There are few pop culture stories more fascinating than those about projects that were in development but never happened. George Miller’s Justice League. James Cameron’s Spider-Man. Tim Burton’s Superman. And that last one has an even better origin story than the Man of Steel himself. At one point, it was Kevin Smith’s Superman.
In a new interview for the Yahoo show the Never-Weres, the director of Clerks, Mallrats, and Chasing Amy told the story of how, after Mallrats, he found himself writing a Superman script based on the famous early 1990s DC story “The Death of Superman” for two of his Mallrats co-stars.
“I was writing it for [Ben] Affleck,” Smith said. “Ben was heating up. Like he was there. I think he’d been hired for Armageddon. … Affleck, he’s a fucking giant, like he’s built like a superhero, built like a giant action figure, particularly with the height. And then he puts on the muscles there too. So in my head and heart, it was always Ben and Michael Rooker, which was a weird Mallrats reunion.”
Smith found himself writing the script after he read the previous one Warner Bros. was developing called Superman Reborn. “[I said] ‘Oh my god, it’s terrible. The whole script, [it’s like] the people who wrote it don’t understand Superman at all. It’s kind of winking and stuff. There’s a way, a faithful telling of this … audiences appreciate it being treated seriously,’” Smith said.
So he wrote his script but then ran into problems with producer Jon Peters, who controlled the rights at the time. Peters had a very, very different version from the comic book fan take that Smith had, especially when it came to casting. Peters wanted recent Oscar-winner Sean Penn. “He goes, ‘Look in his eyes in [Dead Man Walking]. He’s [got] haunted eyes, the eyes of a killer,’” Smith says of Peters. “And I was like, ‘Dude, it’s Superman. You know, that’s not how most people think of Superman.’ But he wanted to reinvent it. He wanted something gritty, graphic, and grown-up. He essentially wanted like what Zack Snyder eventually did.”
To do so, Warner Bros. hired the man who’d recently done that for Batman, Tim Burton. Burton cast Nicolas Cage and threw out Smith’s script entirely, which is a whole other story (and documentary, called The Death of Superman Lives; it’s excellent if you can find it). But Smith, and Peters in a way, both had good ideas for Superman. They just happened to be decades before the world was ready. Affleck even ended up playing Superman, kind of; he portrayed early screen Superman George Reeves in the mystery 2006 noir Hollywoodland.
Read, and listen, to more of Smith’s story over at Yahoo.