Superman Lives and Batman Returns writer on comic book cinema’s darker past

To this day, one of the big comic book movie ‘what ifs’ would have to be Tim Burton’s “Superman Lives”.

As most know, Warner Bros hired “Batman” helmer Tim Burton to bring the Man of Steel back to the big screen in the mid-90s. Cast in the title role? Nicolas Cage.

Wesley Strick, who had become an in-demand screenwriter in Hollywood thanks to Martin Scorsese’s “Cape Fear” (1991) and who had just worked with Burton on “Batman Returns” (1992), was one of several assigned the challenging task of writing the first “Superman” film since 1987’s “Superman IV : The Quest for Peace”.

As Strick tells The Production Meeting podcast, Burton’s “Superman Lives” was shaping up to be as dark, if not darker than his “Batman” films – – and it’s one of the reasons why the film fell apart.

“The three of us had been spinning all kinds of fantastic ideas”, Strick, who worked closely with Cage and Burton on the screenplay, tells the show. “That was heavenly.”

In Strick’s script, Superman – unaware of his alien heritage – is tasked to bring down Brainiac and Lex Luthor, who team up to retrieve some Kryptonian technology created by Kal-El’s father, known as ‘K’. The villainous duo ultimately block out the sun, unleash Doomsday, and kill Superman.

Turns out the technology Superman’s father created has the ability to not only restore his life but supply him with a suit that encompasses his newly missing powers.

Very dark? yep, and Warners were scared.

“Then it all came crashing down.”

Still, the studio didn’t immediately axe the project.

“The project limped along for a while after that, even to the point where Tim was scouting locations in Pittsburgh, but [Warner Bros] were taken back by just how wild and expensive it was.

“Warners had made pay or play deals, so they had to pay them their full fees from what I understand.”

(for more on the ill-fated film, check out the incredible documentary “The Death of Superman Lives” by the late, great John Schnepp).

The studio weren’t as keen on Burton-directed superhero movies because “Batman Returns”, with it’s darker, un-kid friendly tone had been copping it from critics, and failed to make as much dough as the original.

Strick spoke a little about the experience of working on that script – suggesting his input might have been partially responsible for the drop in box-office on the sequel.

Six weeks out from production, Warner Bros called Strick to ask for his immediate assistance in fleshing out the plot.

“Warners were concerned that The Penguin didn’t have a good master plan, and they said ‘if you’re interested, and you’re available, we’re going to send you the script this afternoon. Take a look at it, and see if you can come up with a master plan. And come in tomorrow – and talk to Tim and Denise DiNova – and let’s talk about it.

“For hours that day I racked my brain trying to think of a good master plan and I couldn’t think of anything. Then my wife said ‘will you just go to Ralph’s (supermarket), and be useful, and buy some groceries’. As I was walking out, I was thinking about the moment in the script where baby Penguin is floating down the river. It made me think of the Moses story in the book of exodus, so I thought ‘let’s do that’, where he then takes revenge on the first born of Gotham City. And that’s what I pitched.

“Tim loved it. Warners were always really nervous about it, they thought it was really dark. Turned out kids were scared by it, the Red Triangle Circus gang – breaking into the kids rooms, and kidnapping them. Hasbro, or whatever toy company they had been licensing, were very leery of the whole thing.

And they blamed that whole bit for eating into the box office.”

Strick would go on to work on the “Nightmare on Elm Street” remake, Dwayne Johnson-starrer “Doom” and TV’s “The Man in the High Castle”.

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