Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Loki, CW’s Arrowverse, and Everything Everywhere All at Once made the multiverse en vogue. The Flash, DC’s new superhero epic, cashes in on the trend. The reality-breaking antics of Barry Allen will tickle fans of the “DCEU”/Snyderverse, and with the inclusion of Michael Keaton’s Batman, director Andy Muschietti and his team of writers clearly want to bring every DC kid, young or old, into the fold. But the multiversal synapses Barry witnesses during his Speed Force runs go even beyond the tentpoles of yore, revealing corners of DC’s cinematic past that only exist on paper. Which is how Nicolas Cage’s Superman finally wound up fighting a giant spider on the big screen.
[Ed. note: This story contains spoilers for The Flash.]
For internet dorks of a certain era, a split-second shot of a movie that does not exist during Barry Allen’s run through the Chronobowl at the tail end of The Flash is dizzying levels of catnip. Christopher Reeve’s Superman and Adam West’s Batman whizzing by probably clicks for even casual viewers, but Cage fighting a spider must be straight-up baffling to those who weren’t glued to movie message boards in the year 2002: Nic Cage as Superman? The National Treasure guy? Ghost Rider? The actor inexplicably in Dead By Daylight? Why?
“Why” goes all the way back to the mid-1990s, a time when major movie studios had zero faith in comic book movies. As far as executives were concerned, there was Batman, reinvented by Tim Burton in 1989 and turned into a toyetic franchise with Joel Schumacher’s 1995 take, Batman Forever; there was Superman, which broke brains 1978 and flamed out over three more goofy installments; and everything else was direct-to-video schlock, like Albert Pyun’s 1990 Captain America or David Hasselhoff’s Nick Fury TV movie.
So it made sense that Warner Bros. actively sought to reinvent Superman… while also trying to figure out how to make it as not-comic-booky as possible. Despite DC Comics’ boom in the early ’90s, thanks in no small part to 1992’s Death of Superman arc, WB chief Lorenzo di Bonaventura (who now producers the Transformers movies) and producer Jon Peters (riding high from producing Batman) aimed to reconceive Superman for Gen X without involving any of the comic artists or writers who already worked their magic in paperbacks. As Peters has said over the years, he wanted a Superman “from the street.” Whatever the hell that meant, Nicolas Cage was street enough to be their guy.
Cage was an odd choice for Superman. Up until that moment, the character’s on-screen reputation (mainly thanks to Reeve’s iconic performance) was that of the “Big Blue Boy Scout” variety. But Cage had three things going for him: He was an Oscar winner for Leaving Las Vegas, he was a hugely bankable star after The Rock (with Con Air and Face/Off also raking in dough around the time of his casting), and he was ecstatic for comic books.
How much does Cage love Superman? There was only one actor that Warner Bros. could viably cast as Superman in the late ’90s who also owned a copy of Action Comics #1. In 2005, the actor named his second son Kal-El. Cage loves Superman. That love lured Tim Burton back to the superhero genre; with Cage in tow, Peters and di Bonaventura brought on the Batman director to develop the proposed Superman Lives, based on a script by none other than one of the late ’90s’ favorite geeks, Kevin Smith.
The way Smith tells it in his now-infamous An Evening with Kevin Smith special, Warner Bros. reached out to him just as Chasing Amy was about to shoot, knowing he could actually write things that weren’t two dudes standing around mouthing off about their day jobs. Smith attributes getting the job to writing a Kryptonite condom gag into Mallrats, but it was also the dream gig, and he went through hell to get it. As Smith recalls, part of getting the assignment to write Superman Lives was to take all of Jon Peters’ notes about what the movie should be, then wrap them around a Superman story loosely based on the Death of Superman arc — without being too comic-booky.
Peters, notoriously, had three stipulations for Smith:
1. “I don’t want to see him in that suit.”
2. “I don’t want to see him fly.”
3. “He has to fight a giant spider in the third act.”
In the criminally unavailable documentary The Death of “Superman Lives”: What Happened?, Peters denies the idea that he insisted Superman shouldn’t fly, but is all about Superman fighting a giant spider in Superman Lives. According to Smith, during that initial conversation with Peters, the producer had a simple case for why the hero should punch an oversized arachnid: “They’re the fiercest killers in the insect kingdom.” Hard to deny that.
Smith took all of Peters’ notes — incorporate a Chewbacca-like character, make Jimmy Olsen just like Dwight from Chasing Amy, etc. — in an attempt to actually see Superman Lives get made. That was all enough to grab the attention of Burton, who signed on and gave Smith the boot to make way for his writer of choice. That’s the biz.
Burton’s work on Superman Lives was significant. He hired a massive crew of concept artists, prosthetic effects artists, and special effects costumers to bring his ideas for a revamped Superman suit to life. In versions of the screenplay, Superman is in fact dead, and is reanimated by Kryptonian technology, allowing for a number of high-tech iterations on the suit. Photos that routinely surface around the internet show Cage wearing a glowing suit equipped with blinking lights and phosphorescent versions of the Superman “S.” In The Death of “Superman Lives”: What Happened?, Oscar-winning costume designer Colleen Atwood explains that these were all stages of a “regeneration suit” that would have eventually taken the shape of the classic Superman look.
Flipping through concept art, Superman Lives looks like a radical reinvention of Richard Donner’s 1978 take on the character and even the movies that would come after the project collapsed, like Superman Returns and Man of Steel. Brainiac would have shown up looking like a Moebius creation (Burton wanted to cast Christopher Walken in the role). Doomsday and Lex Luthor were in the mix, too. Chris Rock was signed on to play Jimmy Olsen. And as for Clark Kent himself, Cage recently told Variety, “It was more of a 1980s Superman with, like, the samurai black long hair. I thought it was gonna be a really different, sort of emo Superman, but we never got there.”
Superman Lives is one of the great lost blockbusters. Warner Bros. reportedly spent $30 million just on development of the screenplay, production design, and costumes. But as the story goes from Dan Gilroy, one of the last screenwriters to take a stab at wrangling the imaginative revamp into working order, the actual movie was always impossible to make. The script was too epic, the special effects were never possible, and WB could never make the budget work. So it was scrapped, and Cage lost his chance to play Superman. Until The Flash made a goof.
In the cracks of the Chronobowl, viewers will see Cage suited up as Superman, fighting a giant spider. Jon Peters, who settled for forcing a giant mechanical spider into his 1999 blockbuster Wild Wild West, can now die happy. So can The Flash director Andy Muschietti, who clearly is one of the “internet dorks of a certain era.”
“Nic was absolutely wonderful,” Muschietti told Variety in a recent interview. “Although the role was a cameo, he dove into it… I dreamt all my life to work with him. I hope I can work with him again soon.”
Could Muschietti and The Flash revive Cage’s Superman career? It sounds impossible... but 26 years after Superman Lives imploded, the actor is in costume, on screen, clobbering a giant spider in a major motion picture.
The future of The Flash star Ezra Miller’s tenure in the DC universe is a big unknown; DC Films’ James Gunn has already laid out plans for an expansive, rebooted DCU with few ties to the Snyderverse films. Box office could create room for The Flash 2... and more space for Cage’s Kal-El. The only problem: If the spider is the fiercest killer in the insect kingdom, what could Superman possibly fight?