Over the weekend, in an effort to cure my Sunday Scaries, I tossed on the 1997 classic Con-Air, as I’d realized sometime earlier in the week that I’d never actually seen it from start to finish. Similar to Goodfellas or Titanic or Jumanji, Con-Air was also just one of those movies that you’d pick up at random spots on cable. “Oh, they’re boarding the plane now? Perfect,” you’d say knowing you’ve missed the first twenty minutes. Think about it: how many times have you seen those scenes of Henry Hill as a young boy compared to, let’s say, the scene Tommy shooting Spider? In the case of Con-Air, I was always catching sometime after they boarded the plane, so I decided to fire it up from start to finish, as it’s currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
What I found what a vestige of filmmaking, as something like this — with this plot and this budget and this star power — would absolutely never get made today. Sure, B-level action movies with inherently and almost comedically ridiculous plots still get made, but they exist only on streaming services, are made for a fraction of the budget, and star one household name looking to cut a check (Bruce Willis is the king of B-level action flicks) if they’re lucky.
But back in the ’90s — with Batman was floundering, Superman out of style, and Spider-Man yet to make his big-screen breakthrough — action movies like Con-Air and Independence Day and True Lies and all the other classics that you’ve become so familiar with thanks to TNT and AMC *were* blockbuster entertainment. There was no Marvel Cinematic Universe, all you needed was a couple of recognizable actors, a tasty elevator-pitch-plot, and a budget big enough to afford tons of explosions. “Alright, so, we put Keanu Reeves and Sanda Bullock on a speeding bus… but the bus can’t be stopped or else it explodes!” See what I mean?
As I was reliving both the simplicity of 90s Hollywood and the peak of Nicolas Cage’s career, I went back to look at his filmography (as movie nerds often find themselves doing during while watching something they’ve already seen) and was struck by how truly high Cage’s peak was, as he ripped off a run from 1995 to 1997 that would go on to define his career.
Fun fact about Nic Cage that I feel the average person doesn’t know: he’s won an Academy Award for Best Actor. That’s right, for his performance as Ben Sanderson, a suicidal alcoholic, in the 1995 drama Leaving Las Vegas. He then followed that up alongside Sean Connery in The Rock, widely considered to be the best of Michael Bay’s Michael Bay movies, in 1996, followed by Con-Air and Face/Off in 1997. From there, he’d go on to have other hits such as Gone in 60 Seconds and the National Treasure films, but he’d never again reach the heights his mid-90s run.
Oddly enough, depending on how the film turned out, Cage’s A-list ascendency could have climbed even higher, as he was infamously slated to star as Clark Kent in a Superman film from none other than Tim Burton.
In retrospect, the cocktail of Tim Burton’s gothic influences, Nicolas Cage’s sheer and intense outrageousness, and the classic Americana of Superman seems like an obvious recipe for disaster. But, again, that was the beauty of the ’90s: ideas were being thrown at the wall solely for the sake of seeing what would stick.
For as ridiculous as the idea sounds on a macro level (Burton, Cage, Superman) Superman Lives — which was the admittedly awesome title for the film — becomes even more preposterous when examined on a micro level.
Largely influenced by the beloved The Death of Superman tale, Superman Lives would’ve featured a threesome of famed Kal-El foes: Brainiac, Doomsday, and Lex Luthor. As the legend goes, Superman Lives would’ve been far darker than any previous take on the Man of Steel: Clark would’ve been in therapy and Brainiac would’ve been made of “shape-shifting alien technology” and the third act was supposed to include a showdown with… a giant spider?
“For Superman Lives I was working mostly in the dark based on vague descriptions without seeing a script,” concept artist Rolf Mohr once told io9.
“At the time it all sounded rather crazy and confusing, with Brainiac’s Skull Ship that could absorb anything it came across, Brainiac himself inside some sort of alien shape-shifting ‘hybrid technology’ which would open up and engulf people and grow ever larger, more limbs, etc, then Superman also had alien tech in the form of the Eradicator, which could become a suit as well as transform into an ‘Interceptor’ ship… A giant biomechanical alien spider thing which had a body that could open up and smaller ones came out, etc, etc…”
The rumored casting choices were equally as head-scratching as Cage, as Mohr also said that Gary Oldman and Jim Carrey were in contention for the role of Brainiac. As far as The Death of Superman Lives documentary tells it, Christopher Walken was actually in line to play the villainous robotic alien, while Courteney Cox and Sandra Bullock were rumored for Lois Lane.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, while Superman Lives may have seemed absurd at face value, its former star was all-in, as Cage told EW in 2017 that it would’ve been the most “powerful” Superman film ever made.
“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.”
Ultimately, the idea was scrapped as 1997’s Batman & Robin put Warner Bros. in a superhero-sized hole that they wouldn’t climb out of until Christopher Nolan rescued them with Batman Begins in 2005. Ironically enough, while the promise of Nicolas Cage in a Superman movie may be long gone, the possibility of him playing Superman is more alive than it’s ever been. Not only has he since voiced the Last Son of Krypton in the Teen Titans GO! movie, but there is — albeit a distant one — still a shot he could eventually don the iconic blue and red suit, as the introduction of the multiverse into the DCEU (both Michael Keaton and Ben Affleck are set to appear as Batman in 2022’s The Flash) has opened the door to a possible Cage-as-Superman cameo.
Either way, whatever becomes of the Man of Tomorrow on tomorrow’s big screen, Superman Lives will always exist solely as a running joke, a meme, an oft-watched YouTube video, a misplaced memory from a century gone by that feels so out of place it’s as if it happened in a fever dream. After all, that’s basically what the ’90s were, anyway.
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