Once upon a time, in the gilded halls of his Hollywood mansion, a movie producer had an idea for a new Superman movie. A crazy idea. This producer’s name was Jon Peters. He was a well-known producer, with major feature credits including Rain Man and Tim Burton’s Batman. Peter was no ordinary man and his story was far from normal, too. Starting out as a reform school hairdresser, he ‘fell upwards’ to eventually become the Chairman of Sony-Columbia Pictures in one of the most unlikely success stories Hollywood has ever seen.
He also happens to be something of an eccentric.
After the critical and commercial disaster that was Superman IV: A Quest For Peace, Warner Bros were looking to revive one of their most lucrative intellectual properties. They commissioned Kevin Smith, the filmmaker known for Clerks, Mallrats and Chasing Amy, to write a script. Smith was an indie filmmaker known for his dialogue-driven low-budgeted comedies and suddenly found himself swept into the executive boardrooms at Warner Bros. Because of his evident scripting talents from the impressive Chasing Amy, Smith was offered the chance to work on one of three ‘in development’ projects.
According to Smith (speaking on An Evening With Kevin Smith, which you can view further down the post), one of them was a whacked out sequel idea for Beetlejuice Goes Hawaiin, which didn’t interest him because he believed— rightly, I might add— that Tim Burton had said all he needed to say with the first film. The second project offered was a re-write on a classic episode of The Outer Limits called ‘The Architects of Fear.’
The third however, switched on a lightbulb in the young filmmaker’s imagination. It was called Superman Reborn. Smith ecstatically expressed his interest in taking on such a challenge but the WB executive he was meeting with said he wanted him to take the script home and read it first, return to share his thoughts before they give him the project.
Smith accepted. He went home and realised, after sometime reading, that it was terrible, himself likening it to the Superman equivalent to the old Batman TV series starring Adam West, because of how ‘campy’ it was.
Smith was summoned back to Warner Bros. and launched into a tirade about how bad the script was. The executive nodded and thanked him for coming in. However, Smith was subsequently called back in and asked to repeat his thoughts on the script to another executive in a repetitive cycle that saw him go through at least six different executives before he finally met the big dog; Lorenzo di Bonaventura, the bigwig producer who would go on to shepherd The Matrix and the Transformers franchise.
When Smith relayed his story to him, Bonaventura said “What could you do better?” When Smith retorted with his version of a script, they offered him the chance to write it, pending the approval of the producer. That producer was the aforementioned Jon Peters.
Now, this is where the story gets really interesting. Smith was told to go meet Peters to convince him he was the man for the job. Smith travelled to Peters’ mansion, which he said was something akin to what Wayne Manor would look like in real life. Smith mets Peters, who was a physically imposing man with a perfectly coiffed head of hair, something you’d expect from a former hairdresser-cum-Hollywood producer.
Smith offered his version of Superman to Peters. He was met with a strange response. Immediately garnering a vast misunderstanding of Smith, Peters predicted a successful business partnership between the two because they were ‘both from the street,’ and that’s how they ‘got’ Superman.
Completely taken aback, Smith started to gauge that Peters was no ordinary empty suit you’d see prowling the corridors of major studio headquarters and lurking behind directors with self-importance on movie sets.
Proceeding with the conversation without challenging Peters (because he was desperate to land the job), Smith asked him who is first-choice to play Superman was.
“Sean Penn,” Peters replied.
Peters pointed to the 1995 thriller Dead Man Walking as his reference point. Peters wanted Penn because he had the rage-filled, intensity in his eyes that reminded him of a ‘caged animal.’
Smith was beginning to realise that Peters had some left-field ideas for this Superman movie and his suspicions were confirmed as the conversation continued. Peters laid out three directives for Smith moving forward to bear in mind while he wrote the script.
- Superman wasn’t to wear his suit
- He shouldn’t fly
- He should fight a giant spider in the third act
Leaving aside the third request for a moment, Smith focused on the first two. He challenged Peters because flying and the suit ‘defined’ Superman.
Peters didn’t care. He viewed the scenes from Richard Donner’s Superman movies as ‘crap.’ Smith begrudgingly agreed to the first two terms and enquired about the third. Peters explained the spider needed to be in there because spiders are the fiercest killers in the insect kingdom. Peters said he had been inspired, as a young boy, about the old King Kong movie, when the giant beast was revealed. He told Smith to replicate that, only with spiders. Smith said OK.
When Peters called Warner Bros and said he like Smith, they hired him. However, they told him to proceed with caution, expressing a disdain to counter Smith’s bewilderment over the spider. Apparently, the spider idea was something Peters had been pedalling for quite some time. The other producers asked Smith not to call it a spider in the script and he said; “I’ll call it a Thanagarian Snare Beast.”
Smith submitted an 80-page outline to Warner Bros and they told him to go back to Peters’ house and read him the script. Smith’s hilarious recounting of the story is as follows: “So I’m reading the first few pages, when he’s a baby on Krypton. I had to redo the origin. It’s Kal-El this, Kal-El that, blah, blah, blah. And he’s like, “Wait a second. Wait a second. Who the fuck is Kal-EI?” And I was like, “Kal-El is Superman.”
Peters was passionately producing a Superman movie despite not knowing anything about the character.
Despite his initial reservations, Peters liked it. But he had notes, of course. Peters wanted it to be bigger, louder, filled with action. He suggested that Brainiac, a famous Superman villain, should visit the Fortress of Solitude and fight polar bears up there.
Why did Peters want polar bears in there? Because they were the fiercest killer in the animal kingdom. Smith, perhaps numbing slightly to Peters’ outlandish vision, decided to proceed and invited him to the premiere of Chasing Amy.
Peters was intrigued by a gay character in Smith’s Chasing Amy. That character was Hooper X, played by Dwight Ewell. Peters suggested that Brainiac should have a robotic sidekick with Ewell’s voice. Peters was suggesting to put a gay R2-D2 in Superman. Not only that, but Peters went to see Star Wars again during its re-release. He said he wanted a version of Chewbacca in the Superman movie, only smaller and make him Lex Luthor’s dog, which would make a good toy (Warner Bros and Peters both had merchandising revenue on their minds when they planned this movie and a small dog would obviously make a good toy).
Then, Smith received word that Tim Burton and Nicolas Cage were signed on to direct and star as Superman respectively, working off his script. However, Burton had a dramatic change of heart and explained to Warner Bros that he wanted his own guys to write a script.
Just like that, Smith was told he was done.
Smith was down, but not depressed. He moved on and began working on different projects. One day though, a couple of years after his involvement with the Superman movie, Smith sat down to watch a new movie in the theatre; Wild Wild West. Peters was the producer on it. Smith was watching – but not enjoying – the movie when he was stunned by the movie’s climactic scene.
“All of a sudden, a giant fucking spider shows up.” Smith was referring to the 80-foot mechanical tarantula armed with two nitroglycerin cannon , the ultimate weapon used by Dr Arthur Loveless, the movie’s antagonist played by Kenneth Brannagh.
So, there you go. Had Tim Burton not decided to work off his own team’s script, we may have ended up with a Superman movie in the late 90s that featured a gay R2-D2, polar bears and a giant mechanical spider. Oh yeah, and a Superman who couldn’t fly and didn’t wear a suit.