Think of today’s comic-book-movie landscape as a lush, well-manicured lawn. If you live in drought-stricken California like I do, this might be difficult to picture, but do your best. Like a properly maintained lawn, superhero franchises receive hours of care, are intense sources of pride, and generally do not deviate from common conceptions of aesthetic excellence. Some lawns are bigger and some are smaller, but they’re usually uniformly some kind of grass. The superhero movie from the mid-’90s up until the release of Iron Man in 2008 was more like the lawn owned by the weird, old hoarder who eats fingernail clippings and walks around his house naked with the windows open. His lawn is overgrown with weeds, the neighborhood dogs use it as a toilet, and there are those dead, brown spots everywhere. But occasionally, some exotic flower grows out of the patches of dirt and dog poop.
Since the massive box office haul for 1989’s Batman, DC Comics and Warner Bros. have struggled to sort out how to turn their crabgrass-infested yard into the 18th at Augusta National. Even after Marvel1 unlocked the bank vault and started efficiently cranking out product every few months, DC struggled to find a sustainable path. Christopher Nolan’s Batman series ended just as it was getting too bloated for its own good. Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns was a nonstarter. By the time Man of Steel was released in 2013, Warner Bros. was so far behind the superhero curve that it had no choice but to move forward with a plan so hubristic that it scheduled movies into 2020. This is despite a very vocal contingent of fans blanching at the bleak tone and cataclysmic violence of Zack Snyder’s Superman reboot. These plans, as bold as they seem, have been decades in the making. Along the path to Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, there are numerous failed projects — some with extreme promise, and some so crazy that you have a hard time accepting that adults came up with them.
Tim Burton’s Batman Forever
Marvel, like Grantland, is owned by Disney.
Following the darkly comic Batman Returns — a film that shocked and disgusted parents across the country (including my mother) and titillated children of all ages (including me) — Tim Burton fell out of favor with a studio that expected its comic-book movies to be a lot less divisive. Before Burton and star Michael Keaton left the Batman franchise, a third film was planned that would have pitted Batman against the Riddler and starred Rene Russo as the love interest. The consensus rumor is that Robin Williams was the first choice to play the Riddler and that Harvey Dent was supposed to return. Oh, and after two movies in which the character was cut before filming, Robin was going to be added to the mix. Marlon Wayans2 was under contract to play the Boy Wonder.
Yes, Marlon Wayans.
What We Missed: Continuity with the previous two films, a payoff for Billy Dee Williams’s cameo as Harvey Dent in Batman, Rene Russo getting a huge career boost, and Robin Williams in a green leotard.
What We Avoided: Marlon Wayans as Robin. Thank you, Warner Bros.
Tim Burton’s Superman Lives
Of all the failed DC Comics movies, this is the one with the most mythologizing behind it. Kevin Smith turned his torturous tenure as the screenwriter for this project into a popular anecdote at speaking engagements. Smith’s draft has been in circulation on the Internet for years. Every so often, new pieces of concept art or ephemera leak and the “what if?” questions pop up again. A feature documentary called The Death of “Superman Lives”: What Happened? is set for release in theaters and VOD this year, and hopes to be the definitive story of one of the most famous movies never made.
What We Missed: A gothic, cyborg Superman. Nicolas Cage playing a truly alien, weird Kal-El. All the imagination and creativity of the costume and set designs.
What We Avoided: A script that features references to Mallrats in a Superman movie, Chris Rock as a robot sidekick, Superman fighting a giant spider, a pointless “death of Superman” story line shoehorned into the middle of the movie.
Joel Schumacher’s Batman Triumphant
This might not sound plausible, but apparently, hopes were high in the months and weeks before Batman & Robin came out in 1997. Plans were allegedly already in motion for a third Schumacher Batman film. It was to be written by Mark Protosevich, and would have featured the Scarecrow, Harley Quinn, and a cameo by Jack Nicholson as a drug-induced hallucination of the Joker. Then, after Batman & Robin came out, no one in their right mind would have given Schumacher money to make more Batman movies, so this died quickly.
What We Missed: Hmm. Well, I guess it would have been cool to see Jack Nicholson as the Joker again?
What We Avoided: Another Joel Schumacher Batman movie.
