25 years ago, Tim Burton made a sci-fi classic that almost ruined his career

“They punished Tim.”

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WEST HOLLYWOOD, CA - 1989:  Director of the first "Batman" movie and "Batman Returns," Tim Burton, p...
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In 1996, a movie about a violent alien invasion and the ragtag attempt to stop it took America by storm. And that movie was... Independence Day. Roland Emmerich’s science fiction epic made over $800 million at the box office and invented a new genre. But in the same year, a very different alien invasion movie debuted with very different results.

Released in December 1996 (six months after Independence Day), Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks! is less sci-fi epic and more sci-fi parody. Featuring an army of CGI aliens and an impressive cast led by Jack Nicholson, Mars Attacks! confused audiences with its absurdist premise and earned just $100 million on a budget of $70M.

In the process, Burton butted heads with Warner Bros., which, according to screenwriter Jonathan Gems, is why the studio canceled his planned follow-up: Superman Lives, set to star Nicolas Cage as the titular hero.

Speaking to Inverse for an oral history of the film, Tim Burton says that the reaction to Mars Attacks! represents his own relationship with Hollywood.

“I felt very misplaced at that time, for some strange reason,” Burton tells Inverse, “whether I’d been working at Disney too long or something else. I don’t know. Nobody ever really knows what I’m doing anyway, so they really can’t comment too much on it because they don’t even know what to say about it.”

“It was a bomb in America,” he adds.

According to Gems, who penned the original script before the studio had him replaced (long story), says the studio execs at Warner failed to grok Burton’s vision.

“I don’t think the studio understood what we were trying to do,” Gems says. “They figured it would be a straight-ahead, traditional, sci-fi movie where the Martians attack and then they get defeated and there’s a hero who saves the day — a part for Bruce Willis or something. And they didn’t get that it wasn’t about that.”

Mars Attacks!

Original art by Sabrina Gabrielli

When they got a very different movie — one with no obvious hero where all the good guys get melted by alien laser guns — they reacted poorly.

“It got the thumbs down from New York, the bankers who finance the studios,” Gems says. “It wasn’t marketed properly at all. I think they decided they didn’t want people to watch the film.”

Ultimately, the victim of the entire debacle was Superman Lives, at least according to Gems:

“They punished Tim. He had this wonderful project, with Nicolas Cage going to play Superman. The script was absolutely brilliant. They had incredible ideas for it. And then Warner Brothers dumped it and never gave a reason.”

Official release poster for the Superman Lives documentary

Superman Lives has been the subject of much fan speculation, and even a documentary. With a script from Kevin Smith (Clerks, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back), Tim Burton in the director’s chair, and Nic Cage as the star, the film was set to be a bizarre take on the beloved superhero. Superman was slated to fight a giant spider in the big finale, while his primary antagonist, Brainiac, would have done battle with a polar bear at the Fortress of Solitude.

It’s still unknown exactly why Superman Lives fell apart, with the most obvious culprit being money troubles at Warner in the late ‘90s. Burton and Smith also apparently butted heads over their different visions. However, it seems the real culprit might be a bunch of weird-looking CGI Martians shouting “Ack ack ack!”

Read the full oral history of Mars Attacks!

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