For a whole generation of Superman fans, Christopher Reeve represents the iconic version of the character after having played the part in four films in the 1980s.
But the actor was set to reprise the role in Superman V: Superman Reborn, based on an idea by comic book writer Cary Bates.
"The intent was to leapfrog over Superman III and especially IV, and return the series to the high mark achieved in 1 and 2," Bates told Newsarama. "[It was] our desire to do a fully developed, balls-out science fiction story pitting Superman and Brainiac against each other mano a mano."
The Superman films were first developed after producers Ilya and Alexander Salkind and Pierre Spengler purchased the film rights to the character in 1974. It was director Richard Donner's epic Superman in 1978 that established the film franchise and has been credited by many filmmakers as a huge influence on what superhero movies would become.
Donner directed a second installment, Superman II, to further critical acclaim, but a third and fourth Superman movie -- as well as a spin-off Supergirl film -- got a more mixed reception. Ilya Salkind was apparently hoping the fifth movie would return the film franchise to prominence.
Although many people credit Salkind for the idea behind Superman V, Bates said he gave the producer the idea for the fifth Superman film when he was a writer on the syndicated Superboy TV show.
"It was during my tenure on that series that I showed Ilya a treatment I had written on spec the previous year for a Superman movie," Bates said. "The premise involved a new take on the whole Brainiac-Kandor portion of the Superman mythos. As it turned out, Ilya and his father Alexander Salkind had already been considering returning to Superman since the one-picture option they had given the Cannon group (which resulted in Superman IV) had expired. Using my treatment as a starting point, they commissioned me and Mark Jones [the other story-editor on the Superboy series] to write a full script."
Bates probably had as much knowledge about Superman and his history as anyone ever has. The writer was only 13 years old when he first broke into the comics business in the '60s by selling an idea for a Superman cover to DC Comics. Since then, he's written a slew of issues in both Action Comics and Superman at various times during the '60s, '70s and '80s. He's returning to the character this August with the comic mini-series Superman: The Last Family of Krypton.
It was this history in comics that gave Bates the idea for his original spec script for a fifth Superman film, because it was a retelling of the first classic Brainiac story from the comics. He and Jones expanded upon the concept with contributions from Salkind.
"[Brainiac] comes to Earth for the first time and shrinks Metropolis, adding it to his interplanetary collection of miniaturized cities," Bates explained. "But because he becomes aware of the unique super-powered being in his latest acquisition, Brainiac miniaturizes himself and ventures into the bottled Metropolis in person. This leads to a knock-down drag-out battle that ends in what appears to be Superman’s death."
The idea for this movie death pre-dated the later, greatly publicized death of Superman in comics, and similarly had a plan for the character's rebirth — although this time it was through a visit to a certain well-known bottled city.
"A split-second before his atoms would’ve been permanently disintegrated, they are sucked into a bottle-city a few rows over… Kandor," he said. "There he is 'reborn' as a mortal man, where he gets to reconnect with his Kryptonian roots as he begins the arduous process of rehabilitating himself and eventually escaping from Kandor to resume his battle with Brainiac."
The Brainiac in Superman V would have been a combination of what were, at the time, the most seminal versions of the character: the green-skinned human from the '50s and '60s, and the robot version introduced by Marv Wolfman and Gil Kane in the '80s.
"While this two-tier approach to Brainiac proved to be an extremely important component to the plot, the original reason was much more pragmatic," Bates explained. "Our Brainiac had to be human much of time, or the producers would’ve faced the dilemma of throwing away big bucks to hire a big-name actor who would be reduced to an unseen voice-over artist for a mechanical or CGI robot."
Of course, the movie — which ended up being titled "Superman Reborn" — was never made.
"After the first draft was completed, the film was put on hold because the Salkinds were about to go into production on their other project Christopher Columbus: The Discovery, on which I was hired for the final production draft (the original writers Mario Puzo and John Briley were no longer available)," Bates said. "The whole time I was on location in Europe with Columbus, I was also writing the second draft of the Superman script, which by now had been re-titled Superman Reborn (not to be confused with the Jonathan Lemkin script Warners commissioned years later under the same title).
"However, by the time production on Columbus wrapped in the spring of 1992, Warners had just announced they were about to go into production with the Lois and Clark TV series," Bates said. "This was the first of several business-related events that led to a complex re-negotiation between the studio and the Salkinds, culminating with Warners re-acquiring all rights to Superman. Unfortunately, as almost always happens when a project changes hands or studios, all previous drafts go out the window and they start from scratch. This was certainly the case with Superman… which was stuck for 12 years in development hell, spawning half a dozen scripts and almost as many writer-director teams before Warners finally produced Superman Returns in 2006."
Director Bryan Singer's Superman Returns paid homage to Donner's two Superman films, which Bates said he enjoyed, although he wondered if the plot was right for a re-introduction of the character after so many years.
"As someone who’s spent nearly four decades with the character, I enjoyed the film and could appreciate much of what Bryan Singer and his writers brought to the character. My main reservations would have been the long-term wisdom of introducing the super-son subplot," he said, "and perhaps an over-emphasis on 'homage' elements that made it difficult for the new film to completely step out from the shadows of Superman 1 and 2."
Since the release of Superman Returns in 2006 and the decision by Warner Bros. to reboot the franchise, the Superman character has been stuck in development again. But this year's announcement that The Dark Knight director Christopher Nolan is behind the movie's development gives fans hope -- including Bates.
"Given the fantastic job Nolan and his team did on the Batman reboot, I for one am looking forward to this immensely," Bates said.
When Bates returns to the character with August's Superman: The Last Family of Krypton mini-series, he said he's been involved with the character for so long that it feels like he never left. "I’ve been involved with the character over the years in three different mediums across as many decades," he said. "Getting my head back into a “Superman” frame of mind when necessary has never a problem."
Looking back, Bates said it's probably a good thing that his version of Superman V was never made because special effects just weren't in place to handle it well. "Seeing “Superman Reborn” get scuttled was a huge disappointment at the time for everyone involved, but in retrospect the screenplay was probably too ambitious and ahead of its time, given the modest projected budget," he said. "But even if money were no object, the status quo of special effects and CGI tech was in its infancy back in 1991 so I suspect our elaborate Kandor sequences and the titanic battles between Superman and Brainiac would have been sharply scaled back had the screenplay been filmed. But for anyone who might be interested in reading the script for themselves, last I heard it had finally become available on a couple of different websites and should be findable via Google."
[Editor's note: The folks at Superman Homepage have a draft of the script at http://www.supermanhomepage.com/movies/superman-reborn-script.pdf, for anyone who's interested.]