The story behind the Nicolas Cage Superman movie that almost happened

Superhero movies are all the rage nowadays, with five of them hitting cinemas already this year, and a couple more on the way. So it's hard now to imagine a time when this wasn't the case, when studios weren't that confident in putting comic book characters on the big screen.

Superman first hit the big screen in 1978, but the series petered out after Superman IV: The Quest For Peace was a box office failure. But in the early 90s Tim Burton proved that there was money to be made with Batman and Batman Returns - so who better to bring reinvigorate Superman? The comics had recently ran a successful storyline where the man of steel died heroically, only to return from the dead, so it was decided the same story would be the subject of a new movie: 'Superman Lives'.

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The project was a strange one from start to finish. The central bizarre choice that had many fans scratching their heads was the decision to cast Nicolas Cage. He was picked as an alternative to the traditional movie star looks of Christopher Reeve (or later Brandon Routh and Henry Cavill), but the inclusion of an actor known for his insane performances makes a bit more sense when you find out how weird the rest of the film would've been.

A documentary titled 'The Death of Superman Lives: What Happened?' explored what the cancelled movie would've been like if it had been released. Burton's saw Superman as the ultimate outsider, a weirdo who doesn't fit in. He would then be killed by the monster Doomsday, only to be reborn inside a new, living, suit. "I was going to turn that character upside down with Tim Burton," Cage later said, and it looked like he was right.

alt Credit: Warner Bros

Photos have been circulated for years of Cage dressed up in a shiny new version of the costume. In fact, when director Bryan Singer was making Superman Returns a few years later, he would show the producers the photo whenever someone told him his film was "too traditional". This regeneration costume was to be fitted with lights and a metallic-looking shiny blue muscle suit, and be alive as a robot companion named Kay.

Burton had plenty of strange ideas, such as the inclusion of the villain Brainiac, a head with robotic spider legs, who would travel through space in a gigantic skull spaceship containing a zoo of alien monsters. At some point, Lex Luthor was set to merge with Braniac into a two-headed being, who would then unleash Doomsday; envisioned as a monster covered in shape-changing faces.

alt Credit: Warner Bros.

Meanwhile, producer John Peters forced his own bizarre ideas into the project, including his number one rule: the movie had to have a fight with a giant spider. Peters also suggested that Superman's cape be a weapon, thrown at his enemies to "cut off their heads". This was a man who would put the artists on the project into headlocks to remind them how action-packed the movie had to be.

alt Credit: Warner Bros.

Julianne Moore, Courteney Cox and Sandra Bullock were considered for the role of Lois Lane, while Chris Rock was cast as Jimmy Olsen and Christopher Walken was intended to play Brainiac. Storyboards were made, designs were finalised, and the bizarre suit was tested on Nicolas Cage, but by this point the budget had ballooned to over $200 million, something Warner Bros. were not willing to pay after a number of recent flops.

The money was instead used to fund Wild Wild West, an expensive movie that failed critically and commercially. This was where Peters finally got his way and include a giant spider.

Nicolas Cage has said that he and Tim Burton's vision would've been "something special", and in a recent interview with Entertainment Weekly he said:

"I would offer that the movie that Tim and I would have made, in your imagination, is more powerful than any of the Superman movies. I didn’t even have to make the movie and we all know what that movie would have been in your imagination. That is the Superman. That is the movie. Even though you never saw it — it is the Superman."

Some of the out-there sci-fi concept art that was made for the project looks genuinely interesting, but I have no clue how people would have reacted to such a bizarre rendition of the iconic hero. I'm still curious about how it would have turned out. But this isn't the only time a big project has been cancelled, as you can see on our list of best movie screenplays that never got made.