Throwback Thursday: 'Superman Lives', The Nicolas Cage Superman Movie That (Thankfully) Never Got Made
Some actors don’t actually act. Maybe they did at one point, but they sure as hell haven’t in awhile. They become so big, and develop such famously broad personalities along the way, that it becomes virtually impossible to lose themselves in a role and convince the viewer that they ARE that character. If Tom Cruise makes a movie, nobody’s seeing his character. They might not even remember the character’s name. (Hint: It's usually Jack.) They simply see Tom Cruise, reciting lines and acting incredibly Tom Cruise-y.
So it is with the Internet’s favorite meme, Nicolas Cage. Nobody watches a Nic Cage flick thinking he’s a better method actor than Daniel Day-Lewis. They watch it to see just how Cage-like he can get, and how many psychotically inspired witticisms spew out of his too-rich-to-care-you’re-mocking-him mouth before the credits roll. He doesn’t become a character — the character becomes him.
This makes the fact that he came within inches of playing Superman all the more insane. Yes, Superman. Back in the 1990’s, Warner Brothers was looking to revive the world’s strongest underwear model after squashing the film franchise under the weight of Richard Pryor supervilliany and the deux ex machina garbage that was “throwing every nuke on the planet into the Sun.” Many writers and directors submitted many proposals, and in 1996, Kevin Smith’s Superman Lives actually got greenlit with Tim Burton attached as director, even though Nicolas freakin' Cage was the Man of Steel. Just look at these test photos:
While it’s certainly a decent-enough suit (except for the last one with the salon-worthy hairdo), the simple fact remains that that is not Superman. That is Nicolas Cage pretending to be Superman, and this is exactly why huge names almost never work in roles like this. Christopher Reeve was an unknown when the first film came out, so it was easy to buy him as Superman. Brandon Routh was a boring batch of white skin, nonthreatening facial features, and straight brown hair, as is Henry Cavill. Plus, since neither are superstars with over-the-top personas that seep into every role they take, it’s easy to see them as Superman. Cage, on the other hand, is Cage. Even if he somehow managed to reign in his wackiness this one time, nobody would care. Two things would have happened:
1. Everybody would watch the movie without any interest in anything other than Cage doing or saying something insane, because you don’t need the Internet to mock the same things everybody else mocks.
2. If Cage’s performance ended up being subdued and tasteful, theatergoers would walk away disappointed because he didn’t do anything dumb. They would then fire up their best impression of a guy from Saturday Night Live's crappy Nicolas Cage impression and laugh and laugh forever. When anybody asked them what they thought of the actual film, they’d quickly reply with whatever the ‘90s version of “meh” was.
Obviously, Nic Cage as Superman never came to fruition, but it wasn't because everybody woke up and realized how thoroughly stupid the idea was. No, WB was totally on board with the idea, and only exacerbated it by adding more giant names to the Fail Pile: Tim Allen, Courtney Cox, Chris Rock, and God knows who else. Oh, and Superman was going to battle a giant mechanical spider at the end too, because if Stephen King taught us anything, it’s that giant spiders are the perfect way to end a story you have no clue how to finish otherwise.
Cage only stopped being Superman because he decided to stop being Superman. By 2000, nothing had been filmed, the script had been rewritten numerous times, the studio’s interests had shifted from “make another Superman movie” to “sell a bunch of toys and Happy Meals while maybe letting Superman fly around here and there.” After Cage realized over $30 million had gone to waste for a movie that had nothing but two whole pictures to show for it, he skipped town. As far as we know, he forfeited his pay-or-play guaranteed money by quitting on his own accord, but since the alternative was “sit on your tush while people who know nothing of Superman argue over how to make a Superman movie," it might actually be the smartest move he’s ever made.
Ultimately, no Superman film saw celluloid until Superman Returns in 2006, which lifted the Pryor/Nukes-In-Sun weight by simply pretending they never happened. And as proof that WB had not learned their lesson from hiring a guy like Cage to play Supes, the studio’s pre-Routh choice to play the role? Will Smith.
Maybe this is why Hollywood hates creative thinking: because they’re terrible at it.