Tony Black on the Batman films that never were…
One of the most lucrative and successful movie franchises in cinematic history, Batman prefigured the current superhero franchise craze and set the standard after Tim Burton’s 1989 picture established a succession of films which changed the long-held perception of Batman on screen as a camp throwback to his 1960’s colourful incarnation. As The LEGO Batman Movie debuts, launching the Caped Crusader into a new animated dimension, it’s interesting to consider the numerous Batman projects that never made it out of development hell, because even though we’ve had the Christopher Nolan trilogy in recent years which sent the character into the stratosphere, it’s not always been plain sailing for the Dark Knight.
BATMAN vs SUPERMAN
“But this film happened?!” a million voices all cried out in terror. Yes indeed, last year’s Dawn of Justice, part of the formative and troubled DC Extended Universe, did in 2016 finally bring the Man of Steel into Batman’s orbit. This wasn’t the first run at one of the biggest literal and ideological smackdowns in comic book history, however.
In a script now widely available online, Se7en wordsmith Andrew Kevin Walker back in 2001, following the catastrophic critical mauling given to Joel Schumacher’s confection Batman & Robin, penned a version optioned by Warner Bros to be directed by the then ‘hot’ Wolfgang Petersen. Quite why they wanted Akiva Goldsman, who had penned the previous calamity, to re-write Walker’s work is anyone’s guess but this one very nearly came into being.
Christian Bale, in fact, almost played Bruce Wayne here (battling with Josh Hartnett as Superman) and it got close enough to shooting before Petersen bailed to make Troy (nice move, mate…). We’ll never get to see a picture which would have seen Bruce & Clark Kent team up against The Joker & Lex Luthor respectively. Supes ended up Returning for Bryan Singer soon after, while Bale went on to essay Mr. Wayne in Batman Begins and a new era was born. Though it surely would have been better than Zach Snyder’s recent atrocity, we probably dodged a bullet here.
BATMAN FOREVER (BURTON-STYLE)
Of course, it could all have gone very differently had Tim Burton directed Batman Forever in 1995 instead of Schumacher, which very nearly happened too. It was only the lukewarm critical and commercial reaction to 1992’s Batman Returns, not nearly as wide a success as Burton’s first take on the character, which saw the director jump ship and go make Ed Wood instead. Michael Keaton as Bruce & Michelle Pfeiffer as Selina Kyle/Catwoman would have returned but got off when Burton did.
Apparently we would still have seen the Riddler as the main villain, a role being tailored for Robin Williams (how brilliant would that have been?), while Billy Dee Williams would have reprised Harvey Dent from the first picture and, though a secondary villain, would have become Two-Face on screen a decade before Aaron Eckhart would suffer the same fate in The Dark Knight. Continuity fans would have rejoiced to see a character established in the background in the first Batman achieve his destiny on screen. Instead, we got Val Kilmer looking constipated, Nicole Kidman admittedly looking gorgeous, and Tommy Lee Jones hamming it up for all his life was worth.
While Schumacher’s Forever isn’t the car crash his follow-up was, it’s not all that good either on reflection. Would Burton have rounded things off with a great final part to a formative trilogy? The odds looked good.
BATMAN UNCHAINED – THE THIRD SCHUMACHER FILM
Rather we got Schumacher’s questionable contribution to a franchise which had reverted back towards 60’s camp, just without Adam West’s kitsch charm. And before Batman & Robin crashed and burned on the back of a heavy budget for 1997, a third Joel Schumacher entry was being planned called Batman Unchained. This would have seen (presumably) George Clooney’s Caped Crusader & Chris O’Donnell’s Boy Wonder returning to battle Nicolas Cage as Jonathan Crane/Scarecrow, possibly Madonna as Harley Quinn (here revised to be The Joker’s daughter), and even possibly the Joker himself, with Jack Nicholson returning to cameo as the Crown Prince of Crime in visions created by Scarecrow’s fear toxin. Other casting choices included Steve Buscemi, Ewan McGregor and rapper Coolio as Scarecrow, alongside Hole singer Courtney Love as Harley Quinn.
Reports are that Schumacher actually wanted to go darker for his third outing, stripping back the colour that had infected his last two movies but faced battles with Warner Bros who at that point believed superhero movies could only survive if they were overblown and silly. It could account for why the darkest possible take yet never made it to the screen.
BATMAN: YEAR ONE – DARREN ARONOFSKY’S DABBLE
Schumacher reputedly wanted to adapt Frank Miller’s seminal 1980’s graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns for the silver screen and while Warner Bros were terrified at the prospect, they did flirt with the idea of Clint Eastwood in the role of an older Bruce Wayne forced out of retirement to put on the cape & cowl once more. We all know how badass this could have been but the climate simply wasn’t right. What came closer to changing the landscape of how Batman was presented on screen was when Darren Aronofsky entered the picture.
By now an established, critically applauded auteur for Pi & Requiem for a Dream, Aronofsky wanted to adapt Frank Miller’s other quite radical Bat-reimagining Year One for the big screen. Miller’s story, featuring a younger Bruce Wayne honing his crime-fighting skills as James Gordon becomes the detective we know and love, it would end up heavily influencing Nolan’s eventual reboot but Warner Bros simply found Aronofsky & Miller’s cinematic treatment too radical for Bat-audiences in the early 2000’s, given the changes they wanted to make including a black Catwoman, a stylistic Dirty Harry down and gritty style, and Bruce not coming from formative wealth.
Components of this darker approach drip fed into later Batman appearances, however, all the way through to the current DC universe on screen. His involvement there, too, could have been a very different story.
JUSTICE LEAGUE: MORTAL
If George Miller had gotten his way, of course. Before the legendary Australian director reminded everyone he’s one of the unsung geniuses of event cinema with Mad Max: Fury Road, Miller for years toiled on a Justice League movie being crafted around the same time as Nolan was filming The Dark Knight, which many hoped might challenge Marvel’s developing Avenger initiative. Miller didn’t perhaps do himself any favours by assembling an unknown cast to play the major DC characters (Megan Gale (who?) as Wonder Woman, DJ Cotrona (who?) as Superman etc… with perhaps Armie Hammer as Batman one of the few actors who went on to any renown.
Miller’s thinking was he would make stars out of the film, and they would grow into their characters. Who now with the benefit of hindsight, and the lumbering DC CU staring us in the face, wouldn’t have liked Warner Bros to take a punt on this? Had Miller done Fury Road first, they may well have trusted him. Now we’ll never know.
As you can see, therefore, Batman may have had a long and illustrious big screen career, but he’s had almost as many failures and false starts – some for the better, some quite possibly for the worse, and some downright fascinating to imagine.