Believe it or not, the world very nearly saw a Nicolas Cage Superman movie many years ago, before the Superman Lives project was abandoned. The 1990s were a singular time, and one upon which we tend to reminisce with a fond empathy for all our youthful missteps. One such fumbled bag was the decline and fall of a comic book movie that lives forever in the infamy of almost: Tim Burton and Jon Peters’ Superman Lives.

Initially intended to be a vague cinematic interpretation of one of the best Superman comic book runs, The Death of Superman, and infamously set to star Nicolas Cage, Superman Lives could very well have been the greatest film ever made…until it wasn’t. 

It was 1998 when Superman Lives was killed, the very same year that filming was due to begin. Broadly speaking, the film intended to pit Superman against Brainiac, Lex Luthor, and a new and improved version of Doomsday, ultimately leading to Superman’s death (spoiler alert, but don’t worry he’s resurrected later on, and also the movie doesn’t exist).

This very basic plot summary is pretty much the only consistent part of the Superman Lives lore. The film was wading through chaos from its very inception, with no less than five script and title upheavals. It was Kevin Smith who pitched what we now know to be Superman Lives to Jon Peters, within absurdly weird and specific parameters.

Peters wanted a totally flightless Superman, and argued for the addition of a giant spider, a polar bear, a puppy, and a knock off R2-D2. On one hand, it’s hard to disagree that this Nicolas Cage movie would have been incredible, but on the other, it’s equally impossible to deny that Peters was handing Smith a poisoned, glowy green chalice.

The talent pool was ripe for Superman Lives. Needless to say Nicolas Cage could have packed cinemas with just his name alone attached to the film, however our Lois Lane could have been Sandra Bullock or Courtney Cox. We almost saw Christopher Walken as Brainiac. Michael Keaton and Jim Carey were also there.

Tim Burton was brought on board as director, much to Smith’s delight and Burton’s chagrin. Far from a fan of Smith’s script, Burton hired Wesley Stick to re-work the script (again), which proved another pretty expensive move, and despite all that talent, it was this back and forth on script and story development that proved to be Superman Lives’ kryptonite. 

Millions and millions of dollars down, directors and screenwriters at each other’s throats, and wild indecision about the direction of the project left an already apprehensive Warner Bros with no choice but to put the film on hold and ultimately put it to rest. Superman Lives is the cult classic that never was, and maybe it’s better for that.

Living in the minds of all comic book fans and Nicolas Cage enjoyers as the greatest film that never was, Superman Lives was so powerful that it tore apart its entire production team from the inside. In a world of overly-quippy Marvel heroes and poorly-lit DC emos, Superman Lives could have been the cultural reset that reminded us that Kal-El is an alien in tights and funny pants.

It would have been performance art, it would have been high camp, it would have been cinema. Then again, it’s easy to dream of greatness; Superman himself waxed lyrical about how dreams lift us up and ultimately save us. Sometimes, though, we need to wake up and realize that some dreams are just too good to be true, and Superman Lives might just have been one of them.

Nicolas Cage currently stars as Nick Cage in The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent.