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A Brief History of Nicolas Cage Almost Playing Superman and Battling a Giant Spider

An image from the 2015 documentary The Death of “Superman Lives”: What Happened? Photo: Super Skull Ship

This piece was originally published in June. We are recirculating it now timed to The Flash’s streaming debut on HBO Max. Warning: many spoilers ahead!

Superhero movies are all seemingly multiverse-centric these days, which means they are also increasingly dependent on cameos. The Flash gets its nostalgic kicks primarily from Michael Keaton reprising his role as the Caped Crusader in Tim Burton’s Batman films. He teams up with Barry Allen, a.k.a. the Flash (Ezra Miller), and newcomer Supergirl (Sasha Calle) to thwart an alien invasion led by General Zod, played by Michael Shannon retreading his villainous turn from 2013’s Man of Steel. The movie’s trailers showcase these roles, though The Flash still packs in surprises for completists and continuity obsessives. The most curious of them all may be a CGI recreation of a famous Hollywood star in an almost-blockbuster with its own intriguing history: Somehow, Nicolas Cage’s Superman lives.

In the movie’s climax, when Barry and his numerous selves keep rewriting time, even more alternate realities begin collapsing in on the DCEU. Through tears in the fabric of space and the wonders of underbaked CGI, the Barrys glimpse alternate versions of several familiar characters. We see rubbery visions of Christopher Reeve’s Superman and Helen Slater’s Supergirl from their respective films in the ’70s and ’80s — characters from the same continuity who never shared the screen until now. We also see Adam West’s Batman from the 1960s TV show, and George Reeves’s Superman from the 1950s Adventures of Superman series. The latter appears alongside a version of Jay Garrick, the Flash who sports a Mercury helmet with metallic wings and who predates Barry in the comics by several years (though he never appeared in the ‘50s Superman show).

But the most recognizable cameo next to Reeve happens to be a version of Superman that almost was, one that sharp-eyed DC fans will likely anticipate the moment they glimpse him from behind, his long hair flowing in the wind as he battles a giant spider. This Superman is played by none other than Nic Cage — or, at least, an expressionless digital recreation of a younger Cage from the ’90s — as the iteration of Superman he was meant to have played in Tim Burton’s Superman Lives.

Based on a story from Kevin Smith, Superman Lives never saw the light of day — it was abandoned in 1998 shortly before filming began, after Warner Bros. had spent $30 million prepping the project. On the internet, you can still find old concept art as well as costume test photos and footage of Cage wearing a uniquely designed Superman suit, which The Flash also re-creates. The details of the hellish production were covered extensively in the 2015 documentary The Death of “Superman Lives”: What Happened?, directed by the late Jon Schnepp, but the long and short of it boils down to creative differences between Burton, the studio, and producer John Peters, who was notoriously insistent on having Cage’s Superman fight a giant spider in the movie’s finale.

Peters would eventually repurpose this concept when he produced Wild Wild West, the 1999 steampunk western that sees Will Smith batting a giant mechanical arachnid, and the comics would similarly borrow the idea — specifically in writer Mark Waid and artist Leinil Francis Yu’s Superman: Birthright. These images of Cage and the giant spider have long hovered over the consciousness of Superman and DC fandoms, even if the closest fans have come to actually seeing a Nic Cage Superman was his brief voice cameo in the 2018 animated movie Teen Titans Go! To the Movies. The actor himself has also long had a fascination with the Man of Steel — he owned a rare copy of Superman’s first comics appearance, which he sold for $2 million, and he even named his son Kal-El after Superman’s Kryptonian name.

Cage’s Flash cameo allows us to imagine what the climax of Superman Lives might have looked like if filming had gone forward — or at least if it had leaked online before its visual effects were complete, à la the workprint of X-Men Origins: Wolverine, which is nostalgic in its own way. But for Cage at least, finally donning the cape and tights is likely a wish fulfilled.

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