Can Superman save Batman and the world of comic book movie franchises with a new flick starring Nicholas Cage?

Can Superman save Batman? Sure, the Man of Steel has pulled the Bat out of the fire a zillion times — in the comics. But can ol’ Supes pull off the same feat in the high-stakes, multimillion-dollar, franchise-dependent world of Hollywood? That’s the question floating in the thought bubbles above the heads of Warner Bros. executives. Although the studio’s powerhouse Batman films are still chugging along, there’s little doubt that the franchise will eventually lose steam. Which is why Warner is moving at superspeed on the big-budget feature Superman Lives for the summer of ’98. The studio and producer Jon Peters have signed Nicolas Cage to play the last son of Krypton, while screenwriter/comic-book fanatic Kevin Smith (Chasing Amy) has already turned in a screenplay based on 1992’s best-selling Death of Superman comic book. And just last week, Tim Burton, the man responsible for the original Batman, signed on to direct. ”With the tremendous success we’ve had with Batman,” says one top Warner executive, ”Superman is the logical extension.”

Clearly Warner is working off the Batman template. According to a source close to the production, the studio has already begun considering who will make up the all-star cast. Among the names discussed are Sandra Bullock as Lois Lane, Patrick Stewart (who once was under consideration to play Mr. Freeze in Batman & Robin) as archenemy Brainiac, and Jack Nicholson as criminal genius Lex Luthor. (None of the actors will comment.) One popular rumor even suggests that Michael Keaton will make a cameo appearance as Batman. ”Michael and Tim are good friends,” says a spokesperson for Keaton. ”They would love to work together again.”

But there are already signs that this plan of steel may be rusting. Many observers are skeptical of the Cage casting. ”He’s a ridiculous choice,” says a source associated with DC Comics. ”There’s nothing about him that suggests he can play anyone as heroic as Superman.” Smith defends the decision, even as he alludes to another criticism: ”He’s a consummate actor.” Besides, Smith adds, ”his hairline can be fixed.”

Then again, Smith won’t have much say about the rest of the casting. One of Burton’s first acts as director was to jettison Smith and his script and hire screenwriter Wesley Strick (The Saint). ”Burton wants to Hollywood it out,” says Smith, whose script was dark and faithful to the Death of Superman story line, as opposed to the campy feel of the four Christopher Reeve films. ”Maybe mine didn’t have enough quirk. Maybe not enough people wore black.” (Burton is unavailable for comment.)

Or maybe the marketing opportunities just weren’t there. If there’s one figure sure to be uppermost in the minds of Warner executives, it’s the $4 billion in licensing fees that the Batman movies have generated (see item on page 10). ”I was told ‘This is a corporate movie,”’ recalls Smith. ”Nobody is treating this like a $100 million art film.”

Critics are quick to point out that an ambitious licensing program does not a good feature make. ”Problems come in when decisions are made based on the marketing,” says Marty Brochstein, executive editor of The Licensing Letter. ”If it looks like the marketing is the only reason for the movie to exist, the consumers will sense it.”