Look, up there in the sky! It’s a reboot! It’s a sequel! No… it’s another tepid Superman movie.
Superman was in limbo (or the Phantom Zone, if you prefer) for almost two decades after the world at large recoiled from Superman IV in disgust after waking up from a decade’s worth of coke-filled binges which are the only explanation I can think of for Superman’s Pryor prior success. All we were left with was a steaming crater that was filled by the worst television series ever. After Burton swooped in a few years later and reinvigorated the idea of superhero movies and a collection of sweaty-palmed DC editors decided to kill off Superman in the early 90s, the cogs were set in motion for Superman’s eventual big screen revival.
Burton, the superhero “it” boy, was originally approached to direct a movie supposedly titled Superman Lives! written by Kevin Smith. The nitty gritty of how doomed this venture was is best detailed by Smith himself in An Evening with Kevin Smith, but a few gems polar bear mentioning. Burton wanted to basically turn Superman into a sci-fi space opera with Superman (played by Nicholas Cage?!) wearing a redesigned, futuristic suit and fighting against the monster Doomsday on Krypton. And somehow this would all involve giant spiders and a Superman that never flew.
Fortunately, that project collapsed. And so did the myriad of rumored attempts between that and what eventually became Superman Returns. There’s no real way for me to know what really did go down, but IMDB listed fauxteurs McG and Brett Ratner as directors that made it into pre-production. Most of the scripts apparently dealt with Superman’s death and return, because he isn’t already enough like Jesus. The most cockamamie thing I heard from this period was that J.J. Abrams had been tapped to write a script that involved Superman and Kryptonian civil wars and Lex Luthor would be an FBI agent that was secretly a fellow Kryptonian or some nonsense like that.
After all that failed, WB asked the one guy that seemed to have the best track record with superhero movies at the time: Bryan Singer, the man who had built X-Men up into a respectable franchise. Although Singer was already committed to X-Men 3, who could blame him for abandoning ship and choosing to tackle Superman instead? Superman’s an ICON. You don’t get a crack at interpreting Superman every day and he’d already made two successful X-Men movies, why bother making a third? I’ll always have to wonder, though, what kind of world we’d be living in if we’d gotten the Singer-directed X-Men 3 and Ratner had followed through on Superman. Because what ended up happening was just tragic for everyone.