release of "Man of Steel," here's our look at The Superman Movies That Never Were. Because if there's any force powerful enough to defeat even Superman, it's Hollywood.
Not that Superman needed much help getting himself into trouble in the first place; following the complete failure of 1987's box office bomb "Superman IV: The Quest For Peace," the franchise looked dead in the water. But things seemed to take a turn for the better courtesy of an unlikely source: Superman's Justice League buddy Batman, who scored a mega-hit in 1989 thanks to Tim Burton and Michael Keaton.
That was enough for Warner Bros. to commission a script for "Superman V." Co-written by Ilya Salkind, who had produced all four "Superman" movies to that point, the plot of "Superman V" revolved around Superman's apparent death and subsequent rebirth inside the bottle city of Kandor. "The script was frankly... the best one since [Superman] II or III," Salkind told the Superman Homepage. "It was Brainiac and the city [of Kandor] encapsulated. It was fantastic."
It was also doomed never to happen. Rather than pursue a fifth movie featuring Reeve, Warner bros. decided to shelve the project in favor of the TV hit "Lois & Clark." But the eventual popularity of that series (and, ironically, the "Death of Superman" comics that coincidentally echoed the script for "Superman V") helped spark even more interest in a big screen revival in the mid-90's, one that ended up being rewritten by an unlikely, though strangely fitting, star: Kevin Smith.
Smith, of course, was and is a comic book superfan. But right from jump street, his efforts to rewrite a proposed "Superman Reborn" story based on the "Death of Superman" were hindered by the involvement of producer Jon Peters. Peters, who according to legend basically didn't know jack squat about the characters, initially hired TV writer Jonathan Lemkin. Dissatisfied with a draft that included Lois Lane experiencing a virgin birth to a resurrected Superman (WTF?), he brought in "National Treasure: Book of Secrets" writer Gregory Poirier, who hewed closer to the comics by bringing in Doomsday as the bad guy who "kills" Superman.
That wasn't enough for Smith, though. Asked by Warner Bros. to check out the script, Smith figuratively tore it to pieces, eventually convincing Peters to let him rewrite the whole thing in an all new version called "Superman Lives." Smith also stuck to the Doomsday plotline, adding in even more elements from the comics, such as villains Lex Luthor and Brainiac. But Peters insisted on more and more ridiculous twists, such as Brainiac fighting polar bears, the inclusion of a comic relief robot sidekick and a denouement featuring a giant spider.
Seriously, if that sounds completely stupid, do yourself a favor and spend 20 minutes watching Smith tell the story himself:
Smith's efforts to fix "Superman Lives" ended when Tim Burton came on board as director. He brought with him the unlikely casting choice of uber-fan Nic Cage as Superman. But after spending a year and untold millions of dollars, Burton also bowed out due to creative differences with Peters, causing "Superman Lives" to go into turnaround in 1998.
Several failed revisions followed, but after years of not being able to find a single script worth producing, in 2002 Warner bros. found themselves with the opposite problem: Competing Superman projects.
One of these was "Superman Vs. Batman," which has both a catchy title and self-explanatory premise. The other was called "Superman: Flyby." Written by none other than J.J. Abrams, "Superman: Flyby" was a retelling of Superman's famous origin story. Warner Bros. ultimately decided to scrap "Superman Vs. Batman" in favor of "Superman: Flyby," hiring first Brett Ratner and then McG to direct it and at one point offering Josh Hartnett $100 million to to appear as Superman in three movies (no, seriously). But when McG also bowed out, Warner Bros. decided against giving Abrams a chance to direct his own script and instead brought on "X-Men" director Bryan Singer.
That, of course, meant scrapping "Superman: Flyby" in favor a new script that ended up becoming "Superman Returns," which Singer drafted as a direct sequel to the events in "Superman" and "Superman II." Fittingly, Singer also began writing a proposed sequel to "Superman Returns" as well, which would reportedly have introduced Brainiac and Bizarro to the movie worlds.
Set to open in theaters in 2009, production was pushed back again and again due to budget concerns. After the writers' strike in 2010 again delayed production, the studio finally decided to just say the hell with it and start over again. That meant that the untitled sequel to "Superman Returns" joined "Superman V," "Superman Reborn," Superman Lives," "Superman Vs. Batman" and "Superman: Flyby" on the scrapheap of abandoned Superman films.
So will "Man of Steel" be a hit? Probably, but the fact that it even exists in the first place makes it a success in our book.