Few unmade movies have quite the same legendary status as Superman Lives, the Nicolas Cage/Tim Burton Superman film that came tantalisingly close to production in the late 90s. The fact that Hollywood’s most notoriously eccentric movie star nearly portrayed arguably the biggest superhero of them all – and in a more psychologically probing way than we’ve seen on film – has left fans pondering what might have been ever since.

By the mid-90s, the Superman franchise was in the doldrums. Despite the huge success of the first two movies starring Christopher Reeve, 1983’s Superman III proved a disappointment, and the less said about 1987’s Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, the better. Then DC Comics made the decision to kill Superman.

No flying, no red and blue suit

1993’s groundbreaking The Death of Superman re-invigorated interest in Superman, with the bold storyline boosting sales of the comics. And so, in 1995, Warner Bros got the ball rolling on a new movie shepherded by Batman producer Jon Peters.

First, Jonathan Lemkin penned a script entitled Superman Reborn, in which a dying Superman passed his soul into Lois Lane, resulting in the immaculate conception of a new Superman. Next, Peters approached Kevin Smith, with three specific instructions: that Superman shouldn’t be seen flying; that he shouldn’t wear the classic red and blue suit; and that he had to fight a giant spider at the climax.

Smith complied, producing a script entitled Superman Lives, which saw Lex Luthor and Brainiac team up to kill the Man of Steel. Smith recommended Ben Affleck as Superman/Clark Kent, but his suggestion for director, Tim Burton, had a different actor in mind: Nicolas Cage.

Credit: Michael Ochs Archives via Getty

While Burton was happy to take on Superman Lives, he also wanted the freedom to make it his own – so everything from Smith’s script was thrown out except the title. Next, Warner Bros signed the leading man. Cage, then at the height of his fame following his Best Actor Oscar win for Leaving Las Vegas, had recently become an unlikely action hero with The Rock, Face/Off and Con Air.

Cage was also a self-professed comics aficionado long before comic book movies took over Hollywood. Once the owner of a rare Action Comics No.1 (sold for $2.1 million in 2011), he changed his surname from Coppola to Cage in homage to Marvel superhero Luke Cage, while he has a tattoo of another Marvel character, Ghost Rider, who he would later portray on film.

Years later, Cage would name his own son Kal-El Coppola Cage, in homage to Superman’s birth name. Together, Cage and Burton promised a Superman unlike any seen before, described by Cage in a 2018 Indiewire interview as suffering from “all the feelings of alienness. How am I going to fit into society? Maybe if I become a hero, everyone will love me, even though I’m a freak.”

“Oh my God, I’m an alien”

Peters excitedly declared that, with Cage in the role, they could really “convince audiences that [Superman] came from outer space.”

Burton concurred, saying that it would be “the first time you would believe that nobody could recognise Clark Kent as Superman,” because Cage would “physically change his persona.”

Burton and Cage hit upon a unique angle to make Superman a darker, more troubled character than before: making him ignorant of his own extra-terrestrial origins as the last son of the dead planet Krypton.

Wesley Strick was first hired to produce a new script, after which future Nightcrawler director Dan Gilroy came aboard for rewrites, and was “very taken” by Burton’s approach to the character.

In 2014 Gilroy told Indiewire, “Kal-El was not told by Jor-El [Superman’s father], before he got put in the little spaceship, who he was or where he came from. So poor little Kal-El, when he winds up on Earth, he has no freaking idea where he came from. His biggest fear is that he’s an alien.”

Things were to get very psychological in Burton’s Superman Lives, with the Man of Steel “in therapy at the beginning of the film. He’s in a relationship with Lois Lane… but he can’t commit because he doesn’t know who he is or what is going on with him. He’s hoping that he has some physiological condition that gives him these powers but that he’s still human.”

“It becomes very apparent, though, early in the script, when Lex Luthor uncovers the remnants of the spacecraft, he suddenly realises – “Oh my God, I’m an alien.” It was all about the psychological trauma of it.”

Production on Superman Lives was initially poised for early 1998, with an eye to a summer 1998 release date. Cage famously underwent a number of costume tests, and the supporting cast was in the process of being assembled.

Kevin Spacey was under consideration for Lex Luthor (a role he’d eventually play in 2006’s Superman Returns). Christopher Walken, Gary Oldman and Jim Carrey were all contenders for Brainiac, whilst Sandra Bullock, Courteney Cox and Julianne Moore were considered for Lois Lane.

“They would have knocked it out of the park”

The only supporting actor officially cast in Superman Returns was Chris Rock, as Jimmy Olsen. When the plug was pulled on the film, Rock would instead be cast in Warner Bros’ replacement film for summer 1998, Lethal Weapon 4.

So why was Superman Lives scrapped? Accounts vary, but it’s apparent that the expense of the project was a significant issue: the project’s budget had ballooned to $190 million, an unusually large sum in the late 90s.

Warner Bros were reluctant to commit to such a huge budget as they were smarting from the commercial failure of a number of high-profile flops – not least their last superhero movie, Batman & Robin.

Burton and Cage had signed ‘pay-or-play’ contracts which guaranteed their payment regardless of whether the film got made ($20 million for Cage, $5 million for Burton). From this and pre-production work, the studio were already around $30 million out of pocket, but nonetheless chose to cut their losses.

As Dan Gilroy reflects, “when it came time to step up and bankroll our script, [the studio] didn’t have the financial wherewithal or desire. Which is a shame because Tim would have knocked it out of the park. And Nic Cage, oh my God! I was so ready for that.”

For several years afterwards, Warner Bros would try and fail to get a number of Superman movies off the ground. Aborted projects included Wolfgang Petersen’s Batman Vs Superman, JJ Abrams’ Superman: Flyby and George Miller’s Justice League: Mortal.

The only movie to finally take flight was Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns, which was met with a lukewarm response in 2006. Eventually, the property was rebooted to greater success with 2013’s Man of Steel, which kickstarted the DC Extended Universe.

Cage played Superman after all

As for Nicolas Cage, he finally got the chance to play Superman in 2018, when he voiced the character in Teen Titans Go! To the Movies, a big screen spin-off of the children’s cartoon show. Cage called playing Superman “fun”, but conceded that this Kal-El “wasn’t really the version that Tim Burton and I had in mind.”

While Cage has said that it now makes more sense for him to play a Superman villain (“I’d make a great Lex Luthor!”), rumour has it that upcoming DC movie The Flash – a multiverse movie that will see Michael Keaton reprise Batman – may feature an appearance from Cage’s Superman.

Cage himself has strongly hinted that some form of appearance as Superman could still be on the cards. In a recent video for GQ, the actor responded to a fan question about playing Superman, “would it matter how much time I appeared as the character? There might still be a chance.”

Regardless of whether or not that comes to pass, Superman Lives remains a fascinating near-miss. (It was even the subject of its own documentary, The Death of Superman Lives: What Happened?) Reflecting on the project in 2015, Cage remarked, “I had great belief in that movie and in what Tim Burton’s vision was going to be for that movie. I would’ve loved to have seen it.”

Credit: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

However, in a characteristically far-out manner, Cage mused, “in many ways, it was sort of a win-win because of the power of the imagination.

“I think people can actually see the movie in their minds now and imagine it and in many ways that might resonate more deeply than the finished project.”