As superhero movies continue to weave intricate multiverses, their appeal often hinges on unexpected cameos. HBO Max’s streaming release of “The Flash” adds a dose of nostalgia by bringing back Michael Keaton in his reprised role as Batman from Tim Burton’s iconic films. Collaborating with Barry Allen, also known as the “Flash (Ezra Miller), and newcomer Supergirl (Sasha Calle), they join forces to thwart an alien invasion led by General Zod, portrayed by Michael Shannon, reprising his role from the 2013 movie “Man of Steel.”
While trailers hint at these roles, “The Flash” holds hidden gems for devoted fans and continuity enthusiasts, with one of the most intriguing being a CGI recreation of a famous Hollywood star who came close to headlining his own superhero blockbuster: the nearly forgotten Nicolas Cage as Superman.
As the movie’s climax unfolds, Barry and his alternate selves manipulate time, causing different realities to converge in the DC Extended Universe (DCEU). Through rifts in spacetime and the magic of early CGI, the various versions of Barry catch glimpses of alternate renditions of familiar characters. Images reminiscent of Christopher Reeve’s Superman and Helen Slater’s Supergirl from the ’70s and ’80s emerge, characters from the same storyline who, up until now, had never shared the screen. Adam West’s Batman from the ’60s TV series and George Reeves’s Superman from the ’50s “Adventures of Superman” show also make appearances.
Among these, George Reeves’s Superman stands alongside Jay Garrick, the Flash donning a Mercury helmet and metallic wings predating Barry’s character in the comics by several years (though he never appeared in the ’50s Superman show).
However, the standout cameo, aside from Reeve’s appearance, features a Superman that could have been—the moment is likely anticipated by vigilant DC fans upon seeing his iconic flowing hair and resolute stance against a colossal spider. This version of Superman is none other than Nicolas Cage himself, or more accurately, a digitally recreated version of a younger Cage from the 1990s. This iteration represents the Superman he was meant to portray in Tim Burton’s unrealized project, “Superman Lives.”
Conceived by Kevin Smith, “Superman Lives” never came to fruition; it was halted in 1998, just before filming commenced, despite Warner Bros.’ investment of $30 million in pre-production. Echoes of this project’s unrealized potential remain online in the form of concept art, costume tests, and footage of Cage wearing a distinctive Superman suit—this design is faithfully replicated in “The Flash.”
This troubled production was extensively detailed in the 2015 documentary “The Death of ‘Superman Lives’: What Happened?” directed by the late Jon Schnepp. Creative disagreements between Burton, the studio, and producer John Peters ultimately led to the project’s downfall. Peters, known for his insistence on featuring a colossal spider in the climax of Cage’s Superman, later incorporated this idea into the 1999 steampunk western “Wild Wild West,” starring Will Smith.
The comics also drew inspiration from this concept, notably in Mark Waid and Leinil Francis Yu’s “Superman: Birthright.” The enduring images of Cage and the gigantic spider have lingered in the minds of Superman and DC enthusiasts, even though the closest encounter with a Nic Cage Superman was his brief voice cameo in the 2018 animated film “Teen Titans Go! To the Movies.” Cage himself has long held a fascination with the Man of Steel—he once owned a rare copy of Superman’s debut comic appearance, which he later sold for $2 million. He even named his son Kal-El, Superman’s Kryptonian alias.
Cage’s cameo in “The Flash” invites speculation about what the climax of “Superman Lives” might have resembled if production had proceeded—or if it had leaked online before visual effects were completed, reminiscent of the nostalgic workprint of “X-Men Origins: Wolverine.” For Cage, finally donning the iconic cape and tights likely fulfills a desire that remained tantalizingly close yet elusive.”