Kevin Smith pitched to Jon Peters his story outline in August 1996, in which Peters gave him permission to write a screenplay. However, Peters presented Smith with three rules, such as wanting Superman to wear an all-black suit, feeling the more traditional suit was "too faggy"; not wanting to see Superman fly, saying that Superman would "look like an overgrown Boy Scout." (In order to deal with this, Smith wrote Superman flying as "a red-and-blue blur in flight, creating a sonic boom every time he flew."); and have Superman fight a giant spider in the third act. Smith accepted the terms, realizing that he was being hired to execute a pre-ordained idea. Peters and Warner Bros. forced Smith to write a scene involving Brainiac fighting polar bears at the Fortress of Solitude, and Peters wanted Brainiac to give Lex Luthor a space dog, stating "Chewie's cuddly, man. You could make a toy out of him, so you've got to give me a dog." Smith claims this was because of the recent re-release of the original Star Wars trilogy, and claims that Peters wanted Brainiac's robot assistant L-Ron to be voiced by Dwight Ewell, calling him, "a gay R2-D2 with attitude." Peters was able to recycle his giant spider idea in Wild Wild West (1999), a film he produced.
Smith's draft (titled Superman Lives) had Brainiac sending Doomsday to kill Superman, as well as blocking out the sun to make Superman powerless, as Superman is fueled by sunlight. Brainiac teams with Lex Luthor, but Superman is resurrected by a Kryptonian robot, The Eradicator. Brainiac wishes to possess The Eradicator and its technology. Powerless, the resurrected Superman is sheathed in armor formed from The Eradicator itself until his powers return, courtesy of sunbeams, and defeats Brainiac. Smith's casting choices included Ben Affleck as Clark Kent / Superman, Linda Fiorentino as Lois Lane, Jack Nicholson as Lex Luthor, Famke Janssen as Mercy, John Mahoney as Perry White, David Hyde Pierce as The Eradicator, Jason Lee as Brainiac and Jason Mewes as Jimmy Olsen.
Robert Rodriguez was offered the chance to direct, but turned down the offer due to his commitment on The Faculty (1998), despite liking Smith's script. Smith originally suggested Tim Burton to direct his script, and Burton signed on with a pay or play contract of $5 million and the studio set the theatrical release date in the summer of 1998, the 60th anniversary of the character's debut in Action Comics. Nicolas Cage, a comic book fan, signed on as Superman with a $20 million pay or play contract, feeling he could "re-conceive the character." Peters felt Cage could "convince audiences he [Superman] came from outer space." Burton stated it would be "the first time you would believe that nobody could recognize Clark Kent as Superman, he [Cage] could physically change his persona." Kevin Spacey was approached for the role of Lex Luthor, while Tim Allen claimed he was in talks for Brainiac (a role heavily considered for Jim Carrey). Courteney Cox was reported as a casting possibility for Lois Lane, while Smith confirmed Chris Rock was set for Jimmy Olsen. Michael Keaton confirmed his involvement, but when asked if he would be reprising his role as Batman (as he had done in Burton's Batman and Batman Returns), he would only reply, "Not exactly." Industrial Light & Magic was set for work on the special effects.
It was announced in April 1997 that filming would begin in early-1998. That June, Superman Lives entered pre-production, with an art department employed under production designer Rick Heinrichs. Burton decided to hire Wesley Strick to completely rewrite Smith's script. In return, Smith was overtly disappointed: "The studio was happy with what I was doing. Then Tim Burton got involved, and when he signed his pay-or-play deal, he turned around and said he wanted to do his version of Superman. So who is Warner Bros. going back to? The guy who made Clerks, or the guy who made them half a billion dollars on Batman?" When Strick read Smith's script, he was annoyed with the fact that "Superman was accompanied/shadowed by someone/something called The Eradicator." He also felt that "Brainiac's evil plot of launching a disk in space to block out the sun and make Superman powerless was reminiscent of an episode of The Simpsons, with Mr. Burns doing the Brainiac role." However, after reading The Death and Return of Superman, Strick claimed he understood some of the elements of Smith's script. Strick's rewrite featured Superman questioning his existence and abilities, thinking of himself to be an outsider on Earth. Superman is threatened by Brainiac and Lex Luthor, who later amalgamate into "Lexiac," described by Strick as "a schizo/scary mega-villain." Superman is later resurrected by the power of 'K', a natural force representing the spirit of Krypton, as Superman defeats Lexiac.
Art designer Sylvain Despretz claimed the art department was assigned to create something that had little or nothing to do with the Superman comic book. Despretz also claimed that Peters "would bring kids in, who would rate the drawings on the wall as if they were evaluating the toy possibilities. It was basically a toy show!" Peters saw a cover of National Geographic, containing a picture of a skull, going to art department workers, telling them he wanted the design for Brainiac's space ship to have the same image. Burton gave Despretz a concept drawing for Brainiac, which Despretz claims was "a cone with a round ball on top, and something that looked like a emaciated skull inside. Imagine you take Merlin's hat, and you stick a fish bowl on top, with a skull in it." Concept artist Rolf Mohr claimed he designed a suit for The Eradicator for a supposed scene when he turns into a flying vehicle.
Burton chose Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania as his primary filming location for Metropolis, while sound stages were reserved but start dates for filming were pushed back. A minor piece of the Krypton set was constructed but then destroyed, and Cage had even attended a costume fitting. The studio was considering changing the title Superman Lives back to Superman Reborn. The film's escalating budget (which went from $100 million to $190 million) forced Warner Bros. to ultimately put the film on hold in April 1998, and Burton left to direct Sleepy Hollow. At this point in production, $30 million was spent, with nothing to show for it. To this day, Burton has depicted the experience of Superman Lives as one of the worst experiences in his life, citing various differences with Peters and the studio, stating, "I basically wasted a year. A year is a long time to be working with somebody that you don't really want to be working with."
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