Darren Aronofsky’s Batman: Year One
The time before Batman Begins was a dark one for Warner Bros. There was no template for success with Batman, no Marvel movies to respond to, and no take that satisfied enough executives to escape the roiling vortex of studio development. A mild reset that was to include Man-Bat and Scarecrow, and a feature adaptation of the futuristic animated Batman Beyond series were announced and then fell apart. The most interesting concept was Requiem for a Dream director Darren Aronofsky’s plan to bring Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One graphic novel to the screen. Filmmakers have been obsessed with Miller’s version of Batman since long before Snyder, and Miller worked directly with Aronofsky on the project. The plot is described in a recent book called Tales From Development Hell by David Hughes, which explains that numerous liberties were taken with the Batman myth: Bruce Wayne doesn’t inherit his parents’ fortune and is found in the street by a mechanic named “Big Al.” The Batmobile is a souped-up Lincoln Continental. Gotham City has more in common with 1970s New York than anything resembling a comic book. Aronofsky had interesting plans for the character of Commissioner Gordon as well, saying, “Gordon’s opening scene for us was [him] sitting on a toilet with the gun barrel in his mouth and six bullets in his hand, thinking about blowing his head off — and that to me is the character.”
What We Missed: The grittiest, most nihilistic, most violent Batman movie of all time. It sounded like it would have been Netflix’s Daredevil times 100.
What We Avoided: Alfred as a mechanic. Commissioner Gordon contemplating suicide on the toilet.
Wolfgang Petersen’s Batman vs. Superman: Asylum
Batman & Robin scribe Akiva Goldsman was brought back for reasons I can’t quite wrap my brain around to cowrite this team-up film with Andrew Kevin Walker that was to be directed by The Perfect Storm helmer Wolfgang Petersen. In this script, which is available online, Batman’s wife dies, Superman is divorced, and they come out of retirement to fight each other — because that’s what lonely middle-aged bachelors do. They fight.
What We Missed: The Odd Couple: Metropolis: Batman is Oscar Madison, of course. Superman is Felix Unger. Batman leaves his dirty Bat-undies on Superman’s Eames chair. Superman sucker punches Batman through a wall, but Batman has secretly spiked Superman’s coffee with Kryptonite. Hilarity ensues.
Sorry, I made that up.
What We Avoided: Another Batman movie written by Akiva Goldsman.
McG’s Superman: Flyby
J.J. Abrams, hot off Alias, was assigned to write a stand-alone Superman movie that would reconfigure his origin story for no reason other than to sell toy versions of Kryptonian tanks. This was to be less a movie than a blatant Matrix rip-off in which Superman does kung fu and is some sort of prophesied messiah figure for a version of Krypton that doesn’t actually blow up. From a neutral perspective, it’s not a bad script. It’s just about the least Superman story of all time.
What We Missed: Years and years of McG movies. Just kidding! We didn’t miss anything!
What We Avoided: CIA agent Lex Luthor, who also happens to be a Kryptonian. A Superman movie directed by McG. Did I mention the kung fu?!
George Miller’s Justice League: Mortal
A cast of unknowns and comic actors was assembled in Australia to star in a Justice League movie in 2007, a year before Iron Man made the possibility of a superhero team-up film a realistic scenario. The only problem was that none of them were the recently established cinematic versions of Batman or Superman. Christian Bale and Brandon Routh were not cast and were to be replaced by Armie Hammer and D.J. Cotrona, respectively. Jay Baruchel, not known for being anything resembling menacing, was to play the villain Maxwell Lord. Adam Brody had been cast as the Flash, and Common was chosen to portray Green Lantern. The idea of having two Batmen and two Supermen on film at the same time was a bit bizarre, but George Miller of Mad Max fame was hired to direct the movie. If you’ve seen the trailers for Mad Max: Fury Road, you know that Miller is one of the great visual stylists to ever work in the action genre. By the summer of 2008, The Dark Knight had become the highest-grossing comic-book film of all time (until The Avengers came out in 2012), and even studio executives could see how ludicrous it would be to rush another version of Batman to the screen before the Nolan series could end. The script for this is also available, but it’s no great shakes. Ultimately, we were probably better off.
What We Missed: Seth Cohen as a superhero. The premature rise of Armie Hammer. All the insane action set pieces George Miller had planned. A world in which Zack Snyder is not directing Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.
What We Avoided: A second cinematic Batman appearing in movies at the same time as Christian Bale and Christopher Nolan’s series. Seth Cohen as a superhero.